Indian English Fiction: Performative Power of Language and Myth

Marijana Janjić

Alexandru discusses theoretical aspects of performance and performativity in detail and analyzes the novels written by contemporary Indian authors Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Chandra. The focus of the book is on the deconstruction of the functional role of myth, particularly Indian myth, and its role in the narration found in contemporary Indian fiction.

According to the author, the reflection on Indian myths enables novel writers to engage in a debate with their audience, one based on performance and language performativity, and thus to communicate their philosophical ideas on identity and ideologies such as religion, nationalism, etc. Brook’s and Karnad’s exploration of myths found in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, according to Alexandru, shows how narration and performance go together in Indian tradition and hence can be seen as a bridge between oral tradition and contemporary Indian fiction in English.

Several chapters at the beginning of the book are dedicated to theoretical aspects of performance and performativity. Alexandru uses a New Yorker issue from 1997 to engage the reader; following the logic of a photograph found in the issue, she announces that she will discuss the reinterpretation of myth in Indian contemporary fiction as an important attribute to the questions of identity and reality. Her work will further be formed by questions of performance and performativity in particular novels – those by Rushdie, Roy and Chandra – as representatives of a particular trend among Indian writers of novels in English. Alexandru offers to build her argumentation, first on a theoretical front, and later with particular examples found in works by said authors.

Thus she takes into consideration various perspectives on myth (Eliade, Doniger), language performativity (Austin, Hillis Miller, etc.), narration (Barthes, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard), and novel as a genre (M. A. Doody), in order to justify her thesis on how performative use of the English language creates a new discourse enhanced by the oral narration strategies. Such new discourse is then able, according to Alexandru, to show at the same time two opposing sides of the conflict at the center of each story: lawlessness versus social acceptance, identity rigidity versus identity fluidity, time linearity versus time non-linearity, patriarchy versus non-patriarchy, colonist versus colonized, etc. After several chapters of examples and discussion on the potential performative elements in them and how they relate to theory of performance, the book ends with a short conclusion in which Alexandru suggests several categories important for all discussed novels.

Questions, questions
Alexandru is clearly interested in presenting Indian fiction in English in a positive light, and although she does give space to points raised by critics, she doesn’t engage them in a dialog. The reason might be her focus on the establishment of parallels between contemporary Indian fiction and contemporary Indian theater with the Indian tradition of epic narration and traditional Indian theater. The line of argumentation leaves several questions without a proper answer.

First of all there is the question of how we can correlate contemporary Karnad’s and Brook’s works inspired by Indian epics with contemporary Indian fiction in English. It seems a bit farfetched to claim that they are related simply because they occurred in India, or have been inspired by India in Brook’s case. The Indian literary terrain is as vast as the European: India more or less relates to Europe on the same scale, whereas English, Hindi, etc., relate to each other as German, Italian and other European languages do. The issue here is whether or not Indian writers in English have ever seen Brook’s interpretation of Mahabharata or have read Karnad’s work translated into English. In a similar manner, should Indian epics be put forward as inspiration for Indian novel writers of the 20th and 21st century? Alexandru seems to suggest that the strategies found in contemporary Indian fiction in English probably are of Indian origin, but doesn’t discuss whether or not similar ideas and strategies are present in Indian contemporary literary works created in other Indian languages. It is quite possible that strategies she refers to are present in at least some of the works in other Indian languages and that the authors of novels discussed had access to them. Similarly, the relevance of the strategies found in the Mahabharata and Ramayana is questionable: authors can be familiar with the content of the myths found in those epics, without being familiar with the narrative strategies. In addition, being Indian doesn’t necessarily mean being familiar with the norms and strategies of various traditional literary forms, just as being Greek doesn’t necessarily make one familiar with strategies found in the Iliad or Odyssey. In other words, perhaps all other probable contemporary sources of similar strategies should be simply left out of the equation, whether Indian or not.

The book is very informative from the perspective of theoretical input, but the practical part of the research could have benefited from a bit broader perspective that would have interested at least some readers.