The mood of early 20th century English literature can be a revelation for an early 21st century Indian.
From what we lesser mortals can glean, the preceding game-changing century had made a civilizational difference unsurpassed to this day. Europe was the creator and the principal beneficiary. The breakthroughs were not confined to insights into the human condition but also the corollary of the properties of matter, which were universal.
Hence, liberating individual and society and empowering them to attain fulfilment through scientific methods could not just be confined to Europe but the world beyond, most of which had been colonized. A leading chronicler and assessor of the period had concluded that the unfinished business is at the root of today’s problems.
The proverbial ordinary person outside the Western sphere learns through the written word as much as other forms of expression. It was possible to discern in Dickens, Shaw, Galsworthy and Eliot (the latter notably influenced by Hindu mysticism), echoes of human circumstances in their historical perspective. They were, among other things, social and cerebral legacies of change. The number of people in public life who were familiar with English literature, even studied it as a subject, in the formative period of Indian democracy, is impressive. Even today, as unassuming an author as the Scottish doctor-turned novelist A J Cronin is in demand in Indian bookshops. In one of his novels set in Scotland in the early 20th century, he captures the endearingly intimate preferences of the nuclear family, not bereft of the pangs of venturing out alone. His counterpart in India at that time did not have such choices.
You see the change in mindset which had overtaken the European world, though not quite perhaps as easily translatable. The narrative has come full circle in India. Coming-of-age has been facilitated by easier social mobility through relative economic independence. Yet ostensible liberation has consigned the young to insecurity and he seeks cultural cushioning as he realizes that his normative locus has been traditionally collective rather than individual. “Realization” cannot come at any cost, in this situation either.
Everybody does not read Cronin, nor did he/she in the past. But the inclination was suggestive of an inevitable cultural transmission, which was encouraged. The literary form of the novel came to India from the West; our recourse was the grandeur of the Epics, continental in scope as in Europe or Russia. Europe and the West are themselves moving towards a praxis which could turn increasingly towards the community as the rich get richer, with the resultant defensive social formations of the residuum.
It is difficult to forget that the equity expected of the European mercantile elite which arose from that principle, has come to inform the world. The quality of being fair and impartial at the foundation of reasoning can still pave the way for restoring the climate and the worth of people universally.
By Uttam Sen
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