Fiction: South Asian Fiction and Religion

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The various literary forms in which narrative, plot-centered literature is found pose challenges to any attempt to delineate the domain of what could be called South Asian "fiction" (see Preminger and Brogan, 1993). Whereas dramatic texts in South Asian literature are easily distinguishable from narrative ones through the orchestration of direct speech and their performance, the boundaries between texts such as sermons and narrative literature on the one hand, and poetry and narrative literature on the other, are much more difficult to draw. In fact, storytelling from the Vedic hymns to the epic Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaa, the mainly theistic and proto-historical Purāas and chronicles (vaśa), and the hagiographies of medieval devotional literature have been generally recorded in metric poetry. Early South Asian prose is primarily used in doctrinal contexts, such as the Upaniads, the Brāhmaas, the commentarial literature, and the Jaina and Buddhist sermons and birth stories (jātaka), as well as in the collections of didactic fables, Pañcatantra and Hitopadeśa.

The spread of birth stories and didactic literature in South Asia around the beginning of the Common Era was an important step in creating new literary forms and in canonizing so-called folk narrative material, which had not found its way into the epics or the Purāas. All these forms of narrative, both in meter and in prose, betray their oral roots not so much because they are older than writing in South Asia, but because the constitution and the tradition of the texts can largely be explained by their continued oral performance. The single work with possibly the greatest influence on South Asian fictional literature is Guāhya's third-century Śaivite collection of stories, the monumental Bhatkathā (Great tale), said to have been composed in a Prakrit called Paiśācī, probably in Eastern India, and lost but partly translated and conserved in Sanskrit and several other regional languages. Its extant successors are Somadeva's tenth-century Kaśmīri work Kathāsaritsāgara (The ocean of story), as well as Śivadāsa's tenth-century Vetālapañcavisatikā (The twenty-five tales of the demon), both collections of mainly satirical stories with a Śaivite-Tantric background and a strong anti-ascetic, particularly anti-Jaina, tendency.

The development of a court-centered written kāvya literature starting from the turn of the sixth to seventh centuries ce included the introduction of a new narrative literature in prose, termed Kunstroman by German-speaking Indologists (Winternitz, 19091920), which consists mostly of collections of picaresque tales framed by a meta-narrative. Examples of this again mainly Śaivite and anti-ascetic fiction are Dain's Daśakumāracarita (The deeds of the ten princes), Subandhu's Vāsavadatta, and Bāa's Haracarita (The deeds of Hara) and Kādambarī, all from the seventh century. The extensive Jaina narrative literature in both Middle Indic (Prakrit, Apabhrāśa) and Modern Indic languages, covering Kunstroman, didactic, and hagiographical literature intimately connected to the practice of preaching, constitutes the oldest unbroken tradition of prose storytelling in South Asia. However, it is hagiography that became the most widespread and influential narrative literary form between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries, spanning confessional and regional boundaries.

Fiction in the modern sense of the word, which includes the forms of the novel, the novella, the short story, and the travelogue, to name the most important ones, is a modern addition to South Asian literatures. It was first formulated in the fully developed modern South Asian languages, such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Tamil, toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Those forms would open a new perception of history, sharpen the eye for social conditions, and help constitute bourgeois subjectivity. Regarding the novel (nāvil), attempts have been made to connect this form with the Sanskritic Kunstroman named kādabarī after that very work; or with the term upanyāsa (literally, "laying down"), the mostly religious kathā (instructive tale); or generally with the expression purāa (literally, "old"; viz., "tale"). On the other hand, Perso-Arabic influence, especially from the corpus of tales of romance and adventure known to the West as the "Tales From One Thousand Nights and One Night" can be traced already in medieval Jaina literature. However, the influence of literature brought to South Asia through the colonial encounter and the associated ruptures and discontinuities are at least as momentous as the indigenous literature is basic to the development of modern South Asian fiction. It appears that traditional modes of narrating were crucial where European models, like the realist or the gothic novel, did not entirely fit the South Asia context.

Hindi Fiction

In prose, Hindi fiction has its immediate precursors in seventeenth-century sectarian, mainly Valla-bhan, hagiographies and literary tales in the tradition of the Hitopadeśa in Brajbhāā, as well as Sikh chronicles in Khaī bolī, before which there is little use of prose at all. Interestingly, the first text apparently free of colonial influences and still classifiable as a novel in this literary tradition is Rānī Ketakī kī Kahānī (The story of Queen Ketakī, 1801) by Inshā'allāh Khān, a princely love story written in Khaī bolī, in which all conflicts are eventually solved by the appearance of the king of gods, Indra. At the beginning of Hindi fiction toward the end of the nineteenth century stands the conflict between traditionalists (sanātanists) and reformers (Ārya Samājīs). The first novel claimed for Hindi literature, Lāl Śrīnivās Dās's Parīkāguru (Training as a teacher, 1882), thematizes education and status within a colonial setting as a process of mirroring, assimilation, and transformation, thus subverting the identity of the gurū as the traditional institution for learning and spiritual development.

An important focus for translations from Sanskrit and Bengali, among others, as well as for experimental fiction, was the Benares-based literary circle of the publicist and playwright Bhāratendu Hariścandra, the so-called Father of Modern Hindi, whose pleas for Vaiavism as the unifying religion for all Hindus had a strong impact on the ways early Hindi fiction would deal with religion. Yet, while Devakīnandan Khatrī's early best-sellers, Candrakāntā (1891) and Candrakāntā santati (1905), which present Hindu Rajput heroes in tales of adventure similar to the Persian dāstān, owe their success to a very low ideological profile, Premcand's early stories, partly written in Urdu around 1907, stress the moral superiority of Hindu, particularly Rajput women, along the lines of Vivekananda's arguments about the religious mission of Indian spirituality. The instrumentalization of religious virtues for nationalism inaugurated an equivocation that had repercussions on the treatment of religion in fiction for generations to come.

Mohandas Gandhi's influence on Hindi fiction, starting from his return from South Africa, cannot be underestimated. The utopian community with strong traits of the Hindu ascetic community (āśrama) became a topos in Hindi fiction, as in Premcand's Sevādadan (The house of service, 1918), where the context of joint-family and caste remain paramount and non-Hindus are regarded as a danger to moral standards. In contrast, Jayśankar Prasād's strongly contested Kankāl (The skeleton, 1929) starkly describes the moral degradation of Hindu society as part of a cosmic process understood within a Śaivite theological framework. As the Gandhian model lost its political weight, the religious and social foundations of family and society were critically revisited. Premcand's famous Godān (The gift of the cow, 1936), the story of the ruin of a dutiful Indian peasant, is in part a criticism aimed at the unscrupulous brahman to whom the dying farmer gifts his cow without ever having owned it.

Kedārnāth Pāey (also known as Rāhul Sānktāyan), who would later convert to Buddhism, presented a Marxist interpretation of history in his novels Sinha Senāpati and Jay Yaudheya (both 1946), in which "capitalist" Hindu kingdoms defeat the "communist" Buddhist societies and religion becomes a mere marker for conflicting economic ideologies. Postindependence fiction saw a decline in religious themes as the lines set out by Premcand's Godān were followed and Hindu writers claimed to write out of a secular commitment. However, the Muslim Rāhi Masūm Razā's Ādhā gāv (Half a village, 1966), an account of the decline of Muslim supremacy, partition, and land reform divided into ten chapters after the ten assemblies of mourning (muarram) for the Shīʿī ancestor usayn in remembrance of his martyrdom at Karbala, is a powerful historical novel that thematizes Muslim self-perception within a supposedly secular nation. Influenced by the cycle of novels by Upendranāth Aśk about the protagonist Centan, which range from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the late 1960s and 1970s saw a focus on the difficulties of the individual in coming to terms with religion within disintegrating familial and social structures, as in Nareś Methā's Nadī zaśasvī (The river is famous, 1967) or Sureś Sinhā's novel set in Delhi, Pattharo kā śahar (City of stones, 1971). However, this period also produced a revival of religious biographies, of which Tulsīdās's Mānas kā hans (The swan of the holy lake, 1972) by Nāgārjun is only one example.

Urdu Fiction

The nineteenth century sees the start of Urdu fiction with anecdotal literature (nakl or latifeh) that tells stories of ūfī saints and other semilegendary figures for didactic purposes, a genre that remained dominant until the early twentieth century. The late nineteenth century saw the rise of a modernist Urdu fiction and the first novels, its main representative being Nazīr Ahmad's Ibn-ul-Vaqt (The son of the moment, 1888), which advocates the free practice of religion and criticizes "superstitions" and traditional expressions of irrationalism. The nineteenth century also saw the rise of a genre of historical novels created by ʿAbdul Halīm Sharar (Malik-ul-ʾAzīz Varjana, 1888) under the influence of Sir Walter Scott; these novels depicted historical heroes of the Islamic past. Religion acquired a new meaning in the context of the "two-nation theory," where Islam came to mark national identity. Qurratulain Hyder's pathbreaking novel Āg ka Darya (River of fire, 1959) is an example of how much of South Asian history can be absorbed into a predominantly Muslim narrative.

Postindependence Urdu fiction in India has focused increasingly on the problems and opportunities of multiple identities, as in Abdussamad's A Strip of Land, Two Yards Long (1997). However, it becomes more and more clear that it is not religiosity that lies at the heart of these texts, but political, economic, and social status, whereas religion becomes the setting within which stories of conflict and closure are narrated. Urdu fiction in Pakistan since independence has been dominated by the so-called Islamic novel (islami nāvil) in the tradition of Sharar, both immensely popular and patriotic, thus often associated with the official literary scene. On the other hand there are younger authors of fiction writing from within a ūfī tradition who criticize forms of religion that quell dissent and foster passivity and complacency in matters of faith and society.

Bengali Fiction

Bengali fiction dates back to the sixteenth-century magal kāvyas with metrical narratives concerning local deities, including the triad of Candī, Manasa, and Dharma, as well as hagiographies of the Vaiava bhakti saint Caitanya. The beginnings of Bengali Islamic hagiographical fiction can be traced back to the same period with the rasul carit literature ("Deeds of the Prophet"), of which Syed Sultan's Nābi Vaśa is one important example. Modern Bengali prose narrative literature is to be understood within the context of the nineteenth-century Bengal Renaissance and its attempt to redefine religion as a major force in constituting Indian nationalism both as an agent of social reform and as directed against the colonizer. In Bankim Chattopadhyaya's novel Ānanda mah (Monastery of bliss, 1882) the revolt of a community of ascetics devoted to Kālī against the rule of the British is a barely disguised call for the retrieval of the empowering faith in the mother goddess (vande mātaram) lost in times of religious decadence and enslavement. In contrast, Rabindranath Tagore's depiction of religion in his fiction, Gorā (Horse, 1889) and Ghare Bhine (Home and world, 1892), mirrors the diverse and conflicting religious positions of his time, ranging from conservative Bengali Vaiavism to modernist utilitarian tendencies, rather than his own, which he saw represented in the universalist religiosity of the bāuls.

After Tagore, Bengali fiction witnessed the breakup of unifying religious visions and ambitions. In East Pakistan, Syed Walliullah's Lāl salu (Red shal tree, 1948) criticized the postindependence moves to exercise political control at the village level through the establishment of new religious shrines. Tasleema Nasreen's docu-novel Lajjā (Shame, 1993), a description of how Hindu identity is forced upon a non-Muslim middle-class family in Bangladesh as a consequence of the 1992 Indian anti-Muslim riots in Ayodhyā, is an example of the politicization of literature in a language that transcends the HinduMuslim divide. In contrast, besides developing a strong Marxist fiction with an antireligious bias, West Bengal literature produced Samares Baru's (Kalkut) Amrit Kumbh (Pot of nectar, 1960), an empathetic ethnographic novel in experimental prose on the forces of asceticism and community underlying the Kumbha Melā.

Modern Tamil Fiction

This form of South Asian fiction is said to begin with Veetanāyakam Piai's Piratāpa Mutaliyār Carittiram (The story of Piratāpa Mutaliyār, 1876), which is structured along the lines of the Sanskritic collection of stories within stories and deals with themes of socioreform, the importance of the mother, and the dangerous consequences of superstitious behavior within a plot dominated by romance. In his introduction Veetanāyakam Piai refers to paper in contrast to palm leaves as an opportunity for writing narratives that are long and in prose, qualities that he attributes to modern fiction. P. R. Rājam Aiyar's novel Āpattukkiamān̄a apavātam, allatu Kamalāmpāl carittiram (Kamalambal, or the fatal rumor, 18931895) introduces Balzacian realism in dealing with religious themes, avoiding the fantastic and accurately portraying South Indian brahman home life while the main intention of the story is the popularizing of neo-Vedāntic ideas. The main source for conflict is slander and the transfer of social responsibilities to supernatural forces. Whereas both Piai's and Rājam Aiyar's works focus more on the problematic consequences of wrong religious practice, A. Māravaiyā's pathbreaking Muttu Mīnākī (1903), in which a brahman girl endures hardship, including widowhood, until her childhood friend shows her that there is scriptural sanction for remarrying, argues in favor of taking into account alternative voices of tradition within a modernizing setup.

Communism plays a major role in the assessment of religion in modern Tamil fiction and has influenced the work of the most influential Tamil prose writer, Taapāi Jeyakāntan. His psychoanalytically informed shorter prose deals repeatedly with the creation of sacrality by the interplay of social circumstances and the human need for deification, as in "Turkkai" (Durga, 1962), where a irresponsible husband projects the image of the fierce goddess onto his reproachful wife, accusing her of a death that occurred close to the deity's village shrine, or in "Apayam" (Danger, 1965), where a boy, believed to have drowned, is turned into a god, and again in "Kurupiam" (The guru's seat, 1971), where a beggar turns into a holy man identified with Murukan through a young man's worship. One of his later novels, Jaya jaya cankara (Hail, hail Śankara, 1977), presents a social utopia based on the life of the Śankarācārya of Kānci Kāmakoipīam, who tells the story of Ādiśankara to inspire devotion among a group of protagonists said to be suffering from rationalism and atheism; this novel promotes Gandhian ideas of equality by using narrative structures taken from classical hagiography. The urban fiction of Putumaipittan (also known as Viruttācalam) from the 1960s, consisting mainly of short stories collected in Kācumalai (Coin-necklace, 1971), continues the tradition of depicting a modernizing religion, stressing the tension between woman and man, the rural and the urban. A feminist stance toward religion is taken by Ambai in her collection of short stories from the 1960s, Viin̄ mūlayil oral camaiyalar_ai (The shop at the corner of the house, 1967). The loss of traditional religious life among lower middle-class brahmans is depicted in Ashokamittiran's novel Padinattavadu atchakodu (The eighteenth parallel, 1977). The 1990s saw the emergence of a Tamil dalit fiction that is not confined by the early anti-brahmanical thrust, but broadens its scope, one representative being Perumāl Murugan's Koolla Madari (Seasons of the palm, 1990).

South Asian Fiction in English

Finally, since the second ½ of the twentieth century, South Asian fiction in English has grown to become an important literature for the South Asian middle class, as well as for a global English-speaking public. R. K. Narayan's The Guide (1958), where a young man is granted the status of sainthood, is a gentle satire on the inescapable burden of "gurudom." Salman Rushdie's interlinked tales of the Prophet and two South Asian aliens in the United Kingdom, The Satanic Verses (1988), is a complex arrangement of picaresque, hagiographical, and satirical narratives, though more along the lines of a rereading of certain traditions of European fiction and their reception of Asian religion than a continuation of either traditional or modern South Asian fiction. Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land (1992) explores North African and West Asian religiosity from an anthropological perspective, applying a fractured postcolonial gaze to Islam and the JudeoArabic tradition as the "other." Gita Hariharan's In a State of Siege (2003), finally, is an example of engaged literature dealing with the pressures that a liberal historian faces when writing on religious history in a political atmosphere dominated by Hindu revisionism.


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