Design a site like this with
Get started

Joycean Legacies in Indian Modernism

8 November 2021

Jinan Ashraf, Dublin City University

Few studies record a quantifiable filiation between Joyce and India, and for this reason, Joyce remains a ‘spectral’ presence on the landscape of literary traditions broadly construed in English within Indian Anglophone writing.[1] While several studies have acknowledged the comparative colonial modernisms of James Joyce and Mulk Raj Anand (one of the modern pioneers of Indo-Anglian fiction) the present article looks to demonstrate direct allusions to Joyce’s legacy in shaping Anand’s ideas of fiction in the early twentieth-century.[2] The article also comments on Joyce’s legacy on the forgotten and silenced makers of Indian modernisms: late colonial women writers writing from the fringes as they negotiate and push back against the gendered authorities of the modern novel. Early pioneers of the modern Indian novel in English such as Mulk Raj Anand and Sajjad Zahir visited the West and may have been introduced to James Joyce from networks/mentors during their studies abroad;[3] Anand, for example, records his experiences and interactions with—and varying kinds of confrontations and conflicts within— the Bloomsbury group in a memoir titled Conversations in Bloomsbury (1981). Indian Muslim avant-garde women writers such as Rashid Jahan, on the other hand, would have come into second-hand contact with ideas of fiction being shaped by European modernisms through her friendship with writers who had visited Europe such as Zahir and Ahmed Ali. These writers would constitute a network of progressive Anglophone writing that would draw from the literary techniques of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in attempting to represent the individual mind and its struggle even as these writers push back against the imperialism of the British Raj and the social hierarchies and caste, class, and gender inequalities in late colonial India. Modernism in Indian literature may be said to follow in the tradition of its European counterpart, attempting to break from the tyranny of the realism and naturalism of the Renaissance era (1857), and striving to achieve an ‘innerness’ [4]in the spiritual quest for form and technique. This was accompanied by a relentless pursuit of the ‘right word’ and the right kind of ‘poetic’ language and vocabulary needed to satiate the increasing needs of expression among artists— needs that were no longer answered by the realist trend in fiction. Where the European counterpart placed attention on the metropolitan city, the emphasis in Modernist India was upon the question of ‘modernity’ in the villages. The rise of humanistic and progressive ideals ‘weaned’ writers off romanticism[5], shifting the focus instead upon figures of outcastes— prostitutes, coolies, untouchables, labourers—which became a new source of novelistic sustenance. A parallel emphasis on what Rimbaud would call ‘the inner reality’ came to be echoed in writers in the Post-Renaissance modern age in Indian literature in English. There was in the Modernist Indian writer in English the same pangs from such questions as ‘What technique or form would now suit the contemporary writer’s motives?’ There was a felt need to depart from the derivative models that Renaissance writers in India had inherited and imitated— models imported, tried and tested from the West— against the backdrop of a wave of nationalist and reform movements. Transformations on the literary scene in India were also underway with Modernist women writers such as Ismat Chugtai, Iqbalunnisa Hossain and Rashid Jahan beginning to subvert patriarchal, imperial, and caste/class based ideological blueprints of women’s subjectivity in Renaissance writing.

At the time Mulk Raj Anand was beginning his artistic career, Indian literature in English was as yet a ‘strange phenomenon’[6]but one that was felt to prove its effect on ‘the post-war world’. Anand was among the earliest to have an Indian and international readership. Anand’s concerted energy went into a scathing ‘portrait’ of the social life in British-ruled India, with an emphasis on providing his people, much like Joyce, a ‘mirror’ upon which to assess the systemic oppression of the British rule in India and the atrocities of the caste system. With his sharp insight and realistic portrayal of the plight of his countrymen, Mulk Raj Anand advanced a seething ‘war cry’, much like Joyce’s ‘non-servium’, against the oppressive social and religious systems in place in India in the 1930s and onward. His novels of ‘protest’ combine a political motive (to expose the rigidity of the caste system and the exploitation/marginalization of several underprivileged sections of the society by the British and savarna rule) with an aesthetic end (displaying an inventiveness in the employment of the vernacular). Along with questioning, and finding inadequate, the form of the traditional English novel that writers had inherited from the nineteenth-century, Joyce was also preparing to signal his departure from inherited modes of thinking about nationality, language, and religion in the context of Irish and European modernism in the first half of the twentieth-century. Drawing from Joyce’s concerns with his homeland and with the formal constraints of the novel, the problems that Indian writers were beginning to confront in the 1930s was predominantly what the ‘task of the novelist’ was to be.[7] This problem presented itself, however, with more urgency, one might argue, in Anand than the fringe of young literary aspirants in the Bloomsbury group who did not seem to engage with him on the question of the art as social reform.

In ‘The Story of my Experiment with a White Lie’, Anand records that the great concern in Indian fiction has traditionally been with the graveyard of ‘old philosophies’ and ‘god realization’. As Anand attempts to probe the question of why modern Indian writers write, how the written word transforms actual experience, and what the purpose of literature could be, several probable answers are elicited: against the rise of the machine and the significance of the individual, the modern writer now finds that ‘All human experience has become legitimate material for treatment…The heart and mind of the contemporary man is moved by other casualties than salvation’[8], echoing Woolf’s sentiments in The Common Reader (1925). The modernist writer’s freedom to choose and execute, echoed in such writers as Woolf and Forster is taken to its extremes in Joyce’s fiction. Joyce’s theory of art is recalled by Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) ‘To discover the mode of life or of art whereby your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom’.[9] In Joyce, there are other conventions too besides the novel form that he rigorously engages with, conventions not always confined to the literary, but expanded to encompass and address the immediate, the social, the cultural, and the linguistic. Take, for instance, this passage from Portrait: ‘When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets …’.[10]This statement by Stephen Dedalus is often taken to be ‘Joyce’s modernist manifesto’ and could be read against the light of Anand’s growing awareness of several ‘inchoate and wild’ urges: ‘the vanity of youth wanting recognition: the departure, from abstract philosophical theories, towards the search of philosophical insights based on the lives of the human beings whom one knew in the flesh and blood’.[11] Anticipating Stephen Dedalus at the end of Portrait, Joyce had written to Nora Barnacle on 22 August 1912: ‘I am one of the writers of this generation who are perhaps creating at last a conscience….’.[12] This uncannily echoes the sentiment that Anand records in his essay when he notes how the fascination for Ulysses for Anand’s generation was certainly ‘absolute’.[13] Anand acknowledges how his contemporaries looked past the ‘obscurity, the overwriting and the formal imposition of the Homeric symbolism on to contemporary reality’ in favour of the lessons learnt regarding the unity of time and space possible in the day of the life of a character and the ‘disturbed, restless and paranoic stream-of-consciousness’[14]. From Joyce, Anand draws on the knowledge that the raw material for fiction presents itself in the matter of consciousness along with a growing realization that the nineteenth century novel with its beginning, middle and end had come to its logical end and that the ‘proper stuff’ of fiction was anything so long as one could establish a pattern— echoing Woolf’s statement that the proper stuff of fiction was ‘anything other than custom’ would have us believe.[15]  Indian Modernist writers, preoccupied by questions of art and philosophy on hand and India’s freedom struggle, modernity, religion and caste may have more points of connections and departures with James Joyce than previously studied: drawing from materialist-feminist postcolonial practices, connections between Joyce’s disruptive legacy on the traditional English novel and an evaluation of Joyce modernism in connection with feminism and avant-garde writing in India would merit serious scholarly attention, especially as these methods later remerge in the works of postcolonial women writers such as Meena Kandasamy.


[1] Krishnanda Joshi, The West looks at India: Studies in the impact of Indian thought on Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Ruskin, Tennyson, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce (1969); Krishna Sen, “Where Agniaraflamed and Shiva Slew: Joyce’s Interface with India”. A Companion to James Joyce, ed Richard Brown. Blackwell, 2017 on Joyce and Bengali modernism.

[2] See Jessica Berman’s Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics and Transnational Modernism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[3] As evidenced by Anand’s remarks on his introduction to Ulysses (1922) through his mentor Bonamy Dobree in Conversations in Bloomsbury.

[4] Umashankar Joshi, ‘Modernism and Indian Literature.’ Indian Literature,1.2(1958).

[5] Ibid.

[6] E.M. Forster, preface to Mulk Raj Anand,  The Sword and the Sickle. Kutub,1942.

[7] G.S. Fraser, The Modern Writer and His World. Penguin, 1970, pp. 78.

[8] Mulk Raj Anand, “The Story of My Experiment with a White Lie”. Indian Literature , 10.3 (1967), pp. 28.                                 [9] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man,(Maple Press, 2010), pp. 272.

[10] Ibid pp. 224

[11] Maud Ellmann, The Nets of Modernism.( Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp.18; Mulk Raj Anand, “My Experiments with a White Lie”, Indian Literature , July-September 10.3 (July-September 1967), pp. 31

[12] Richard Ellmann. Selected Letters, (Faber & Faber. London: The Viking Press), pp. 204.

[13] Mulk Raj Anand, “My Experiments with a White Lie”, Indian Literature , July-September 10.3 (July-September 1967), pp. 31.

[14] Mulk Raj Anand, “The Story of My Experiment with a White Lie”. Indian Literature , 10.3 (1967), pp. 31.

[15] Virginia Woolf, Selected Essays.(Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 85.


Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑