India’s independence had raised people’s expectations sky- high, some legitimate, others – since political freedom cannot by itself be a panacea for all social and economic ills – perhaps exaggerated and unrealistic. In India, as in many African countries with a colonial past, the new native rulers turned out to be no less rapacious than the colonial masters they had supplanted, a typical Animal Farm situation. The disenchantment to which this gave rise found in Africa its classic expression in the works of such writers as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria and Ngugi wa Thiongo of Kenya. In India the sense of hopes belied and aspirations not fulfilled began to appear as a literary theme soon after 1947. T. S. Pillai’s Malayalam novel Rungs of the Ladder brings out in detail the machinations of politicians and bureaucracy through the case study of a middle-class Nair who rose to the position of Chief Secretary of Travancore. Political satire gradually became an increasingly familiar theme in Indian fiction even as the tone hardened into cynical despair. Deshbandhu in Rajendra Yadav’s Ukhare Huye Log comprehensively epitomizes the corrupt and manipulative politician.
Increasingly, political issues have become a rich and fertile source for literary exploration. Nayantara Sahgal’s interest in politics is deep and abiding: each of her novels, she says, “more or less reflects the political era we are passing through.” She adds: “Fiction is my abiding love. But I need to express myself on vital political issues. Political and social forces shape our lives. How can we be unaware of them? I believe there is what the American writer E. L. Doctorow has called ‘a poetics of engagement’ where commitment and aesthetics meet and give each other beauty and power” (“A Truly Wonderful Moment”). Her novel Rich Like Us deals with the time of the Emergency – which she aptly calls “a collective will to cowardice” – when opportunists prospered while the honest and upright suffered. Shashi Tharoor’s justly acclaimed work The Great Indian Novel burlesques the Mahabharata to comment upon current political events of the country. Arun Joshi’s novel The City and the River is a political allegory about the rise and fall of governments and the abuse of power. O. V. Vijayan’s Malayalam novel The Saga of Dharmapuri also deals with the perversion of the political process during the Emergency.
An exceptionally forceful indictment of political corruption and manipulation is Satakadi Hota’s Oriya novel Rajdhanira Ranga (The Capital in Its True Colors), in which the writer effectively brings out the complete degeneration of values behind the glittering facade of the capital. Om Goswani’s collection of Dogri stories Sunne di Chiree (The Golden Bird) also targets the current political situation, with the title story being an all-embracing castigation of complete loss of decency in every sphere of life in modern India. The story Magarmuchh satirizes the way the rich manipulate government officials and labor leaders to oppress the poor. Nark Joon and Mhatamdari expose dishonest recruitment procedures. E. Sonamani’s Manipuri stories in If the Front Door Is Closed, Enter Through the Back Door revealingly anatomize dishonest ministers and legislators. Sonamani’s portrait of Minister Ibochaoba in the title story is an exceptionally fine representation of the corrupt politician. Rafiq Zakaria’s novel The Price of Power is a somewhat transparent political allegory, its characters and events thinly disguised versions of real people and real situations. Much more effective and sophisticated as political satire is Ranga Rao’s Fowl- Filcher, in which the protagonist, unjustly nicknamed “Fowl-Filcher” for a crime he did not commit, graduates after a highly checkered career to become a politician’s trusted assistant, ironically getting killed in the riots he himself had engineered.
Many modern Indian novels deal with specific political issues. O. V. Vijayan’s Gurusagaram (in Malayalam) is set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh war and the growth of the Naxalite movement. Novels dealing with issues such as the antireservation agitations, terrorism, and various reformist movements are many. However, the very topicality which adds to the relevance of such works also often makes them ephemeral, unless they are anchored by a more enduring component, as is the case with Gurusagaram, for example, in which the strong element of spirituality has a broadening and universalizing effect.
The intricate web of family relationships, especially in a joint or extended family, has perpetually interested Indian writers. Exploration of these relationships as literary themes continues in modern Indian fiction with undiminished vigor, although the nature of the issues dealt with may have changed in response to the current social situation.
Harmony within the family has been an ideal traditionally cherished by Indian writers. In the early decades of the century Premchand and Sara Chandra had come down heavily on those who sowed seeds of dissension in the family for selfish ends. The discomfiture and ultimate rout of such people is gleefully presented in many of Sara Chandra‘s stories. Later, Rajendra Yadav’s Hindi novel Sara Akash became the definitive study of the pains and pleasures of living in a joint Indian family. Sara Akash is a triumph of modern Indian fiction in its graphic and sensitive portrayal of the close, convoluted, sometimes stifling nature of family relationships in a joint middle-class Indian family, the petty envies and intrigues, the perpetual bickering, and also the warmth, the affection, the magnanimous self-sacrifice.
Although interest in problems of the joint family system has remained unabated in recent Indian fictional works, the treatment has become much more serious, even somber. Whereas the earlier writers had often dealt with family discord in a more or less light vein, bringing out its comedy, writers in recent years have tended to treat it with solemnity, showing a brooding concern with its darker aspects. In Punjabi, Ram Sarup Ankhi and Inder Singh Khamosh have dealt with dissensions in family relationships and brought out how greed and selfishness of individuals lead to disintegration of the family. Stories of the domineering mother-in-law and the bullied daughter-in-law have been extremely common in Indian fiction, Prabhas Kumar Choudhary’s Sheetyuddha (Cold War) in Maithili being a fine recent example. But now the reverse side of the relationship, with sons and daughters-in-law showing, in their headlong pursuit of the pleasures of life, callous disregard of the welfare of the parents, is also being explored. The breakup of the joint family under the impact of modernization and economic pressure has bred a new and major social problem: the insecurity and widespread neglect of the elderly. Stories dealing with the plight of old people left destitute and emotionally insecure crowd the pages of fictional works in many Indian languages. The generation gap and the problems of old age have been vividly presented, for example, in Homen Borgohain’s Assamese novel Asta Rag. The author himself says: “In the past, old age was not like this. People were afraid of death, but not of growing old. But now there is a change and man is afraid of growing old, not of death.