Indian literature is not a corpus of texts or literary concepts from India, argues Preetha Mani, but a provocation that seeks to resolve the relationship between language and literature, written in as well as against English. Examining canonical Hindi and Tamil short stories from the decades surrounding decolonisation, Mani contends that Indian literature must be understood as indeterminate, propositional, and reflective of changing dynamics between local, regional, national, and global readerships. In The Idea of Indian Literature, she explores the paradox that a single canon could be written in multiple languages, each with their own evolving relationships to one another and to English.
Hindi, representing national aspirations, and Tamil, epitomising secessionist propensities, are conventionally viewed as poles of the multilingual continuum within Indian literature. Mani shows, however, that during the twentieth century, these literatures were co-constitutive of one another and of the idea of Indian literature itself. The writers she discusses imagined a pan-Indian literature based on literary, rather than linguistic, norms, even as their aims were shaped by discussions of belonging unique to regional identity. Tracing representations of gender and the uses of genre, she offers a view of the Indian literary landscape as itself a field for comparative literature.
Preetha Mani is an assistant professor of South Asian literatures in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University.