Theses Doctoral

God and the Novel in India

Gogineni, Bina Suzanne

The novel especially the realist novel has been generally understood as a secular, disenchanted form, but the history of the Indian novel complicates this view. A seminal trajectory of realist novels situated in India, by native and non-resident writers alike, presents a perception of God in the daily that is rooted in Indian religious traditions in contradistinction to the deus absconditus European realist novel which has generally restricted itself to the secular sphere. Despite the conspicuous and consequential enchantment of the Indian novel, even postcolonial literary critics have followed in the critical tradition that takes secularism to be the precondition of the novel and dismisses instantiations of religion as mere anomaly, symptom, or overlay. I contend that the powerful realism brought to India by the British novel was immediately injected with a strong dose of enchantment drawn from the popular religious and mythopoetic imagination. The novel invited God to come down to earth to become more real and more compatible with a self-consciously secularizing India unwilling to dispense with its spiritualism; reciprocally, God's presence in the naturalist novel engendered a radically new sense of both the genre and reality. Of all the existing art forms in India, it was only the realist novel with its worldly orientation that could give shape to the profane illumination in everyday life and provide a forum for the praxis of enchantment. The Indian novel was part of a larger phenomenon in which the enchanted worldview became the grounds for independence from England whose disenchanted ethos was understood as the underpinning and justification for its imperialism. Not surprisingly, the place namely, Bengal and that birthed the novel also sparked India's anti-colonial struggle and its religious revival and reform movements. The novel in particular was seen as a privileged form for preserving a spiritualized cosmology, renovating it in some ways, and using it to enable Indian sovereignty. Straddling both the British and the Indian, the worldly and the spiritual, the novel offered a unique opportunity for cultivating a modern religious sensibility. By analyzing the various literary techniques my novelists deploy to enchant a putatively disenchanted form in a (post)colonial context, I rediscover overlooked possibilities for the novel-writ-large. The trajectory I analyze teaches us that mimetic realism can offer a more congenial home to religious enchantment than the non-mimetic experimental modes, such as magical realism, usually considered more apt. My project charts the course of what I call the enchanted realist novel tradition via five seminal novels set in India and published between 1866 and 1980. In this arc, divinity is first made immanent in the phenomenal world, then it becomes internalized, only to meet with a birfurcated fate in the mid-twentieth century. The indigenous writers continue with realist first-order rendering of the divine in the daily, whereas the more international novelists formally distance themselves from the felt enchantment of the first order they struggle to represent. Another way to view that bifurcation: as the disenchanted, statist worldview comes to prevail in the national imaginary at Independence, the enchanted novel must henceforth either restrict itself to tiny local pockets of extant enchantment; or, if the novel still has ambitions to be a national allegory, it must register disenchantment as the nearly thorough-going a priori to what now can only be called a deliberate re-enchantment.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Damrosch, David N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 6, 2013