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American Fiction Writers Find Inspiration In India

October 2007
American Fiction Writers Find Inspiration In India

American novelists—unlike their British counterparts—were only rarely inspired in the past by India or Indian themes. Which is perhaps understandable, given the absence of a colonial connection. Though there were novels that did establish an Indian link, they have largely been forgotten. India has long been in the news for American nonfiction writers, but lately, a couple of well-known American novelists have taken the plunge, too, producing books that are drawing attention. Paul Theroux gained renown with his first travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, a good part of which was set in India. Now he's reportedly retracing that journey for another travelogue. His newest book, The Elephanta Suite, is a trio of novellas set in contemporary India, featuring "New Englanders who settle into the lulling comfort of an Indian sanctuary—a spa, a luxury hotel, an ashram—only to be drawn out of it by their conflicting desires," as Pico Iyer puts it in Time magazine. Like the politically incorrect V. S. Naipaul, about whom Theroux has written two books, Theroux's writing can be unsparingly blunt. A while ago, after a well-publicized spat, Naipaul and Theroux ended their long friendship. "Theroux's strength as a writer and a traveler has always come from his readiness to say and do what few of us would admit to, and it's a safe bet that these gleefully impenitent stories will not be promoted by the American Chamber of Commerce or the Indian Ministry of Tourism," adds Iyer.

David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk, on the other hand, is a novel that takes us to the hothouse environment of Cambridge, England, during the First World War. Srinivasa Ramanujan was not merely an Indian clerk; he was also a self-educated genius who, despite his impoverished background in South India, gained wide recognition for his mathematical work. Ramanujan's complicated relationship with G. H. Hardy, his mentor and collaborator at Cambridge, inspired a couple of plays not long ago. Taking on the same theme, Leavitt gives his own spin to the relationship. "It's about the impulse to save a foreign stranger (in spite of the fact that your idea of his country is no more than a couple of clich�s)," according to a review by Nell Freudenberger, who has also written about India in her fiction.

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