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Cover Story

August 2004
Cover Story

An Indian Literary Journey


Is there too much hype these days about Indian fiction in English? A cynic may be tempted to view it as a currently fashionable brand that will eventually saturate the market ? especially in the West ? and overstay its welcome. Yet, even a cursory survey will show that it's actually a living literature with a long and continuous tradition, and that in recent years it has become more popular and has gained a wider reputation.

Looking back from the perch of early twenty-first century, one can see that the tradition of Indo-Anglian literature has already traveled a great distance. The term ?Babu English' originated during the British Raj to loosely describe, in a pejorative sense, the language used by Indians to communicate with their colonial rulers. It was in this era that Indian literature in English had its murky beginnings. The vernacular word ?desi' ? which includes anybody who has roots in the subcontinent ? can be used to define one's ?Indianness' in a positive, affirmative sense. It's an acknowledgement of a common cultural heritage no matter where one lives. So it has been a long journey, indeed, from those distant days of Babu English to the contemporary period of Desi English. Just like the Irish, to give an example, Indians everywhere absorbed this great language from the British Empire and ? over time ? made it their own.

Two new novels by young Indian writers illustrate the present continuity of this literary tradition. The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa has just been published in the U.S., and The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi will come out in the fall. Both these diverse works, which are appearing in several countries, have been extensively reviewed and praised, with Shanghvi's novel even winning the Betty Trask Award. Earlier, Bajwa's book was long-listed for the Orange Prize in England. This is no small achievement when one realizes that these are debut novels by twenty-something writers.

Bajwa, having grown up in a provincial town, is very much rooted in India and the poignant realism of her fiction truly reflects that small-town experience; whereas Shanghvi, who divides his time between the U.S. and India, inhabits a more imaginative and wide-ranging fictional universe. At the same time, in their separate ways, it's clear that these young authors are part of a well-established tradition in Indo-Anglian fiction. "The Sari Shop displays a natural affinity with the sort of pre-Rushdie domestic comedy associated with Narayan, Jhabvala and Anita Desai's In Custody," notes a review in The Independent. "Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk, is a far more exuberant performance, part of the post-magical realist trend in Indo-English fiction ? with its fantasy, pastiche and satire, and the tendency to turn every seed of imagination into a towering tree."

Speaking of seeds and trees, the latest novels by V.S. Naipaul and Bharati Mukherjee are called Magic Seeds and The Tree Bride, respectively. In the first book, Naipaul's sequel to Half a Life, the reader accompanies Willy Chandran on his continuing adventures (or misadventures) in India and Britain. Mukherjee's novel is also a kind of sequel, because her heroine from Desirable Daughters, Tara Chatterjee, deftly weaves in her own story while narrating the unusual tale of an ancestor, Tara Lata, who'd been married to a tree as a child. So it's not only newcomers who are gaining attention; even the masters and veterans continue to churn out books that generate interest among the literati.

Amit Chaudhuri's long-awaited Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, which originally appeared elsewhere as a Picador anthology, will be released here later this year. India-based Ashok Banker is working on a multi-volume project to retell the Ramayana in a more popular, accessible style for the mass market. His second book, Siege of Mithila, will be published in the U.S. this year. In an interesting departure, Anita Desai has written a novel (The Zigzag Way) that's set in Mexico and has a North American protagonist. Another new novel worth mentioning is The Hungry Tide by the brainy Amitav Ghosh, who is frequently capable of combining disparate genres to create a seamless work. Here, in an intriguing and dense saga, the reader is taken on a trip to Ghosh's native Kolkata and the sprawling Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands in eastern India.

But it's not just Indian fiction in English that's making a big splash; some nonfiction titles are also riding the tidal wave that has come this way. In An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, which promises to be an engrossing read, the footloose Pankaj Mishra dwells on his own travels across South Asia to better understand the meaning and relevance of the Buddha's spiritual journey. Amitava Kumar, who recently edited Away: The Indian Writer As an Expatriate (reviewed by Khabar), is coming out with a new memoir called Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate. Yet another nonfiction book to watch out for is Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found. It has been described as an intimate and illuminating portrait of the author's hometown. Arundhati Roy, more famous now as an outspoken activist than a novelist, has joined the acrimonious debate on Iraq with a collection of polemical essays entitled An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire.

Next year, according to some reports, the prodigious Salman Rushdie will publish two novels: The Enchantress of Florence and Careless Masters. Siddharth Deb, who made an impressive debut with The Point of Return, which neatly reverses the chronology of his story, is completing a new novel called An Outline of the Republic. Patient fans of Vikram Seth won't be disappointed to learn that this versatile writer is doing something different yet again. His next book (Two Lives), set in the last century, is a memoir that deals with Seth's granduncle and his German wife.

So what does one make of this extraordinary outpouring, which includes many other earlier works? To appreciate this phenomenon in a more historical context, one can turn to an informative and readable book that was published last year. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's A History of Indian Literature in English is actually a collection of essays by specialists for the general reader; so, mercifully, it's quite free of jargon. In a concise and chronological manner, it provides a much-needed overview of Indo-Anglian literature, and for both serious readers and casual browsers, the rare black-and-white photographs that nicely complement the text are an added attraction.

Broadly speaking, the history of Indian literature in English can be divided into three stages: pre-Independence, post-Independence, and post-Rushdie. The colonial period was the longest and, in terms of ideology and ethnicity, it encompassed writers as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and Sarojini Naidu. Early Indian authors such as Raja Rammohan Roy and the Toru Dutts are considered in one essay, and in another piece the critic Meenakshi Mukherjee traces the origins and slow evolution of the Indian novel in English. It was not until the turbulent 1930s, though, that the novel really took off, when a trio of male writers ? Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, and Mulk Raj Anand ? burst upon the scene and quickly established their reputation.

Leela Gandhi explores the writers of this formative era, showing how the freedom movement in general and Mahatma Gandhi in particular had a profound influence on some of the works. There is an interesting discussion of G.V. Desani's quirky All About H. Hatterr, a highly original novel that became a bellwether for the magic realism and inventive language of more recent fiction. She notes that that this work is "more a sort of Joycean linguistic burlesque where Indian English ? much like Joyce's Irish English ? relentlessly jostles against all the known rules of grammar and diction. Shakespeare combines with Indian legalese, cockney with babuisms, Anglo-India rubs up against the pompous drone of the Colonial Club talk, and grievously unpunctuated sentences find a temporary hiatus in random and arbitrary capitalizations."

Devoted fans of R.K. Narayan's charming tales have probably spent many delightful hours in the fictional town of Malgudi, which the author populated with an engaging and, sometimes, eccentric cast of characters. In a long and fruitful career, Narayan created a singular body of work that appeals to a wide variety of people. These readers will enjoy Pankaj Mishra's sympathetic overview, which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Although both Gandhi and Nehru led busy public lives, they were prolific writers, and in his perceptive essay Sunil Khilnani discusses the pervasive importance of their English writings. Nehru's autobiography, most notably, remains a political and literary classic. "Each in their own way had shown, by their distinctive uses of English, the infinite adaptability of the language of the colonizers," Khilnani observes. "And as they did so, they shattered the belief that Indians were less ?natural', less skilled users of the language ? so undermining yet another foundational pillar of the Empire."

The three stages of Indian literature are, of course, merely a convenient way to survey the landscape. Someone like Verrier Elwin, a pioneering anthropologist who was the first foreigner to become an Indian citizen after Independence, cannot be confined to a single period. The same could be said about a few novelists who started publishing in the 1930s. Elwin lived among tribals in remote jungles for many years, and he continued to write until his death in 1964. Ramachandra Guha, the author of his acclaimed biography, notes in his succinct piece that Elwin's autobiography ? which was published posthumously ? "ranks with the self-testimonies of Jawaharlal Nehru, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, and Salim Ali (a renowned ornithologist) as among the finest autobiographies written by an Indian." There are also individual essays on V.S. Naipaul and Nirad C. Chaudhuri, two indispensable authors who have been both praised and harshly criticized for their withering analysis of Indian society and culture.

The post-Independence era brought about a boom in Indo-Anglian writing by women. Kamala Markandaya, who died recently, became a trendsetter after gaining worldwide recognition for Nectar in a Sieve, her first novel. Nayantara Sahgal, Anita Desai, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are the other well-regarded authors. When it involves the cataclysmic events of Partition in 1947, Khushwant Singh's gripping Train to Pakistan remains a widely admired novel.���

Indian poetry in English has never attracted the same kind of international attention as fiction, although The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth remains a remarkable exception. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, an established poet, gives us an overview of A.K. Ramanujan's distinguished work in poetry and translation. Other leading post-Independence poets such as Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes, both of whom died not long ago, are considered in a separate piece. Wildlife enthusiasts will like the chapter on five nature lovers who write vividly. Jim Corbett, the legendary shikari-turned-conservationist, is the most famous of them all. Reportedly, in India, his oeuvre has outsold the works of every other Indo-Anglian author. His first book, the celebrated Man-eaters of Kumaon, has remained continuously in print since it first appeared in 1944.

The inclusion of such diverse writers from various periods and even countries indicates a generous definition of the word ?Indian'. Which, of course, brings one to the growing corpus of writings by the great Indian diaspora. Suresh Mishra, interestingly, divides it into two categories: Sugar (old) and Masala (new). Apart from Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize in 2001, there are other noteworthy writers who represent the old diaspora. One good example is M.G. Vassanji, who can also be seen as a truly global Indian. Born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, and educated in the U.S., this physicist-turned-author now lives in Canada. Like his earlier fiction, Vassanji's newest novel (The In-Between World of Vikram Lall) reflects his multifaceted experiences in Africa and North America.

When it comes to the new diaspora, well-known authors range from Rohinton Mistry, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Ved Mehta of the first generation to Jhumpa Lahiri, Pico Iyer, and Meera Syal of the second generation. According to the critic Amitava Kumar, Indians living outside the subcontinent often make the most passionate and eager readers. "For the well-to-do Indian immigrants, the excitement of reading new Indian fiction is almost palpable because they have not had the stories of their lives told except through the stamps and signatures in the pages of their passports," he says. "In the pages of this new fiction, they find flags for their hitherto unrecognized identities."

There is a separate essay on Salman Rushdie, a prominent and influential author whose groundbreaking Midnight's Children directly led to the third phase in Indo-Anglian writing. Rushdie's great contribution was the way he "chutnified" the English language and spearheaded a renaissance in Indo-Anglian fiction. After Rushdie's liberating breakthrough, writers no longer felt self-conscious about using English in a distinctively Indian manner. Also, by now, since the British Raj had become a distant memory, there was no guilt or shame associated with using the former colonizer's language. The long shadow cast by colonialism had finally disappeared. Anuradha Dingwaney, who teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio, writes: "There is an entire generation of novelists from India who feel the weight of Rushdie's influence as enabling (or disabling) their own talents. Quite apart from what Rushdie demonstrated via his technique, his vivid descriptions, and his idiosyncratic characters, he showed Indians how the English language could be appropriated, bent in any way one wanted, to achieve sensational effects."

Not only did Rushdie win the Booker Prize for Midnight's Children in 1981, but he also received the Booker of Bookers in 1993 when this novel was picked from the twenty-six books that had won the award since its inception. Another interesting aspect of Rushdie's fiction was his use of magic realism, a trend that persisted in the early fiction of Allan Sealy (The Trotter-Nama), Amitav Ghosh (The Circle of Reason), Shashi Tharoor (The Great Indian Novel), and Vikram Chandra (Red Earth and Pouring Rain). At the same time, the tradition of seriocomic realism continued as before, resulting in novels that attracted their own share of attention. Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy ? one of the longest, single-volume novels in the English language ? is a good example. Its simple yet pleasing cadence, reminding one of a more leisurely era, contrasts sharply with the complex rhythms of many other post-Rushdie works.

David Davidar ? a doyen of Indian publishing who now heads Penguin Canada ? once named Midnight's Children, A Suitable Boy, and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things as the three most important Indian novels in English since the 1980s. One of the more striking features of the last novel, for which Roy won the Booker Prize, is its voluptuous prose. In an acrobatic yet fluent style, she teases the elasticity of the English language, giving it a rich texture and an authentic Indian sensibility.

Jon Mee, of University College in Oxford, notes in his essay that contemporary Indian novelists often "bring different languages into comic collision, testing the limits of communication between them, celebrating India's linguistic diversity, and taking over the English language to meet the requirements of an Indian context." Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August: An Indian Story, a highly successful comic novel that was made into a film by Dev Benegal, can be mentioned as an elegant example of this kind of writing. Mee adds that these authors show how the Indian ?tang' is not a pure essence but the masala mix of a culture that has always been able to appropriate influences from outside the subcontinent. The Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur is another comic novel that became a huge bestseller in India, but it's not in the same category as Chatterjee's work in terms of literary sophistication.

Fortuitously, as Mee points out, this boom in Indo-Anglian writing coincided with the expansion of the English-speaking middle class and the growth of publishing in India. In addition to large firms like Penguin India and HarperCollins India, smaller houses such as Permanent Black and Ravi Dayal Publisher have done a yeoman's job for Indian literature in English. In the West, Sonny Mehta, the top executive at Knopf (a venerable publishing house in New York), has been known to raise the profile of Indian authors.

The great popularity of English and the continuing success of Indo-Anglian literature show that the old language debate has become largely irrelevant. The nativist argument that authors should only use their mother tongue in creative endeavors seems increasingly out of place in a more interconnected world. Many writers from India and the diaspora have proved conclusively, and often with exquisite sentiment and clarity, that English can be used like any other vernacular language to subtly delineate the diverse Indian experience. Last year, after attending an Indian literary gathering (Sahitya Sammelan) in New York, Shashi Tharoor commented, "I offered my thoughts on the authenticity of English as a valid language to express the Indian sensibility, arguing that language is, ultimately, a vehicle, not a destination."

Moreover, in an increasingly globalized world where populations intermingle as never before, the definition of linguistic identity has become more complex. Especially in India, where people often speak two or more languages, this identity can be quite fluid. Bangalore-based Mahesh Dattani is one of the leading Indian playwrights writing in English. In her short piece on dramatists, Shanta Gokhale observes: "Dattani belongs to a generation of writers who use the English language without either pride or guilt. Asked by a journalist why he didn't write in his own language, he replied ?I do'." This is even truer when it comes to Indian authors living abroad, since they usually adopt the host nation's language.


It's perhaps not surprising to learn that, after the U.S. and Britain, India is the third largest publisher of books in the English language. Also, within India, no other language can claim a bigger share of the publishing business. These facts may bring up the charge of elitism, and certainly, it's a charge that cannot be easily dismissed. Mehrotra, in his introduction, writes: "The animosity towards Indian literature in English stems in large measure from the animosity towards the social class English has come to be identified with: a narrow, well-entrenched, metropolitan-based ruling elite that has dominated Indian life." It's no secret that the best-known and best-paid Indian authors tend to be those who write in English. A lot of them, both in India and abroad, are also highly educated and cosmopolitan.

For instance, there are some well-known Indian authors who are collectively known as the Stephanians, because they all attended the prestigious St. Stephen's College in Delhi back in the 1970s. This group includes Shashi Tharoor, Amitav Ghosh, Allan Sealy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan, and Anurag Mathur. In fact, there is a book about them called The Fiction of St. Stephen's. A few of them have achieved great success in more than one profession. Tharoor is a high-ranking diplomat at the UN, and Chatterjee is a high-ranking officer in the Indian Administrative Service. Other authors, too, went to exclusive institutions such as Doon School in Dehra Dun (Vikram Seth) and St. Xavier's College in Mumbai (Vikram Chandra).

"But literature as a category is inclusive rather than exclusive," Mehrotra points out. "It is more complex, less homogeneous, than a social group, and cannot always be made coextensive with it." In a largely illiterate nation like India, it is true that writers generally come from privileged backgrounds. However, they are also a very diverse group and, ultimately, it's their talent that sets them apart, enabling them to move beyond the more parochial concerns of their socio-economic class. Their unique, penetrating vision is often refracted through the prism of empathy. Rohinton Mistry comes from a well-to-do Parsi family in Mumbai, where he also attended St. Xavier's College. Yet, despite having lived in Canada since the 1970s, he writes with Dickensian compassion about the less privileged members of Mumbai's teeming masses. This is, of course, just one example.

An economic boom does not continue indefinitely, according to many experts, and in the worst-case scenario, it is inevitably followed by a bust. Fortunately, however, the theory of business cycles is not relevant to the arts. Indian literature in English has gained a certain presence by now, and based on the evidence so far, this boom in writing will continue at the same pace ? at least for the foreseeable future. This is a big achievement, indeed, given that much of this progress was made in a relatively short period.

The final comment on this phenomenon should go to the late R.K. Narayan, an important trailblazer who did so much to put Indo-Anglian literature on the world map. David Davidar, in a piece called "Making Chutney Merry in Indo-Anglia," which appeared in the Indian Express last year, wrote about his last meeting with Narayan, not long before this "grand old man of Indian letters" died at the age of ninety-four. While discussing the latest Indo-Anglian authors, Narayan remarked, "And to think that about twenty years ago, I told your chairman that the publishing company (Penguin India) he intended to establish in India would wind up in a few years because there weren't enough writers around worth publishing." Then, as Davidar noted, Narayan shook his head in wonderment.

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