30 May 2007

How strange

If you have read my previous posts on the contemporary Indian novel, you would have got the feeling that it is one which is necessarily written in English. That, the contemporary Indian novel is not written in one of India’s 22-odd nationally-accepted vernacular languages, and then translated into English. No, it is clearly written and published in the English language. And, most likely, it is published outside India.

Not only that, there is a great chance that it may be, later, translated into European languages like French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or several other languages around the world. But, it is not likely to be translated into any one of India’s vernacular languages. It is likely to remain as a published work for, perhaps, 10% of India’s English language novel reading population.

I have often wondered how strange this is. How strange it is to have a body of work written in English, a language foreign to the greater population of India, represent India as its literature to the wider world. I have wondered how strange it is to have a body of work, supposedly from India, written by authors most of whom don’t even live in India. Or, at least, not anymore.

It’s not that these Indian authors are in exile like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Milan Kundera. These Indian authors have left India and migrated to another country for better opportunities for themselves. Or, a few, like Jhumpa Lahiri or Pico Iyer or the ubiquitous V S Naipaul, have always lived away from India. Their only attribute (or qualificator, as someone once told me) is Indian parentage.

Yet, today, these authors represent my country and me to the world at large. I find this strange. I find this strange when I consider the huge body (perhaps I should call it treasure) of Indian literature, written in India’s own vernacular languages, which is a truer representation of life in India, and yet, which is being overlooked by the literary world.

And so, I ask myself, to what extent does this contemporary Indian novel have the right to represent me and my life in India... and be called Indian literature.

25 May 2007

The contemporary Indian novel – IV

I don’t understand it. In spite of V S Naipaul not having any good things to say about India, we are eager to embrace him as an Indian author. In spite of V S Naipaul claiming his Nobel Prize as a citizen of Trinidad & Tobago and the United Kingdom, we are craving for his company as an Indian author. In spite of V S Naipaul not being India-born or having lived in India for a substantial period of time (for instance, like William Dalrymple), we are willing to include him in our fold as an Indian author.

What is it with us Indians? Are we so much in need of talent and recognition that we have to borrow from the world outside – even from those who clearly distinguish themselves as not being Indian, or not being an Indian author? If we were to go by V S Naipaul’s own comments on the Hindi film as ‘not reflecting reality’ and ‘concealing the truth’, are we not indulging in exactly that same thing when we welcome him as an Indian author?

It’s strange that the authors who are recognised by the international literary world as Indian authors are the ones who don’t stay in India. They are the ones whose notions of India, as recorded in their writing, reflect an India which she is not. Or, perhaps has not been for many years. Writing from the UK or the US or Canada, these writers are creating a picture of India which is imaginary. They are creating an Indian identity which bears little resemblance to the reality. And yet, the whole world is accepting it as the truth.

I remember Salman Rushdie bringing up this point many years ago in a bit of non-fiction ‘The Eye of the Beholder: Indian Writing in English’ for the Commonwealth Institute. Rushdie suggested that the portrayal of India by Indian authors writing in English may be warped, skewed and distorted. He mentioned the habit of ‘looking back’ that Indian authors writing in English irrevocably practised. According to Rushdie,

“…exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge — which gives rise to profound uncertainties — that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.”

But, besides me, and maybe a line-up of India’s own regional language authors who feel the need to assert themselves to clear the picture, no one is complaining. After all, writing is all about readership. And, the strength of the readership for the contemporary Indian novel lies with the Western world.

23 May 2007

The contemporary Indian novel – III

Salman Rushdie is the biggest name in contemporary Indian literature. Think of the Indian novel, or Indian writing in English, and ‘Rushdie’ is the first name that comes to mind. There were writers before him and there are those who are his contemporaries, but Salman Rushdie’s fame is unmatched. He is the authority; he is the measure.

By the time Rushdie achieved fame with ‘Midnight’s Children’, winning the Booker Prize in 1981, authors like V S Naipaul, Bharati Mukerjee, Anita Desai and Gita Mehta had already created a presence for the contemporary Indian novel in English in international literary circles. But, for some magical reason, Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ became a landmark; his fame instant.

As you know, Rushdie went on to win many awards and greater fame, in spite of stirring up strong emotions within the Islamic community, for which he almost had to pay with his life. But, what is remarkable in all this is that, since Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’, there has been no looking back for the contemporary Indian novel in English. It has become a genre by itself, dominating the Indian novel at home, and spurring the growth of literature in entire South Asia.

Since then, many authors of Indian origin writing novels in English have achieved fame, winning international awards and recognition in their own right. I have mentioned some of these names in my previous post, but there are many more. However, there is a common thread that runs through them all. Almost all of them reside outside India, having migrated to the UK or the US since the sixties. Rushdie, for instance, has lived outside India (shuffling between the UK and the US) ever since the Beatles won the world over with their music.

This aspect of living outside India and yet writing about India is what makes up the profile of the contemporary Indian novelist. And, it is this profile which is responsible for a recurrent theme in their writing: that of the Indian immigrant experience. Not only do many novels follow this theme, with reminiscences of the old country, even in novels written solely on India, there is an Indian immigrant planted somewhere in the story. It is as if the novel has been written through the eyes of someone living outside India… which, I suppose, suits the international audience perfectly.

This explains the ready acceptance of the contemporary Indian novel by the literary world outside India. It explains the recognition by the literary and reading audience, and the resultant fame for the authors. The question is, would these authors of Indian origin have achieved equal fame if they had not migrated from India to write and publish their novels in the international market? Going by the facts of the matter, there does seem to be a pattern for success. And, for the moment, that success seems to be outside India.


If you have read my previous post, you would have found two anomalies in the list of authors I have provided. One, an exclusion: V S Naipaul. And the other, an inclusion: Bapsi Sidhwa.

Naipaul is supposed to be of Indian extraction since his forefathers were from Gorakpur (I think), in India. However, Naipaul was born in Trinidad & Tobago and has lived in the UK for many years. Since he has received all this awards and fame, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, as a citizen of Trinidad & Tobago and the United Kingdom, I do not consider him to be an Indian author.

On the other hand, I believe Bapsi Sidhwa to be more of an Indian author than Naipaul. Sidhwa, although of Pakistani origin and nationality, and now living in the US, has written several novels and stories on India. Some of these stories have also been made into films (by Deepa Mehta) like ‘Earth’ and ‘Water’ for both Indian and international audiences.

20 May 2007

The contemporary Indian novel – II

From the point of view of Indian writing in English, if there is anything unique or outstanding about the contemporary Indian novel, then, according to me, it is its achievement of making India accessible to the West. Therein lies its distinction, and fame. You see, in the last thirty years or so, the contemporary Indian novel has garnered a fabulous Western audience for itself, simply because it has been written for that audience in mind.

Mind you, this could not have been achieved from the inside – that is, within India, by India’s ‘home-grown’ writers (Arundhati Roy may be an exception here, but she came into the picture when the path had already been set) – as, to do so, the writer had to have been a person of the West as well. So, the Indian novel had no choice but to depend on the works of those writers who left India for a foreign land, only to write about her from the outside, sharing their own personal experiences of India in their novels.

This included a plethora of writers living mainly in the UK and the US, and a few in Canada: Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukerjee, Anita Desai, Bapsi Sidhwa, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Sunetra Gupta, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai… the list grows longer by the year. These are just a few of the names; those which appear in lists over and over. The important thing is, the West embraced them all, honouring them with awards and recognition from all corners of the literary world.

I’m not sure why it all happened in the way it did, but my theory is that the pop culture of the late sixties and the early seventies had something to do with it. The West was restless, looking for its soul, and turning to India for spiritual enlightenment. The word ‘karma’ was on people’s lips (though very few knew what it meant), along with a few other words and phrases like ‘guru’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ and ‘mantra’ and even ‘Ravi Shankar’. When the Beatles had their ‘satsang’ with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, India became the talk of the London and New York elite.

The West wanted to know more about India, and yet there was very little to be found. India was full of scholars but nobody could put into words what India’s mysticism was about. Until 1979, when Gita Mehta published her book, ‘Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East’, talking about this very subject. Gita Mehta was the perfect writer for the job, being Indian but with residence in the UK and the US, opening up India to the Western world (and, in the process, shattering a few myths as well).

This phenomenon, probably, also explained why Gita Mehta’s and (soon to be followed by the more heroic) Salman Rushdie’s writing became more popular with the West than R K Narayan’s. R K Narayan, writing from India about the simplicity of Indian rural life and the purity of the Indian heart, was not quite the ‘global writer’ that the Western literary world demanded from India. After all, the view of India that the West wanted had to be through a Western lens… so the West could understand it all.

18 May 2007

The contemporary Indian novel – I

There are a couple of things we need to keep in mind. First, there is the Indian novel written by Indian writers living in India and writing in their own vernacular language. Second, there is the Indian novel in English written by writers of Indian origin, and even citizenship, writing from almost anywhere in the world.

It is the second category – the Indian novel in English – which has been accepted by the literary world at large as the contemporary Indian novel.

This disappoints me, as I feel a great deal of literary achievement is being ignored by the world. But then, it’s the Indian novel in English which is responsible for highlighting India’s literary prowess and establishing India on the literary world map. As you may well know, in the last thirty years or so, many writers of the Indian novel in English have received international acclaim.

Here again, I am disappointed, as most of these writers of Indian origin do not, or no longer, live in India. They are described in various ways by the literary world: as ‘of Indian extraction’ such as V S Naipaul; or ‘British-Indian’ such as Salman Rushdie; or ‘citizen of India but with permanent residence in the United States’ such as Kiran Desai. These are three Man Booker Prize winners from the past 30 years or so (Naipaul 1971, Rushdie 1981, Desai 2006), of whom India is rather proud.

So, perhaps, the definition of an Indian novelist – i.e. in the sphere of the Indian novel being written in English – has little to do with nationality and political status of the writers, but more to do with their heritage, their family background and the content of their novels. And this fact, sort of, defines – or, is defined by – their race, their ethnicity and their culture. Not to mention the content of their writing, which is on India and about India.

Mind you, that’s not the end of the world for the Indian contemporary novel. There are ‘home-grown’ writers as well – those who are 100% Indian citizens, living in India (though a few may have passed away), and writing the Indian novel in English. I would say R K Narayan and Arundhati Roy (a Man Booker Prize winner, 1997) fit this description perfectly.

15 May 2007

The breakthrough

In the last 30 years or so, the Indian novel has made a major breakthrough in world literature. It has found for itself a suitable position, much admired by international scholars and the international literati.

The breakthrough strategy, though rather late in coming (in my opinion) as the strategy should have been obvious to us much earlier, was simple: write in English. If you wish to find yourself a place in the world of literature dominated by the English language, then write in English. It was a sort of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ strategy, and it worked.

Today, we have recognition from the international community for the Indian novel and the substantial contribution that Indian authors make to world literature. Much of it has a colonial hang-up, of course, but I guess it can’t be avoided. After all, we have been under the British Rule for 300 odd years and have, most likely, been introduced to the novel by the British (see my previous post ‘The Indian Novel’).

Indian authors writing in English came forth with their work, establishing themselves, first, as an important part of the post-colonial South Asian diaspora and, second, in their own right, as creators of world-quality literature. In the past 30 years or so, there have been as many Indian writers of renown writing novels in English and winning international acclaim. They are far too many to be listed here, but a Google search would easily give you an idea of who they may be.

I’ve read many of their works, thoroughly enjoying the style of writing, the content and the significance that Indian novels have in an international forum, many a times cheering for the show of creativity and exuberance of the authors. And yet, that question still prevails in my mind: What is an Indian novel?

I’m sure the answer is not an easy one, considering the fact that the Indian novel’s evolution goes back a century and a half. However, for this post, if we limit our discussion to Indian authors writing in English, then there is an excellent article from the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review which I would encourage you to read. It’s called ‘
The Cult of Authenticity’ and is written by Vikram Chandra, an Indian author writing in English.

Here’s an excerpt from that article to mull over (the article is rather long):

“A friend told me about a meeting of the Delhi University syllabus revision committee, where they were trying to decide on the one Indo-Anglian novel that should be prescribed in the one course on modern Indian literature. My friend suggested Midnight’s Children, and she was shouted down. Salman Rushdie isn’t Indian, the majority of the professors asserted. Amitav Ghosh, however, was found to be sufficiently Indian, and so his Shadow Lines was accepted into the canon. The issue was decided not on the basis of the relative merits of the books, but on the perceived Indianness of the authors, and by implication, the degree of their assimilation by the West.”

12 May 2007

Linguistic lines

How can the Indian novel do well in a world where the novel, and literature itself, is dominated by the English language? If it’s not English, then it’s French, Spanish, German or Russian. The world of literature favours the more popular languages of the larger cultural powers, with English having established itself as the world leader.

There are affinities too, like Latin American literature, a strategy that seems to be set firmly to woo readers from countries speaking the same language. In this case, it’s Spanish. There is still the rigour of translations, of course, but I can confidently say that, today, Latin American literature is growing in leaps and bounds, and will soon become a force to contend with.

The truth of the matter is that the world of literature is divided along linguistic lines, with the smaller cultures edged out by virtue of their languages being less popular than a few others. Few in number these languages may be, but their reach and their might are phenomenal.

With such polarisation, there is very little chance that a novel from India can get an edge in. Added to this, India’s own problem of twenty-two official languages (besides English) and five times as many dialects gives Indian literature a sort of provincial or local bias. Leading to the important question: what exactly is an Indian novel?

11 May 2007

The Indian novel

As it happened in England, in India, too, the novel as a genre began in mid-nineteenth century. What was before the novel is difficult to classify, but somehow, not long after the Industrial Revolution, literature blossomed across the world, introducing readers to the long story in the form of the novel.

As a Bengali – i.e. a person from the state of West Bengal in Eastern India – and a student of storytelling, I find this intriguing. It’s baffling to learn that, in Bengali literature, there was no such thing as a novel prior to 1850.

Then suddenly, as if the literary dam had burst, a legion of novelists emerged in Bengal: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sonjib Chandra Chattopadhyay, Taraknath Gangopadhyay, Ramesh Chandra Dutta, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay… and others.

Although the first Bengali novel is supposed to be ‘Alaler Ghorer Dulal’ (the author’s name escapes me now), most likely published in 1857, the year of the Sepoy Mutiny, the novel which is remembered most is ‘Durgesh Nondini’ written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1865, the first of his 14 novels. This set the words flowing and the next 70 years were probably the most creative years in Bengali literature.

The Indian novel, in fact, developed all across India with Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai’s ‘Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram’ written in Tamil in 1879, and O Chandumenon’s ‘Indulekha’ written in Malayalam in 1889 declared as two of the greatest novels from South India at that time.

The reasons for the beginning and the development of the Indian novel at this time are numerous. They include British influence and westernisation of India, the emergence of a middle class and a new Indian sensibility, a scientific temper which instigated improvements in various aspects of Indian life, and the fact that English novels were available in India. All, leading to a comment that the novel as a genre may have been imported into India, thanks to the British.

However, there is a claim staked by several literary historians that a work in Persian, ‘Nashtar’ by Hasan Shah, purported to have been written in 1790, is the first Indian novel in any Indian language. Apparently, it had remained unknown until an Urdu translation was published in 1893.

09 May 2007

The Curtain

What is the novel’s raison d’etre? Can the novel help us understand reality, to define the boundaries and/or the relationship between fiction and reality? Or, as Milan Kundera suggests in his new book, ‘The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts’, help us see with new eyes? For, isn’t the novel’s tradition (and it’s true for fiction in general) as old as human culture, laying the path to a more progressive, revolutionary form?

In his March 2007 article, ‘The unbearable rightness of fiction’, in Salon.com, Gary Kamiya explains Kundera’s point why it is important for all novelists to understand the history and the form of the novel:

“Kundera’s point is that Western culture, including classical music and literature, has a definite history, which one must know not just to understand new works but, as a creator, to build on. If you’re a novelist writing in 2007 and you don’t know ‘Don Quixote’, ‘Tom Jones’, ‘Tristram Shandy’ and ‘The Castle’, you may still create a lasting work -- but you will do so only as a wild genius, not as a craftsman. And the history-obsessed Kundera has his doubts about untutored genius.”

Adding, “Kundera believes novelists must know the history of the form because if they don’t, they are likely to repeat fictional expeditions already undertaken -- for him, the ultimate aesthetic sin.”

But what about pioneer novelists like Cervantes and Rabelais who had no history of the novel to start with? Were they simply men of untutored genius? Were they not craftsmen as well?

Gary Kamiya goes on to write, “‘The Curtain’ reveals a lot about Kundera. Yet, ironically, it also helps us understand why his creative works, or those of any major writer, cannot be reduced to theory.” I agree.

07 May 2007

Fuentes on Borges

“Borges remarked that a new reading of a book is also a new writing of that book. Stories are eternal only in that they are always being read, and that we the readers, we the plurality, over many times and spaces, we are the generators of meaning.”

[from Notes by Allen B. Ruch on ‘Jorge Luis Borges at 100: A Lecture by Carlos Fuentes’ – 18 October 1999, 92nd Street Y, New York, Unterberg Poetry Center]

The Novel

“The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say.”
– Milan Kundera

Just like architecture and music, literature and its chief proponent, the novel, have evolved over the years to represent our culture. And, therefore, much of literary history is the history of the novel. The Western culture has been quick to attest this and a great deal is written about the history of the novel, with its beginnings in Europe.

The East, forever the reticent kin of the West, has kept a low profile in this matter, although its history and literature date back thousands of years before Western culture came to be known as Western culture. I have no doubt the East’s literary history is far richer than what the West can ever offer, but, sadly, there isn’t a great deal that one can read up today about literary history in the East, or in my country, India, for that matter.

So, for the layman in India, the books on literary history that can be found in the bookstores are those written by Western authors recording their own culture. For the novel, that means a journey of 400-odd years, covering three continents: Europe (including old Russia), America (mainly the United States), and Latin America.

Authors who are likely to come up for discussion would include Cervantes, Fielding, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Joyce (from Europe); Melville, Hawthorne, Henry James, Conrad, Faulkner and Hemingway (from America); Fuentes and García Márquez (from Latin America). There are many more, of course. The list is long.

In each work of the authors listed above, we’ll find a style unique to its period, perhaps even leading the novel out of its previous mode. For, the history of the novel is the history of its form, its tradition, its progress from one period to another, its understanding – and representation – of reality in the realm of the author’s imagination. All laid out before us in quaint cultural settings, with lively and idiosyncratic characters running through its pages.

04 May 2007

Storms over the novel

“What good is the novel, the long story told in prose? Hegel called the contingent, the everyday, the mutable, "the prose of the world," as opposed to "the spiritual, the transcendent, the poetic." "Prosaic" can mean plain, ordinary, commonplace, even dull. Prose fiction, historians of the novel tell us, has had to struggle against the sense of being a second-rate genre. Heidegger said that "novelists squander ignobly the reader’s precious time." In late-eighteenth-century Britain, when large numbers of badly written popular novels were being published, "only when entertainment was combined with useful instruction might the novel escape charges of insignificance or depravity."

In pre-modern China, Japan, and Korea, the general word for fictional writing was xiaoshuo (in Chinese), meaning "trivial discourse." Socialist critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have accused the novel of bourgeois frivolity. By contrast, aestheticians of the novel, like Flaubert, proposed the ideal novel as "a book about nothing," or, like Joyce, as a game which would turn the everyday world into the most concentrated and highly designed prose possible. Moral writers of novels like George Eliot or D.H. Lawrence believed in the novel as the book of truth, teaching us how to live and understand our lives and those of others.”

The novel’s entanglement in "the prose of the world" can also be its justification and its pride. The novel’s virtue, it has often been argued, lies in its egalitarianism, its very commonplaceness. And the novel’s everydayness need not be an enemy to its aesthetic integrity. In his wise, deep, and witty essay on the novel, The Curtain, Milan Kundera, a follower of Flaubert in his critique and practice of the European novel, celebrates "the everyday" ("it is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well") while writing in praise of the novel's essential self-sufficiency:

"It...refuses to exist as illustration of an historical era, as description of a society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of "what only the novel can say."

[Excerpt from ‘Storms Over the Novel’ by Hermione Lee, The New York Review of Books, Volume 54, Number 8 · May 10, 2007]

01 May 2007

How to read a novel in 3 not-so-easy steps

STEP 1: Read the novel quickly, beginning to end.

STEP 2: Read the novel slowly, with concentration, paying attention to each and every detail of what’s written and how it’s written, making notes along the way.

Ask yourself if the novel entertained you; if you enjoyed reading it. Which characters did you like, or dislike? And why? Did the plot engage you? Were there discrepancies in the narration of the story, or in the characters? Did the setting seem appropriate? In which time period was the story set? Did the novel touch any specific emotions in you? Did you understand what the novel was about? What was the author’s point of view? Was there a message in the story which you would remember for a long time? Did the novel have a social, cultural, historical or political relevance?

Analyse your answers honestly. Don’t let your personal feelings or beliefs cloud your judgement about the story, or the author.

STEP 3: Read the novel in your own pace, reviewing and revising the notes you’ve made on your previous reading.

See if you have missed anything, or learnt something new. Try to pick up meaningful or relevant quotes and passages from the novel for discussion. Find out what you can about the author. If you can, compare the novel with the author’s other works, or works by other authors in the same genre or period.

Decide what is good or bad about the novel and the author, objectively. Only then will you be able to appreciate the true beauty of the novel.

These three not-so-easy steps in reading a novel were drilled into me by my English teacher: an aging lady with a hooked nose and thin lips, who seldom gave me good marks in English literature; though she never tired of encouraging me to read. I avoided her. I don’t remember ever following her advice.

It’s was much later, in my professional life, when I had to sift through volumes of data on consumers, brands, markets and economic indicators, did I realise the significance of her teaching.