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.

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