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.


Madhuri said...

I think "rural India" and "Indian purity" are overconsumed topics in India - not just for westerners, but Indian readers as well. Writers/playwrights/actors should move away from it now and explore more current themes.

runawaysun said...

This is certainly true today. Thanks to the economic boom India is experiencing and, in part, to Indian writing in English, reader expectations have changed.

My reference was to an India 30 or more years ago. India was different then. How India was perceived by the West was different then.

This was probably the time when many Indians migrated to foreign lands... a few of them, later, to become Indian authors writing in English.