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.

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