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May 11, 2009

Write India?

What is it about internationally acclaimed books from India or by Indian authors? Or as more is the case today, books by authors of Indian origin?

For long such books have either been about a post-colonial hangover with the British Raj (rule), or about Non Resident Indian reminiscing about home or (as of recently), the ABCD* Handbook to Criticising India.
(*ABCD = American Born Confused Desi, where 'desi' means native)

The 2008 Booker of Bookers winner Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie), the 2008 Man Booker winner White Tiger (Aravind Adiga), the 2000 Pulitzer winner Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri) and even the 1996-Booker shortlisted, A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry) falls into either one of those categories.

All these writers and their books are also clubbed under the category of 'Indian Writing in English'. Whether the 'Indian' refers to writing originating from the country or a native of the country is suspect. 'Indian Writing in English'. Strange, we don't have Spanish/Spaniard Writing in English or Italian Writing in English or French Writing in English. Perhaps because some critics find the language by Indian authors tedious, constructed and flowery'...

Then there are writers like Shobhaa De (Superstar India), Advaita Kala (Almost Single) and blog-to-books recent entry, Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy (You Are Here). 'Irreverent' is the over-used adjective for their writing. While Ms De is a senior when it comes to writing and successfully stirring controversy -- she is also consistent on the best-seller lists -- the other two writers are newbies. By newbie standards, Madhavan has been around and writing -- in the blogosphere at least -- for much longer than Kala. Their writing is also being heralded as the face of "the brave, new world of the young of our times". I have not yet read You Are Here (expectant); but I have read Almost Single (cringe).

Going by what Khushwant Singh and book reviews have to say about Madhavan's book and what I read in Kala's: Is their portrayal the real, new India?

Why does portrayals of India either have to do with slums or sluts? Yes, we do drink, smoke, dance, f**k and start earning much earlier than the older generation(s) used to.... but is that all to us? And if there is more to us, why the hell isn't anyone writing about it and why's no one publishing it?

What, according to you, is the best representation of India in a fiction/non-fiction book? Also, if you read review blogs that focus on Indian books/authors, share the link.

PS: And I strongly disagree to respected Khushwant Singh saying, "...I doubt if I would admit she was related to me" about Madhavan's book.
I am sorry Mr Singh, those are rotten, double standards. Or is it because Madhavan happens to be a free-speaking, feisty young woman? Your books were far raunchier, in bad taste and pretentious. While you are denying any links to the current generation, we are a fruit of your loins. If the fruit isn't sweet, perhaps the older generation needs to think about it.

PS: Some others seem to take this post as a criticism. Is it? It's more an attempt to understand what's happening with Indian writing/writers from India. As a media student, I find in discussions that somehow people seem to presume that Indian authors can only write about a 'certain' India. And no, I am not an author. It is very hard.

18 comments:

wordjunkie said...

Hi. Came here from Mamma Mia me a Mamma's's blog.
Have you read Amitav Ghosh?

Mamma mia! Me a mamma? said...

@WJ: wow, I was thinking of Amitav Ghosh as I was reading this!!

Now JB, very frankly, while I love reading IWE, I still think that it's the vernacular writers who paint more realistic pictures of India. I have been reading some exceptional translations of Bengali literature. How I wish I could read the originals :(

Medha said...

Hii! Have been reading your blog for a looooong time now..but first time commenting! :)

Such a coincidence..cos right now I am reading 'Superstar india' and 'You are here'. And both books are just superb! Shobha de's writing has always been effortless and magical..I am enjoying the book SO much. And meenakshi has written such a fabulous book! You know I really think it will take a long time for the indian men (well most of them) to accept the fact that Indian women these days are becoming fiercely independant and fiesty. I mean, if people like Khushwant singh make such comments, then what can you expect from the common Indian man? It's sad to hear something like this from such an intelligent man and someone of such calibre.

I must say, I have been a huge fan of khushwant singh all my life. My most favourite book is his autobiography 'Truth, love and a little malice'...but now after reading the article, I have very little respect for the man.

BTW, is it just me or Amitav Ghosh books are a little ..ummm...boring? :S

Eve* aka JB said...

Author Samit Basu has responded to this note on Facebook saying, "You are generalising like crazy."

How? My point being, there ARE writers who are writing books on India that have a different twist. Meenakshi's is one such example. However, when it comes to making a dent in the international market -- and I don't mean book sales -- I mean simple visibility...it's only the books that have a certain perspective about India.

I am happy to debate the point.

@ Wordjunkie/ Mamma Mia: Amitav Ghosh, not read. I have been reading about his books and will probably be picking up Calcutta Chromosome.

Mamma Mia: you are in the publishing industry..what's your take?

Yashita said...

I totally agree with you JB. But I think maybe authors write what their audiences expect from them. Why do you think Slumdog was so popular? There is definitely more to India than the Mumbai slums. But that's how the foreign countries see us.

We might not be the country of snake charmers any more, but we have to go a long way before others see India for all that it is...and not just our poverty and call centres.

Infact I think even Shobha De sometime back mentioned on her blog that only books that depicted a certain "India" got published for foreign audiences [paraphrase].

There is definitely more to India and Indians. But we stick to the same old slum/poverty and now the same old "when and how I lost my virginity". Which is why I rarely read Indian authors :(

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Medha: I interviewed Mr Singh after his book on Indira vs Maneka... I still admire him; I just do not agree with his last statement in the column. It reads more a personal comment than an objective viewpoint from a columnist on an emerging artist. AND, I do see Meenakshi as an emerging artist. No matter how many say whatever about her blog or her book...she could very well be the one to break some shackles as far as womens' writing in/from India as considered.

And, thankyou for the comment; it's nice to interact. Hope to see you around more often, hmm?

Medha said...

I soo agree with you!
".she could very well be the one to break some shackles as far as womens' writing in/from India as considered."- So true! Plus, she writes really well. No matter what, I enjoyed reading her book..and her blog for that matter.

I will definitely comment more from now on. :)

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Yashita: Perhaps it is about writing what sells... though I don't think that is the case with Jhumpa.. or Amitav Ghosh. Very keen on reading Calcutta Chromosome by Ghosh. Have recently purchased Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa, yet to read it though.

See, I do understand that from an international perspective, the poverty, the slums, the beggars...it can be overpowering. I also see why publishers are interested in pushing out those books: If Sex and the City has already been selling, why would you want to publish it again?

As an aspiring writer though, its frustrating. I cannot write about Delhi's mad media culture without getting descriptive about the beggars outside the newspaper office. Ironically, it IS true... but then I DON'T want to write about it.

I am rambling procrastinating the assignment... do share your thoughts. I am currently fascinated with the whole thing.

Medha said...

Oh BTW, am a fellow bengali...in the western part of Australia. Soooo helllooo! :D haha. Sorry, I know I'm being lame.

PS- Must must MUST read 'Unaccustomed Earth'! I fell in love with the book. But that's just me, And also, please do let me know if Amitav Ghosh's book is worth reading. Because I would really like to give it another try!

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Medha: "how you gaoin'? :D
Ach good, shall read Unaccustomed Earth with more positivity. I have nurtured some sort of a anti-short story grudge. Don't when or why it developed, but trying to shake it now. As for Amitav...I know that Partner's uncle (he's Swiss), is completely nuts about him. Each time he recommends any author, it ends up being Ghosh. So give him a try.
PS: Said uncle also liked White Tiger, so I don't know! Calcutta Chromosome is a non-linear medical thriller.

ahmad raza said...

pick Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh!!you will find a lot of that Indian resonance which is killed by the Rushdies(i'm still a fan though) and Adigas by their magical realisms...
another recommendation would be English,August!! these are indian writings...
i also think that like all other things in India, this subject has also drifted into that land of "Excess" which we love so much!!

ahmad raza said...

@medha-you can close your eyes and pick Amitav Ghosh anyday!!
see this is the reason why a book like the white tiger and midnight's children gets picked by us,due to the bookers and media hype!!
and people feel skeptical about picking Ghosh!!
Shadow Lines is a sahitya academy winner bytheway!!

WittyWanker said...

You make an interesting point when you say "Strange, we don't have Spanish/Spaniard Writing in English or Italian Writing in English or French Writing in English" - There's a kind of pretentiousness to that 'Indian English' phrase. And I completely agree with your views on Singh - His autobiography was filled with all kinds of things.

A couple of things a friend (http://bharatiyer.wordpress.com/) pointed out: Our themes revolve around pre-colonial, earl post-colonial, diaspora, or about dirt poor v/s filthy rich. I think the key problem is that English is innately an elitist language in this country (even when it talks about poverty a la Adiga - it is condescending in its tone) - Bhagat is probably the only writer who's managed to make it popular in the real sense... but all in all I reckon we still have a way to go...

WittyWanker said...

Oh and PS: This is my first post on your blog - I joined your FB group soon after you came on Barkha's show - Like you, I too am in media - currently doing a PG in Journalism with TSJ Mumbai after which I'll be interning with Mumbai Mirror.

So...

Hi.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Such an interesting post, especially because I am deeply interested in postcolonial writing. I totally see your point about the 'West' looking to paint a particualr picture of India.

I haven't read Adiga or Lahiri, but definitely recommend Ghosh, Anita Desai, Bapsi Sidhwa, Vikram Chandra, Shashi Tharoor and perhaps Mahasweta Devi?

Also, I don't know which category you would place Rushdie in but wouldn't you say it is a little reductive to consider that his books only deal with nostalgia about home? There is a lot more that you can read into his work. I personally find intriguing the very idea of him writing back to the Empire as it were, deconstructing myths about India and playing around with stereotypes and such. I would strongly recommend Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands - it isn't fiction and he thrashes out a lot of ideas about fiction. It's also very easy to read.

Eve* aka JB said...

@ Anonymous: Hello!

Regarding the categories, perhaps it is wrong to slot Rushdie's books into any of those stated.

Wrt Midnight's Children, given the year of its publication and consequent significance, it changes/challenges the way we perceive Rushdie's works.

As for the other authors, perhaps it is my mistake that I didn't make it clear that the post is a comment on the current books being published from India and by Indian authors. Specifically post 90s or even post 1995...

What intrigues me is how stereotypes manage to survive even in the Internet age. 'Different' writing from India is literally on the wall and yet, mainstream, international publishers insist on a certain view point.

The London Book Fair 2009 had India as its ‘market focus country’. According to industry approximations, the Indian English-language market is estimated at £300m in 2008; and supposed to grow by 10 per cent. Reports also say in a couple of years time, India will be the second largest market for the publishing industry.

I wonder if that will mean changes for Indian authors as well -- more, younger, different subjects -- or will it only mean more international titles being released/sold in India...

If you read this @ Anonymous; would be mighty interested in reading your views.

I have not read Imaginary Homelands; non-fiction would be great, thanks for that. As for Shashi Tharoor and Vikram Seth...not convinced yet. But perhaps

Anonymous said...

Hello t'is I again! I think you are right to situate Rushdie in a specific time / place because he was doing something rather revolutionary then. It sounds like Adiga is doing the same thing only decades later. I think it is a lot to do with positioning also, where the writer is placed geographically. I think the spate of diasporic writing is happening now because there just are more NRIs today than before.
Regarding the stereotypes issue, yes it is very potent and you may be interested to read more on it by Edward Said who wrote about Orientalism. He talks about the way Western countries construct knowledge about the 'other', and how stereotypes emerge etc. He gives examples from the colonial period but it is still so relevant today, it's unnerving! India always gets slotted in the poverty / exotica vein. The binaries shift but they always remain binaries - the materialistic West, the mystical East. You're right- there is so much more to us. For instance, what would you say abot One Night at the Call Centre?
I really do hope that the market opens up for Indian writing because like you, i appreciate writing that resists easy categorization.
Also, a very small clarification - I didn't say Vikram Seth because I haven't read him, but Vikram Chandra who writes very differently.
I just saw your comment where you mentioned Samit Basu- perhaps you could let us know why he thinks you are generalising? It would be interesting because his writing does break stereotypes about typical 'Indian' subjects. Anyway, who's to say what is Indian right?
Going to stop now because this is clearly a subject I get very carried away about.

Anonymous said...

it is excellent to see such robust debate about literature on a blog. anonymous 1 has some very well constructed thoughts and insightful comments to share. since i am only a spectator of postcolonial theory and not a student; i cannot talk knowledgeably or authoritatively of said, ashcroft, spivak etc, or any of their theories, but i can say one thing:

whatever the subject, beautiful writing sparkles. and so, the international literati devours rushdie (whose writing is not at all in the vein of vermilion/poverty/marigolds - one only needs to be vaguely familiar with his oeuvre to know this). adiga has a quirky and passionate voice. some of seth's writing needs to be reread simply to memorise its grace. v.s. naipaul, r.k. narayan, arundhati roy, pankaj misra, anita desai, suketu mehta, rohinton mistry are each brilliant in their own way. i am sorry to say, however, that meenakshi reddy madhavan's book is nothing short of a three year old's mess. she is free to peddle her diluted brand of independent, boy and shoe crazy, cosmopolis-indian-girl young adult "fiction"; and people (including many of your readers - strange?) are free to buy and read it. but this does not take away from the fact that she (and others like her) are an embarassment to the indian literary establishment.

it will be a dark day indeed when schmaltzy, mediocre indian chick-lit debutes on the world stage. let's keep it hidden in a bombay slum or in the dusty lanes of delhi, shall we? :)