20 July 2008

How 'Indian' is Indian Writing In English

How 'Indian' is Indian writing in English?
Are diasporic writers still its commanding masters or are desi counterparts finally finding a voice? Sandhya Iyer strikes a debate, only to discover that the literary scene is ridden in complexities

For a while now the 'outside', 'insider' debate has been raging across literary circles. For more than three decades now, diaspora writers --- born in India but settled abroad --- have dominated the literary firmament. They have undeniably been the 'face' of Indian Writing in English (IWE) and its most visible representatives. Clearly, we ought to celebrate the immense prestige that writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Divakaruni, Amartya Sen have brought to IWE. In some measure - inspite of the fact that writer Shashi Tharoor resides abraod, he ought to be included here. He has been an Indian 'official' after all.

It would be fair to say that the entire 'A' list of commercially successful writers function from the West. However, this has brought in its share of criticism on issues like authenticity and the idea of NRI authors selling Indian exotica to the West. "How can a writer sitting in the first world write about the third world?" native writers ask.

Back home, we've had commendable authors like Ramachandra Guha, Kiran Nagarkar, Shashi Deshpande, Usha K R, Ira Deshpande, Esther David, Upamanyu Chatterjee and so on. But, the success ratio remains tilted towards prize-winning NRI novelists --- with greater brand appeal and possibly snob value even. Save for a Arundhati Roy (The God Of Small Things), Khushwant Singh, to an extent Shobhaa De and now, Chetan Bhagat (Five Point Someone, One Night @ A Call Centre, The 3 Mistakes of My Life), no writer in India has really entered the collective consciousness where English writing in India goes.

However, writers and others in the know here believe that things are changing for the better and publishing houses are looking at tapping into the all-strong English-educated base in the country. So have 'midnight's children' finally come of age or is there still a long way to go?

The question of 'representation'
The common refrain is, why don't we see more writers like R K Narayan, Arun Kolatkar, Ruskin Bond, Mulk Raj Anand etc? All their writings being deeply rooted in their own culture instantly connected with readers. Post '70s, there came a new wave in IWE by way of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children that caught the world's attention. Rushdie revitalised and rejuvenated IWE.
Unfortunately, the publishing industry in India was hardly as robust as it is today (we've never been a serious market for English language books), which meant not too many desi writers could get noticed globally.
This naturally presented an unusual situation where it was left to our NRI writers to explain 'us' to the world. Doesn't that create a stilted vision?
"It is obvious that Indian writing in English is not 'representative'--- but this raises the question of whether it is even the function of writing to be 'representative'; one might say it is not --- there is a difference between writing and representative democracy. Perhaps the problem arises because of our insistence on using the term "Indian", and then complaining when various writers (be it Jhumpa Lahiri or Amit Chaudhuri or Rushdie) are insufficiently Indian. But "Indian" means many things, and it shouldn't surprise us that reality does not conform to our abstractions. An authenticity litmus test would be intolerable -- by that yardstick, Chekhov and Joyce might have failed Russian and Irish literature, respectively." says literary enthusiast and avid blogger Umair Ahmed Muhajir.
He believes that lack of English translations (except for small tokens) for regional literature is certainly distorting. "It's a world missed," he says.

Aspiring filmmaker and literature student Abhishek Bandekar believes writers -whether diasporic or India come with their own strengths and that needs to be recogonised. "Indian Writing in English(IWE) or Indian English Literature(IEL) is a troubled breed of literature. It has to grapple with concerns of authenticity and identity. But it’s an ironic struggle. The classification of IWE as post-colonial literature limits its scope; restricting authors(native or NRI) to recount merely that which is nostalgic or ‘imagined’(in as much as ‘imagined’ is that which is not ‘exoticised’). Even if one were to leave aside the whole native IWE vs NRI IWE argument for a moment, one is still confronted with the problem of ‘different’ truths. A Salman Rushdie is radically different from an RK Narayan. The former’s works while championing the hybrid of pidgin English nevertheless falls prey to cultural imperialism, in that it interprets the ‘past’, without ‘imagining’ the future. The latter’s works on the other hand, may employ 'standard english' but stays true to its cultural roots, in that the works require and expect cultural familiarity," he views.

Does location matter for 'authentic' literature?

Devyani Satzman, writer of the book Shooting Water and daughter of filmmaker Deepa Mehta, lives in Canada. She says, "Fundamentally, I think all perspectives and voices are valid. Ultimately, stories should introduce us to new worlds, and I'm not as concerned about where the writer resides as long as they do a good job taking us into that world."

Renowned poet Dilip Chitre says, "First of all, non-resident Indian describes two kinds of people: 1. Those who have migrated to other countries; and 2.Those whose parents were immigrants. Salman Rushdie belongs to the first category (but so do many physicians, surgeons, space scientists, managers, software engineers, teachers etc); and V S Naipaul to the second. He adds, "Just by living in India, nobody becomes a representative of Indian writing. If you are a good novelist, poet, playwright, or a poet the language you write in is secondary to your talent. Artistic authenticity is primary; nationality and/or mother-tongue culture are incidental."

However, Murzban Shroff, whose book Breathless In Bombay got rave reviews believes location is an important criteria for authenticity. Shroff stays in Mumbai and feels that enabled him to come up with a 'solidly researched book' "I wish people like Rushdie and others could base themselves in India and recount stories from here. That way, we'll have Indian content and Western craft and in my view that's the perfect balance," he says.

Are desi writers in India close to bringing about a change?

Many authors believe much has changed for the better where IWE is concerned for desi writers. Chetan Bhagat, who seldom gives up an opportunity to criticise the elitist club of NRI writers makes it clear that his target readers are only Indians. And the fact that he's one of the highest selling authors the country has led to several people from all walks of life picking up the pen.
Says Gouri Dange, who recently published her book 3 Zakia Mansion, "Honestly, I was daunted at the prospect of writing. Since I was simultaneously reading Rushdie's Shalimar, The Clown, I kept feeling my language was too seedha-saadha but then I soon got over it, thinking 'that exists but this can exist too."
Publishing opportunities have vastly grown in the last five-six years, says Janaki Vaswanath, owner of the bookstore twistntales and she believes it is a natural outcome of the country getting dominant on the world stage.

Sampurna Chattarji, a poet, fiction-writer and translator, adds another dimension to the discussion. This proliferation can have a flip side as well, she believes. "In the rush to compete for genre-slots especially, a lot of sub-standard work is getting published and that can only be detrimental to the growth of IWE in the truest sense of the writing going from strength to strength. What we need is perceptive editors and agents who will be able to identify and promote the best writing being done in India today. Unfortunately, IWE is still seen as a territory largely ruled by fiction, when the truth is that exciting new work is also being done by poets writing in English."

But not all are equally optimistic about the flowering of IWE here.
Murzban Shroff says the draft for his book met with a cold reaction when he submitted it to Indian publishers. On the other hand, international publishers were more than forthcoming.
He adds, "Even if Indian publishers were to give you an opportunity to write, they expect you to do your own marketing --- getting a star to launch your book and so on."
He also rules out writing predominantly for an Indian audience, observing that the market here is still to evolve.

Binoo K John, who recently wrote the witty Entry From The Backside Only, categorically believes that diaspora writers are still ruling the roost. "All of this year's major releases have all been from NRIs: Jhumpa Lahiri (who got a big award last month for Unaccustomed Earth), Chitra Divakarunni, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie. Diasporic writings have their own place in literature and in IWE. One genre does not grow by stymieing the others. The two genres have parallel lives and why not? In fact diasporic writing has consistently scored over Indian writing (due to advantages of being in the first world)," he says.
Ultimately, one would have to submit to Dilip Chitre's view that only the future can take this story forward.
"The fact that English is a global language, with more speakers between Mumbai and Shanghai than in the entire United States, will sooner or later affect publishers' marketing strategies. The fate of writers may still be decided in London or New York; but the franchisees of publishing corporates operating in vast potential markets such as India will start betting on local talent," he believes.


Ravi said...

IMO, a lot will be decided by something that is only hinted at in your essay: the nature of the publishing industry in terms of the "sophistication" of treating a work of literature as packaged goods that cater to carefully cultivated consumer trends. Whether any serious literature can survive in this climate is a doubtful affair, but it bodes even worse for the budding IWE. Now that the young and unfortunate Kaavya Viswanathan has taken a larger than fair share of public opprobrium, we can glean some deeper insight of the process that led to the publication of her book.

Anonymous said...

I love writers like Ravi Subramanian writer of 'If God Was A Banker' & Brinda Charry writer of 'Naked In The Wind'. They are very Indian though they write English books. I love their work. I visited indiaplaza and found that its organising Goldenquill award and these authors and their books are nominated among the 5 best books, I immediately purchased one of them. I knew i have picked the best book ever and some more are waiting for me. You can find these books at http://www.indiaplaza.in/Goldenquillaward/

sandy said...

Thanks a lot for all that info about authors. Will have to check them out.

Sushumna said...

Hmmm...I think there was always talent in India and there were good books. Fortunately or unfortunately,most of them have been vernacular. Girish Karnad is one of my favorite playwrights. I love Kannada literature. But you see, the limitations lie in the language, more than that, we were exposed to only a few authors/ writers who chose to make English their language to write in. We have not bee exposed to many Indian writers who stay in Indian. Awards like the Indiaplaza Golden Quilland Crossword will make the reading public more aware of all these writers.