I remember a story from 1994 that I now suspect may have been apocryphal. On winning the WH Smith Literary Award for his tour de force published the previous year, A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth was heard remarking that he was very pleased, especially since he had never heard of the Smith Literary Award before. I read this, not in The Times of India or the handful of other news publications to which my household subscribed, but in a small, Delhi-based children’s publication called Newsjoy, to which I frequently contributed poems and brief political commentary. I was 10 years old.
I recount this to demonstrate how ubiquitous, in 1994, the celebrity of Seth was. A year previously, he had been a poet, the author of a Tibetan travelogue and a Pushkin-inspired novel in verse—not exactly the stuff of which Indian idols are made. Now, he was drawing comparisons with Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy for his 1,500-page family drama.
Almost more interestingly, he appeared to be making a lot of money from writing.
It seems inaccurate to say that the literary 1990s in India were marked by a consuming interest in wealth, because money is always interesting to everybody. But we can say with certainty that riches and fame converged on literature to a degree previously undreamt of. In an essay published earlier this year, writer and editor Urvashi Butalia pointed out that the 1990s were witness to our first real explosion in trade publishing, in a market that until then had been dominated by educational material.
Unlike the 2000s, in which Indian-language publishing has come to dominate two-thirds of the market, in the 1990s English publishing made up almost half the Indian market. And foreign publishers, allowed in for the first time thanks to economic reforms, paid unprecedented attention to Indian writers in English.
Seth received an advance of £250,000 (around Rs 1.8 crore now) for A Suitable Boy; this, like the overwhelming size of the book (1,350 pages in Penguin India’s paperback edition), became its mark of recognition for many, and generated vast excitement in the national media, whose own state of growth may remind us of what Martin Amis acidly remarked of Britain in the 1980s, when the newspapers, “running out of adulterous golfers and alcoholic movie stars and rapist boxers to write about, discovered that they were reduced to writing about writers.”
It may have escaped broader notice that more people than ever were also talking about Seth’s work. Seth would go on to produce only one more novel during the 1990s (An Equal Music; 400 pages, advance: £500,000), but it was the decade when he, and Indian English fiction, earned a reputation—a critical reputation—by whose measure they continue to be judged, at home and in the world.
None of the writers Seth joined in the higher altitudes of Indian English writing had sprung fully formed into the decade. Amitav Ghosh and Rohinton Mistry (1991 Booker Prize-winner for Such A Long Journey) had both produced acclaimed books in the 1980s, and Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai’s literary gifts, it could be argued, had achieved their fullness by 1990.
In the following years, these writers became representatives of a perhaps monolithic “Indian” literature in English abroad, as well as participants in a global literature—also in English. At home, they became cultural explainers, keepers of public memory, inspirational figures—and celebrities.
Path-breaking: Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997. Virendra Singh/Hindustan Times
In spite of the vacuousness of some of the attention they received (one of the highlights of 1999’s literary coverage, even in Newsjoy, was the “Rushdie versus Seth” showdown, manufactured because they both published novels about music that year), it was remarkable how broad their collective scope was.
Perhaps the only experience all these writers had in common, was that they had all lived and worked outside India; each, in his and her uniquely elegant way, was an internationalist, as comfortable in India as he or she was in Egypt or London or North America. This quality also created a conversation, and I’m afraid an echo chamber, about diaspora and globalization in Indian writing; one of the era’s anxieties was the feeling that great writing, talked-about writing in Indian English, was only happening elsewhere.
But “Why not have two mother tongues, or if possible, 11 mother tongues?” the bilingual, mercurial Kiran Nagarkar asked in an interview. Nagarkar had written an attention-grabbing first novel as far back as 1973—the Marathi Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes are Forty-Three). 1994’s electrifying Ravan & Eddie, his first—and at the time, severely underrated—English novel, remains as great a depiction of Mumbai life as ever committed to the page in English.
Nagarkar’s reputation was really to flower at the start of the following decade, when his acclaimed novel Cuckold created such a sensation that it made news even of its Sahitya Akademi award—not typically the most publicized of literature’s baubles. Unlike the others, he was no internationalist. The register of his voice, even in his unexceptionable, non-chutneyfied English, was resonantly, and solely, Indian. The dilemmas that writers like him addressed, of writing in both an oppressive language and a unifying one, remained central. My professors and I would still be worrying over these questions in English class, years into the next decade.
So if not Nagarkar and his peers, who were the new figures added to the highbrow oligopoly of the 1990s? This, the decade of India’s international beauty pageant glory and superhit films about bhangra-dancing non-resident Indians, also brought us a memorable handful of prize winners, future prize winners, prize nominees and prizes which, like Seth, we had never heard of.
No one personified, and publicly detested the consequences of this marriage of art and glamour more than Arundhati Roy. In the years following a brilliant literary debut (The God of Small Things, 1997) and the plaudits it received, Roy, now a political essayist with an extreme disinclination for the frivolities of the novel-reading classes, stated on record—several times—that she was only too happy to quash the Indian bourgeoisie’s dreams of her as a poster girl for their kind, a “pretty girl who wrote a book”.
Published at an opportune moment in the country’s public life, the novel and her Booker Prize also established an inconvenient relationship between Roy and the people who would go on to become her readers. I can personally vouch for the country’s coterminous awakening to anarcho- capitalism; my much-read copy of The God of Small Things, bought in 1998, is still the pirated paperback a hawker smuggled to me at a traffic signal. We might argue that Roy, like Pankaj Mishra, who published his first book (the travelogue Butter Chicken in Ludhiana) in 1992, still writes against that decade, when new problems began to require a new social criticism.
Other debutants became major voices which would grow, change and produce important fiction well into the new century: Amit Chaudhuri wrote A Strange and Sublime Address in 1991; Anita Desai’s daughter, Kiran, would publish Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard in 1998; and 1994’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain still competes with Vikram Chandra’s own later work for the status of his best novel.
These writers, two decades later, still console the ambitious parents of Indians determined to take literature degrees. Their children may lack worldliness, but like Roy, who now refuses to write for their class, they might give them the pleasure of both a book and a Booker.
As with software engineers, it grows less and less important for writers to migrate in order to find work. But here, I may be getting ahead of the story. The efflorescence of the 2000s now lends the 1990s the retrospective glamour of the film industry in the era of big studios: We can worship their product without finding it desirable to go back to their methods of production. The template of fame has altered and expanded to accommodate, among other things, more women writers, more translations, more non-traditional media, and more publishing houses. (The riches, it is reported, have also made their way to one or two).
Calendars are so unrelentingly full these days that it seems simultaneously impossible, and totally probable, that a writer, on accepting a lucrative award, confesses that she has never heard of it before.