Just as it has taken Indian democracy the best part of 60 years to activate the social and political energies of a majority of its citizens, including many traditionally disenfranchised groups, similarly, it might be said, it has taken Indian literature in English (which is a few decades older than Indian democracy) a very long time to achieve a density and diversity equal to the social and linguistic energies available to it.
Chandrahas Choudhury, Lounge’s book critic and author of ‘Arzee the Dwarf’, is violently allergic to the word ‘best-seller’
A great deal more needs to be done before this literature, which for the most part speaks from, and for, metropolitan India, can be said to be truly representative in the social sense and truly independent in the linguistic, aesthetic and philosophical sense. Yet, looking back at the last decade, one might say that the progress report is mostly encouraging. It is encouraging for the simple reason that a literature comes of age not when it has produced three or four great novels, but when it reliably throws up a number of very good ones regularly, and when a high percentage of what comes through meets a certain quality standard. Further, for a literature to be considered mature, the place of readers cannot be underestimated.
Any vibrant literature requires a sizeable number of discerning readers who not only follow the work of writers but are in some sense in advance of them, and whose impatience with sterile forms and stories creates an atmosphere of ferment and ambition where distinctive personal visions and bold new energies can exercise their spirits. Again, from the publishing side, a literature appears mature when it is not just one or two big presses that control what is published, distributed and consumed, but when a wide array of publishing agendas and interests compete for the attention of readers, and a large pool of talent is available to make good books better through the processes of good editing, production, design, and astute publicity. If we take all these as indicative guidelines, Indian literature in English has certainly become a much bigger, brighter place in the last 10 years: the first decade in which it has truly been part of a globalized world.
The typical first-time novelist or short-story writer in English today is much less self-conscious in his or her approach to the language than, say, two decades ago, and much more sure of his or her audience. In a multicultural and globalizing world, in the age of the Internet and with easy access to a hospitable market, Indian writers are also likely to be from more diverse backgrounds than previously, and to have a far wider range of narrative and aesthetic influences across mediums, from novels to films to music to comic books.
Writers of popular fiction and genre fiction have greatly expanded the size of the audience interested in what fiction has to say about their world. Yet literary novelists need feel no embarrassment or rejection at selling in lower numbers, insofar as the reader they have in mind is someone who, like them, comes to a book with a certain kind of ambition and a love for original language. More than any other art form, the novel at its best makes enormous demands of its readers in holding together a set of continuously evolving perceptions about individuals, families, society, politics, economics, gender and sex, language, form, plot, structure, motif, symbol and register. Novels are inherently not a mass product, as, say, movies are. It is to the credit of Indian readers that most writers today consider their efforts validated when they are read well, confidently, perceptively, by a sizeable home audience, and think of arrival on best-seller lists or publication in other English-speaking markets as agreeable bonuses, to be enjoyed if they occur but not regretted if they don’t.
Lit up: A flaming bar at the launch of Eunuch Park by Palash Krishna Mehrotra. Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint
People who complain that Indian writing in English is a high-end social club or a clique controlled by a core group of insiders in Delhi are, it seems to me, sometimes guilty themselves for not making the effort to see what a big and roomy place this literature really is. In addition to the older houses that publish fiction, like Penguin, Rupa, HarperCollins, Picador, Roli, Orient Longman, Zubaan, Katha and Stree, this decade has seen the arrival of three major new players in Random House, Westland Books/Tranquebar and Hachette, all of them fairly hospitable to new writers. There is often good new work to be found in literary journals such as The Little Magazine and Sahitya Akademi’s bimonthly journal Indian Literature. Indeed, to look at the contributors’ notes in the latter journal is to come across a multitude of mostly unfamiliar names working away at English stories, poems or translations from small cities or towns or from the refuge of universities, and almost never standing to gain anything financially for their efforts. There is also excellent work to be found in three online literary journals, or “webzines”: Almost Island, Muse India and the bilingual journal Pratilipi, each with a distinctive literary vision and high editorial standards. Tehelka now rounds off every year with a fiction special issue; Lounge has place for a poem by an Indian poet every weekend; and from the new year, the monthly magazine Caravan will carry fiction and poetry in every issue. If there is a complaint to be made about Indian literature today, it is that bookshops, especially the big chains, don’t stock a wide enough range of books and do not have a book-literate management and staff, and that newspapers and magazines have for the most part not established a reviewing culture equal, in commitment to craft and attention to detail, to the literature to which it constitutes a response.
One side of the story of Indian fiction in English in the last decade has been the emergence of a new generation of novelists such as Altaf Tyrewala, Anjum Hasan and Aravind Adiga, and short-story writers such as Jahnavi Barua, Mridula Koshy and Aseem Kaul, even as established presences such as Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Allan Sealy, Amit Chaudhuri and Githa Hariharan keep up literary production of high calibre. The other equally important but less well-publicized side is the emergence, even if in small numbers, of a genuinely satisfying Indian literature in translation. A group of skilled and ambitious translators such as Arunava Sinha, Gita Krishnankutty, Lakshmi Holmstrom, Sukanta and Supriya Chaudhuri, Sampurna Chattarji, Sudarshan Purohit, Aatish Taseer, Nikhil Khandekar and Robert Hueckstedt are expanding and invigorating Indian literary English with the rhythms and cadences of other Indian tongues, and greatly extending the range of Indian worlds, cultures and individuals whose inner experience and imagination is now available to the interested English reader. Indeed, one of the great world publishing projects of this decade was solely devoted to Indian literature in translation: the 60 or so volumes of classical Sanskrit literature, ranging across epic, lyric, drama and story, published in English in the US under the series titled The Clay Sanskrit Library.
(Left) Amitav Ghosh and Aravind Adiga.
This account of a thriving field may explain why, although my remit for this paper is to cover literature in general and Indian literature in particular, I find myself struggling to keep pace with the energetic object of my interest (especially since so much good work is also coming out in the realm of Indian non-fiction). Yet, in tracking it over this decade, from being a university student in the early years to work as a book reviewer across the middle to the publication of my own first novel this year, I have never considered my youth to be anything less than well-spent. The weekly trip to the Lounge office in Dadar in Mumbai to check on what new books have come in and lay claim to the best ones before anyone else can is never a trudge (even if the atrocious coffee makes leaving fairly easy). How will the next 10 years turn out? Some say that, in our technological revolution, the very idea of a book as we know it may be in crisis, so it is hard then to throw darts at where Indian literature may be headed. Ten years from now, someone else will take the story forward.