Last year was not a bad one for South Asian fiction. Four authors of South Asian origin were on the Booker longlist and the prize was bagged by one of them. But then the Sahitya Akademi struck back: No Indian English book was “found eligible for the honour” of an Akademi award in 2008. 1:0 in favour of bhasha literature (literature in Indian languages)?
Anti-provincial: Rushdie famously dismissed bhasha writers. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
An ungracious controversy has been raging between some writers of bhasha literature and Indian English authors for decades now. On the one side, Indian English authors are accused of being superficial, on the other—most famously by Salman Rushdie—bhasha writers are dismissed as not good enough. Was the Akademi’s decision to ignore Indian English books a consequence of this?
Whatever the reason, this controversy caricatures issues on all sides. It also leaves Indian literature in English out in the cold. For there are Indian literatures in English, not just Indian English literature. The stuff shortlisted for the Booker is decent literature—but often of a certain type, in terms of politics, theme, style, etc. Other kinds of literature are written in English by Indians too. The Sahitya Akademi would have done us a favour by looking at these alternatives to the grand/global narratives of Booker India.
One need not copy the Laurel-Hardy act of Booker-Nobel: fat-thin, bing-bong, topical-forgotten. The Booker tends to go to talented writers who, it seems, are yet to write their best novels. The Nobel is tending to go to talented writers who wrote their best books many years ago. But these are not the only options that the Sahitya Akademi has; no, not in the various nooks and corners of Indian literature in English.
¦ Fashion vs Fanon
My favourite 2008 novel was John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon. Rooted in marginalized African-American experiences (his brother and son are in prison for major crimes), the novel fictionalizes the story of Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). Caribbean-born, educated as a psychiatrist in France, Fanon participated in the Algerian revolution and authored anti-colonial studies such as Black Skin, White Masks. By inserting himself into the text as the narrator, Wideman transposes Fanon’s revolutionary struggle on to contemporary times. The oppression of European colonization, captured in Fanon’s story, is superimposed on the killing fields of Iraq and America’s overflowing prisons. The two illuminate—or rather darken—one another. A raw, risky book. And though the author-narrator claims there is “no way out of this goddamn mess”, the novel—due to its unfashionable courage in narrating the “mess” with unblinking eyes—makes one hope. Fashion: 0. Fanon:1. Finally!
¦ Oxford comma
“Who cares a f*** about the Oxford comma,” sing Vampire Weekend in one of the better songs that made the top charts in 2008. The song was “inspired” by a Columbia University society: Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. Though I buy the John Agard point being guitared by the Afro-pop band, I confess that whenever someone emails 2 me 4 something, I do get anxious about the Oxford comma.
Born in Gaya, Bihar, Tabish Khair is a Denmark-based author whose last book was Filming: A Love Story.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org