The last one I finished reading was Anosh Irani’s Dahanu Road. The 300-odd pages breezed by. It is a meticulously plotted novel about Zairos, an Irani Zoroastrian, and his difficult life in a seemingly idyllic land, a couple of hours away from the heart of Mumbai. The book’s provocative and unsettling backdrop is the historical conflict between Iranis, who once settled in Dahanu, and the Warlis, the land’s original inhabitants. It is a love story in which the silent weight of this history plays out.
Irani’s novel is not the best example of the “mango pickle novel”, but it is one of the few recent ones. These are times of metro fiction.
Out of memory: Aymanam, Kerala, where The God of Small Things is set. Photo: Petra Sonderegger
The nomenclature “mango pickle novel” is unofficial and a bit derogatory. It has been in use, informally, among populist critics and possibly originated after David Davidar’s The House of Blue Mangoes—again, not the best representative of this loosely defined but powerful genre of novels set in rural and small-town India. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (set in Aymanam, Kottayam), Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (set partly in Kalimpong), Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head (Shillong), Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics (Varanasi)—and these are only a few fine examples—are works fuelled by memory. Sights, sounds and stings of an India away from our cities propel and shape these novels.
When an author negotiates characters and realities removed from his or her obvious readers, it is a cultural bridge. English literary fiction still has few takers in small-town India. Fiction set in metros and university campuses can be vibrant and its growth has affirmed the Indian publishing industry’s democratic moment—today, the story of a north Indian business school graduate’s marriage to his south Indian classmate (Two States), written in vapid prose, appeals to readers in Imphal as well to film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj, who wants to adapt the book to cinema with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead role.
The flip side is the dumbing down of fiction writing. Most new published authors from metros write about their immediate reality with little or no imagination. The exceptions, of course, are brilliant—some new authors have reimagined Indian cities in unique, abiding ways. But most English novels today are “coming-of-age” stories which read like resumes in third person (I don’t read them all, but do get to flip through the pages of most. I have edited Lounge’s books pages for four years and review copies arrive on my desk fresh off the press).
Why aren’t more authors writing about small or middle India? Does the big city sell better? Does everything far from it become “the exotic India”? It has been a stamp of our cultural identity in the West ever since the 1950s, and is now a facile, overused stereotype, but “exotic India” does have its merits within the country. It shows the powerful minority which consumes ideas and art, some truth about India at large.
Many friends and acquaintances who are from or have lived in Kerala found The God of Small Things offensive because Roy wrote a heartbreakingly beautiful novel about Kerala’s ugly caste politics and repression. This month, the book’s Malayalam translation by short story writer A.S. Priya was launched in Kochi. “No other translation is as important to me as this,” Roy said. It is the language of Estha, Rahel, Ammu and Velutha, the novel’s central characters. This is the ultimate cultural bridging, which has happened 14 years after the novel was published.
The burden of bridging this gap is entirely on translators—hearteningly, a growing tribe. But we need more English fiction set in Kottayam and Kalimpong. India can’t be lost because of the neon charm of a few cities and B-school campuses.