First-time women writers dominated the literary fiction landscape in India this year
They won prizes, appeared on shortlists, and published thematically daring books challenging patriarchal assumptions and political realities
It may seem superfluous to fuss about literary fiction and its fate in the fractious political climate Indians are living in, but the genre has, since its inception, held a mirror to social change, capturing truths that slip through the cracks of hardwired non-fiction. This year, in particular, has witnessed the triumph of women debut novelists. A series of powerful books by them have disrupted the familiar landscape of English-language publishing in India, usually filled with established names and stars. Thematically daring, crafted with precision and forging distinctive linguistic registers, these books help us experience our political and social realities more keenly. They also capture the collective desires and despairs that complicate our engagement with the India we are living in at the moment.
The most remarkable among these fresh voices is the Bengaluru-born Madhuri Vijay, whose first novel, The Far Field, won the JCB Prize for Literature 2019, India’s richest literary prize, and featured on other shortlists. Moving between Bengaluru and Jammu and Kashmir, the novel feels poignant, especially in light of the turmoil that has been unleashed since the Centre effectively revoked Article 370 of the Constitution in August.
The Far Field, as Vijay told Lounge earlier this year, “began from a kernel of rage" against the injustice inflicted by the Indian state on generations of Kashmiris. But the political thrust of the narrative is offset by strong characters. People whose inner lives are scarred and unmoored come vividly alive in her luminous prose. An alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the US, Vijay says her publishing experience as a first-time writer was largely positive, “with a few exceptions".
Rahul Soni, senior commissioning editor of HarperCollins India’s literary list, who published Vijay, mentions three key elements that are essential for a convincing fiction debut: “A strong voice, strong writing, and a strong story". “It is, of course, a risk to publish debut writers—they need to be backed by strong marketing and sales, and award nominations help too," he says. But, above all, the books must have intrinsic strengths to find their readers, Soni believes, “whether immediately, or over the course of months, or sometimes in a year or two". “That is what I look for, rather than chasing trends or themes, or focusing on the writer’s gender or region," he says.
In the last few months, Soni’s list has featured at least two other stellar debuts by women writers, Avni Doshi’s Girl In White Cotton (2019) and Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes Of Longing (2018). Written over seven years and through as many drafts, the former tells the story of a mother and daughter who are locked in an abrasive, often intransigent, relationship. There’s lingering affection and a close bond between them, but also ancient jealousies and mutual recrimination.
In an article in Elle, Doshi wrote about her struggle with the book after finishing a quick first draft over a month. “Humility entered as soon as I started editing a few months later, and faced the mediocrity of what I had written," she wrote. “Anxiety, obsession and self-loathing followed. I stopped sleeping, endlessly stared into space, and didn’t leave my house for weeks. I felt certain I would never be able to send my novel into the world, and yet it was all I could think about."
Coping with self-doubt and dejection is a staple of the writing life. These feelings may affect debut writers with even sharper ferocity, but never wane from the careers of seasoned authors either. “Writing doesn’t get easier," said John le Carré, the author of dozens of best-sellers. “Every novel is a first novel." The road to getting a first book out can be especially treacherous terrain. This is a well-worn truth and hasn’t lost its edge even in the age of professional agents and editors, who offer their services to fix manuscripts and pitch them to potential publishers.
Amrita Mahale, who published her debut novel, Milk Teeth, with Westland last year, is still finding herself in shortlists of prizes this year. She says her manuscript was rejected by 13 agents—before she sent it to two publishers directly, through the intervention of friends. Luckily, both made offers. “Publishers saw the potential in it and were willing to place a bet that they could help me fix the parts that were not working," she says. “Agents probably did not see the value in investing time and effort in an unknown writer."
Set in Bombay in the 1990s, before the city became Mumbai, Milk Teeth tells the story of a community of Goud Saraswat Brahmins living in Matunga, a quiet downtown neighbourhood. A story of love and friendship pivots the plot, as well as one of bitter deception, but it is Mahale’s gift for capturing the spirit of a lost era that shines through. The richly imagined microcosm of Milk Teeth reveals the changing face of the city and its real-estate boom. It also depicts the consequences of economic liberalization on the newly-moneyed middle class.
It’s easy to miss the wider currents churning in the close-knit universe of Mahale’s novel and not give her enough credit for its ambitions. This seems to be the case with another striking debut novel this year as well—The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee, published by Penguin Random House India. Like Vijay, Mukherjee has a master’s in fine arts. Her prose occasionally has a whiff of the careful cadence of workshopped writing, but her theme is richly adventurous nonetheless.
Unfolding in an imaginary Indian city called Suryam, The Body Myth feels sinister and claustrophobic, revolving around Mira, a young widow, and her relationship with a couple, Rahil and Sara. Once again, through a ringside view into an intimate situation—a ménage à trois, in this case—Mukherjee opens a window to what it means to be a single woman in contemporary India, and the evolving dynamics of the institution of modern marriage.
Publishing the book wasn’t a seamless experience though. Mukherjee began her career as a writer of short stories, and when she finally finished a novel, after a series of failed and aborted attempts, she was met with rejection from all around. “In the West, it was hard because the book didn’t cater to exotic India," she says. “In India, a couple of agents told me it would not sell here." Ultimately, her perseverance paid off. For all its bold exploration of marital dynamics, the book has garnered critical acclaim.
“In spite of the relatively small and indifferent market for literary fiction in India, I am struck by the confidence that these women have brought to their writing," says Karthika V.K., publisher of Westland, referring to the notable debuts of 2019. “Each of them is finished in their own ways, their writing is so mature, they could be anywhere in the world."
While periodic injection of new talent is needed to shake up the hierarchy of literary publishing in India, it isn’t easy to overcome the baggage of a very different first book attached to an aspiring literary fiction writer’s reputation.
“My first book, Mafia Queens Of Mumbai, was a work of non-fiction about 13 female gangsters, which I had co-authored with S. Hussain Zaidi," says Jane Borges, who has just published her debut novel, Bombay Balchão, with Westland. “For the longest time, everyone thought I was best at writing about crime. So I got pigeonholed as a crime expert."
When her agent, Anish Chandy of the Labyrinth Literary Agency, approached her, he too was hoping she would write another book about crime. But, thankfully, the plot of Bombay Balchão, a charming portrait of the Catholic community in the city, resonated with him, as it did with publishers. There were a few editorial issues, especially since the theme is rather niche, but those were ironed out over a few drafts. “My challenge was less about getting the book published, but being seen as a writer who wanted to try fiction that is literary and not commercial," says Borges.
Outgrowing perceptions, especially expectations set by the market, is hard enough. It’s harder still for women writers, who tend to get labelled by the patriarchal cultural machinery as purveyors of certain soft genres like romance.
In an article in The Observer on a new book, Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories Of Our Lives by Helen Taylor, Johanna Thomas-Corr lays out the biases. About 80% of buyers of fiction in the UK, US and Canada are women. A large number of men remain resistant to reading fiction written by women. Some harbour a sniggering condescension towards the overall enterprise of writing fiction, considering it inferior to the worthier aims of non-fiction. Although publishing statistics in the Indian market are difficult to ascertain, the big picture isn’t any different there either.
Even when concessions are made to fiction by male readers, it is the male writers who seem to be taken more seriously. “The novel of ideas, politics, climate change—such adjectives are much easier to come by when describing works by men," says Swarup. “Whereas women write the poetic, not political, they write about emotions, not ideas, and they write about nature, not climate change."
Perceptions like these are also perpetuated by the marketing and sales strategies of publishers. “In general, women writers, no matter where they come from, will be read mostly by women. Even on a marketing level, publishers know a woman literary fiction writer will sell mostly to women or be validated by them," says Mukherjee. Then there are other burdens to reckon with sometimes. “In India, I have had many men ask me weird questions trying to figure out if the book I wrote was based on my life. This is something I did not feel with my US readers—there seems to be a more evolved understanding of what fiction can be and do," she says, referring to the subject of The Body Myth, which challenges heteronormative sexuality.
“It is not a coincidence that the #MeToo movement and the recent success of female authors have occurred within a similar time frame," Swarup adds. “I have faced severe levels of stalking and harassment during my research trips, so much so that I had to return home prematurely as I wasn’t safe alone any more."
If life is tough for an unpublished writer struggling to get their first book out, it is tougher still for women embarked on the mission. Swarup points out the many unthinking privileges that male writers and the literary ecosystem largely take for granted. “For example, Avni, Madhuri and I are all young mothers. How many writers’ residencies are you aware of that allow mothers along with their infants? I have relied heavily on residencies for creative work—those avenues have considerably shrunk now (for me)," she says. “I had to turn down some invitations to literary festivals as well because they don’t have provisions for a nursing mother, or of bringing along a caregiver."
The creative challenges of writing get spoken about a lot. But the far less visible aspect of the business is the condition under which such labours are undertaken, and the ways in which social, economic and gender biases influence the result. For India’s literary community, a more equitable playing field for women writers should be a key resolution for 2020.