Home / Opinion / Views /  Our literary fiction written in English has lost its spark

Something is bothering Satyanand Nirupam, even in this moment of Booker triumph. Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi took its first step into the world with Rajkamal Prakashan, the Hindi publishing house where he is the editorial director. A journey that has led to the International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand, Daisy Rockwell’s English translation of Shree’s novel. In the four years since its publication, Nirupam says, Ret Samadhi sold 1,800 copies, less than 500 a year. But within five days of the award, 35,000 copies flew off bookshelves. “To me, it shows that these readers do exist, but for them to wake up, it needed a big institution, a big prize, a big country to celebrate a work. It didn’t happen organically. Unfortunately, not every excellent book we publish will get a prize. And big prizes don’t always know how to reach excellent books," he said.

Success tends to sweep away all questions, but Nirupam is right to hold on to his unease. Prizes bring new readers, new resources and make new connections. But beyond a lavish banquet, it is the daily dal-chaawal-sabzi of an organic literary culture—readers and writers, critics and publishers in honest, critical conversation with each other —that keeps literature alive. It makes space for little magazines and passion projects, allows publishers to spot that unsettling, original voice, pushes readers to discover books that speak to them, and dials down the hyperbole of the publicity machine. Anyone engaged in the work of literature in India in any language—where bookshops struggle to survive, where public libraries are fewer and fewer, where the space for book reviews keeps shrinking—would know how difficult and lonely that task is.

Even so, the prize for Shree-Rockwell is a milestone. About two decades ago, Salman Rushdie, while co-editing an anthology of post-Independence Indian writing, had claimed that the work of “Indian writers in English" entitled India to a place on the map of world literature much more than writing in “regional languages". “One important dimension of literature is that it is a means of holding a conversation with the world. These writers are ensuring that India, or rather, Indian voices … will henceforth be confident, indispensable participants in that literary conversation," wrote Rushdie, sounding embarrassingly like he was putting together a panel discussion at a United Nations high table. As it turned out, in the Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997, only one text translated into English made the cut—by Saadat Hasan Manto. And, as it also turned out, Rushdie’s smugness about the “parochialism" of ‘regional’ literature is now as good as ground to dust.

It’s not only Shree’s Booker that proved his hypothesis wrong. For some years now, the world-conquering armada of Indian writing in English so harrumphed by Rushdie has found itself adrift. In its place is a current of excitement in Indian writing in English about fiction written in other Indian languages—a belated enthusiasm, given how much older the project of translations between Indian languages is. And though they are not the only measure, it is telling that home-grown awards for Indian literary fiction in English have gone to translations in recent years, whether S. Hareesh’s Moustache, M. Mukundan’s Delhi or Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Blue is Like Blue. In many of these works, the expanse of experience, the music of different tongues, the embrace of the strange and the sublime have made the ‘Indian Writing in English’ (IWE) novel, with some very good exceptions, seem too polite and provincial in comparison.

Could this have had something to do with what is seen as the big-bang moment for IWE? The first Indian English novel (Rajmohan’s Wife) was written in 1864, but Midnight’s Children’s publication in 1981 was seen as the original adventure. The world threw a big party for us, even if writers as vastly different as Amit Chaudhuri and Rushdie or Arundhati Roy and Anita Desai were invited. That intoxicating success set the narrow terms of how IWE was evaluated. It set the syllabus: you could attempt one more (in Amit Chaudhuri’s words) “baggy monster" that explains India, or write about upper-class diaspora lives. It created a publishing culture that had one eye on the West’s gatekeepers, where writers, drawn from a narrow privileged pool of metropolitan life, told their stories. In many ways, translations have helped access a bigger imagination, even if some Indian languages get less love than others (Hindi and Gujarati, for example, more than Malayalam and Bengali) and certain texts bear the burden of ‘explaining’ their cultures to the ‘nation’.

For long-time readers of IWE, it is hard not to see the slide, never mind notices about the “next big thing" or talk of “literary supernovas" beloved of the West. Most of us struggle to identify IWE works of the last couple of years that we would love to champion. To a playwright friend, it seemed this was literature that had not found its sur, and was still caught between “European sophistication and desi unruliness". Far too often, writers are caught between a prettified humourless upper-class aesthetic—like an Insta filter that predates Insta filters—or, its opposite, an anthropological curiosity about the Indian underbelly.

That this has coincided with a surge in lit-festing or a generous, uncritical admiration for a fading cluster of star writers, should tell us—even in this celebratory moment for Indian work—that neither fame nor prizes ultimately create writers.

Amrita Dutta is national features editor at Mint

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