Hot new export: prose passages from India

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

India is famous for clothing, tea, and software. But in recent years a new export has arisen: literature.

Maybe it is the exotically flavored prose styles, or the contrasts experienced by literary travelers to strange borders where East meets West. But markets in America and Great Britain have been opening wide to Indian fiction.

V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Arundhati Roy are the best-known authorial trinity.

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Another potential literary star, Pankaj Mishra, has arrived on the scene. "The Romantics," a novel set in the ancient city of Benares and due out this month, earned a $450,000 advance from Random House - the second largest monetary nod for an Indian writer.

Mr. Mishra's tale of growing up in a small Indian town, befriending a circle of wealthy young foreigners, falling in love, losing illusions, and finding one's place follows the classic East-West encounter typified by E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" and Paul Scott's "The Jewel in the Crown." What's different is that this encounter is written by an Indian, and its setting is the 1990s, not the colonial past.

"Western publishers and critics have been growing gradually more and more excited by the voices emerging from India," says author Salman Rushdie, who in 1997 edited the first major collection of Indian writing in the West in two decades, "Mirrorwork."

"Every publisher is looking for the next "God of Small Things," says Tarun Tejpal, Mishra's New Delhi publisher. He is referring to Ms. Roy's benchmark novel, whose "magical realist" style has sold 4 million copies.

"Twenty years ago our best writers weren't given the time of day." says Mr. Tejpal. "Now $100,000 advances are being given on the basis of three chapters and a promise."

Today's Indian-English novelists are often described as more confident than in previous eras when they were writing as transplants abroad or in isolation in South Asia.

Better-known authors like Vikram Seth ("Suitable Boy"), Amitav Ghosh ("Shadow Lines"), and Allan Sealy ("The Everest Hotel") are joined today by names like Raj Kamal Jha ("The Blue Bedspread"), Amit Chaudhuri ("Freedom Song"), Jhumpa Lahiri ("Interpreter of Maladies"), Vikram Chandra ("Love and Longing in Bombay"), Anita Desai ("In Custody") and her daughter Kiran Desai ("Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard") - to name a few.

One common trait is a freshness of eye, critics say. Indian English writers by definition are engaged in translating the complexities of living between the first and third worlds - in voices different from New York or London writers who may be in more comfortable grooves.

Indian English is emerging due in part to the still-strong traditional Western forms of learning, which center on books. "Here, cultural reception is still print," Tejpal says. "We deal with books; we learn language by reading."

As Mr. Mishra puts it, quoting an Indian novelist from the 1930s, "We are trying to convey in a language that is not one's own, a spirit that is one's own."

Mishra himself played a midwifing role in the '90s boom: As an editor at HarperCollins, he discovered a then unknown Arundhati Roy in 1995.

In one way or another, most of the Indian-English fiction deals with the problem of identity. It derives from a world where, as a South Asian, one moves seamlessly from airport to horsecart and back.

At the end of Mishra's "The Romantics," Samar, the main character, returns to the ancient city of Benares. He visits an old friend - Miss West - who is leaving India after 25 years. In her house, where he fell in love with a dazzling French girl, first heard about American jazz and rock, and listened to breathless discussions about spirituality - he now finds only bare walls.

Gone are "All the photographs from Miss West's past, the pictures that had once given me such a wounding sense of faraway unattainable worlds, that had stirred so many inadequacies and yearnings in me."

"The East-West encounter has defined this country more than anything else in the past 150 years," argues the slightly built Mishra, who wears a tight-fitting Himchal cap. "You can't escape it - it is part of who we are. The problem is, we like to pretend it isn't true, which creates a split in us. As the world globalizes further, that split is becoming more pronounced."

In this sense, Mishra's characters tread near the darker psychological modalities found in the work of Trinidad-born Naipaul, an ethnic Indian whom Mishra admires. Mishra's India is often a world of corrupt and petty officials and unloving family members - though it is also a place of great beauty.

"The problem is one of identity and self, and the limited means people in a developing country have for emerging out of those smaller identities," Mishra continues. "It is often overwhelming. In a complex and strange way, partly due to the past, Indians are being made and unmade in ways we aren't even aware of."

Mishra's earlier book, "Butter Chicken In Ludhiana," is a brilliant but sneering tour of his own small-town Indian roots. Today Mishra confides that he no longer feels "so superior." His new work is more generous and sympathetic, he feels.

In Mishra's East-West encounter, finally, the hope comes from an affirmation of a clear identity for individuals, despite their losses. He refers to Naipaul's "A House for Mr. Biswas," which some Indian writers argue is one of the great novels of the 20th century.

"In that novel you have a clear vision," says Mishra. "A group of people come to an island. There is a rising out of centuries of darkness and ignorance.... They try to build and create something new and good - but fail. That is the colonial story. But what's unsaid and relevant is that you have built for another day."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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