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Hot new export: prose passages from India

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2000


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

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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.

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."