Hot new export: prose passages from India
(Page 2 of 2)
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."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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