A compelling writing on Indian Sub-Continent and its widespread diasporas' literary activities in English language can be found from William Dalrymple's well articulated article published in The Guardian.
Here is an interesting observation by the writer of "White Mughals": "There is even a relative absence of genuinely accessible, well-written and balanced general histories of India. The most widely available introductions to the subject - the two Penguin Histories by Romila Thapar and Percival Spear - are both fine, scholarly works, but pretty heavy-going. This as much as anything else, I think, has allowed Hindu nationalist myths to replace history among a large part of India's middle-class, who are keen consumers of desi fiction, but still have surprisingly little home-grown history to interest them."
The Lost Sub-Continent
Seven years ago, publishers descended on Delhi in search of the next Arundhati Roy. But, writes William Dalrymple, the future Anglophone Indian bestsellers are more likely to come from the west
Saturday August 13, 2005
There is a wonderfully telling line in Mira Nair's movie Monsoon Wedding: as the Verma family gathers from across the globe for a marriage, the heroine announces that she has applied for a creative-writing programme in America. Her businessman uncle nods approvingly: "Lots of money in writing these days," he says sagely. "Look at that girl who won the Booker: she became a millionaire overnight."
If it was the literary merit of Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things, that made the greatest impression on readers and critics in the west, it is fair to say that it was the size of her advance- more than $1 million in total - that made the most impression in Delhi. India has always had an enviable glut of talented writers; what has been much rarer, until recently, have been Indian writers who have been properly remunerated for their work (or indeed widely read outside India). The Robert Frost line - "There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money" - used to be true of even the most successful South Asian authors: the letters of the greatest of all Urdu poets, Mirza Ghalib, are full of endless worries as to whether he could pay his bills or afford to drink his beloved firangi wine.
Either way, Roy's international critical and commercial success in 1997 radically changed perceptions of Indian writing in English, and not just in Delhi. Roy's book was immediately recognised as a major literary achievement: it won the Booker and sat at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months: by the end of 1997 it had sold no less than four million copies in two dozen languages.
There quickly followed a major publishing feeding-frenzy: international literary agents and publishers descended on India from London and New York, signing up a whole tranche of authors, many of whom received major advances for outlines of novels they had barely begun. Picador launched a list exclusively devoted to Indian writing in 1998; the office was soon buried under an avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts. Throughout the late 1990s, barely a month went by without the news of some fledgling scribbler being discovered lurking as a sub-editor on the Indian Express or pushing papers in the Ministry of External Affairs.
Several other writers had of course prepared the ground for this success. Roy could not have happened without VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth: in particular Rushdie's 1981 masterpiece Midnight's Children liberated Indian writing in English from its colonial straitjacket. It also gave birth to a new voice, one that was exuberantly magical, cosmopolitan and multicultural, full of unexpected cadences, as well as forms that were new to the English novel but deeply rooted in Indian traditions of storytelling. It won the Booker, as did Nai-paul's Bend in the River. Then, in 1993, Seth produced his massive - and magnificent - A Suitable Boy. Rushdie's prediction that "Indians were in a position to conquer English literature" seemed about to be vindicated.
That same year Pico Iyer wrote a widely quoted Time Magazine cover story, "The Empire Writes Back", in which he noted that: "Where not long ago a student of the English novel would probably have been weaned on Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley, now he will more likely be taught Rushdie and Okri and Mo - which is fitting in an England where many students' first language is Urdu. The shelves of English bookstores are becoming as noisy and polyglot and many-hued as the English streets. The English language is being revolutionised from within. Hot spices are entering English, and tropical birds and sorcerers; readers who are increasingly familiar with sushi and samosas are now learning to live with molue buses and manuku hedges."
More than a decade later, however, it has to be said that there is a slight sense of disappointment in Delhi. According to David Davidar, the founding editor of Penguin India, who did much to kick-start the Indian publishing boom, after the excitement of the 1990s, the situation has, as he diplomatically puts it, "stabilised". There are many interesting books still being produced, many fine authors at work, and there is still the odd thrill as news breaks of another new talent being snapped up and translated into a dozen languages - most recently a civil servant named Vikas Swarup (indeed, the sheer number of Indian civil servants who appear to be working on novels might be one reason why the Indian bureaucracy still churns so slowly). As far as prizes are concerned, since Roy, we have had Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Monica Ali on the Booker shortlist, Jhumpa Lahiri winning the Pulitzer; while off the prize-piste there have been two exceptionally brilliant novels by Hari Kunzru (The Impressionist and Transmission) and a fine book each from Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu) and Nadeem Aslam (Maps for Lost Lovers
The truth is, however, that since 1997 there has been no new galaxy of stars emerging to match the stature of those of the 1980s and 90s. Many of the Indian novelists who were signed up with such excitement 10 years ago failed to repay even a fraction of their advances. The only Indian-themed book to win the Booker - The Life of Pi - was written by Yann Martel, a white Canadian. In India itself, there is no new internationally acclaimed masterpiece, no new Roy.
That said, Roy always was rather different from her contemporaries. When I interviewed her before the publication of The God of Small Things, she noted as much herself: "I don't feel part of a pack," she said. "I grew up on the banks of a river in Kerala. I spent every day from the age of three fishing, walking, thinking, always alone. If you read other Indian writers most of them are very urban: they don't have much interest in, you know, air or water. They all went from the Doon School [the Indian Eton] to St Stephen's [the Indian Oxford] and then on to Cambridge. Most of those who are called Indian writers don't even live here: Rushdie, Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Mistry: they're all abroad, while I've never lived anywhere except India."
Roy fingered what is without doubt the strangest aspect of the renaissance of Indian writing in English: the extraordinary degree to which, at least at its highest levels, it is now almost entirely written by the diaspora. As far as writing in English is concerned, not one of the Indian literary A-list actually lives in India, except Roy, and she seems to have given up writing fiction. It is not just that the diaspora tail is wagging the Indian dog. As far as the A-list is concerned, the diaspora tail is the dog.
In one sense, of course, this doesn't matter: the great Dublin novel, Ulysses, was written in Trieste, and whatever problems subsequent readers have had with the book, no one has ever suggested that James Joyce's Dublin was any less authentic for having been written in Italy. Indeed, distance can be helpful for writers trying to percolate their thoughts about place: many of the most famous Australian writers now live outside Australia - Peter Carey, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes all have home addresses in London or New York; and there is a similar pattern with many of the best Arab writers - Amin Malouf and Tahar Ben Jalloun live in Paris, Hanan al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif in London, Assia Djebar and (until his death last year) Edward Said in America.
It is true that in India there has been some sniping about the haute bourgeoisie origins of this literary diaspora, and some questioning as to what a bunch of Indian public schoolboys living in London and New York really know about the less romantic side of the daily struggle for life in India. A few years ago, one Indian critic, M Prabha, wrote an entire book dismissing the whole movement of Indian writing in English as The Waffle of the Toffs (as she named her silly if amusingly vitriolic book), while the writer and critic Pankaj Mishra has attacked what he called the "slickly exilic version of India", manufactured by a "cosmopolitan Third World elite ... suffused with nostalgia, interwoven with myth, and often weighed down with a kind of intellectual simplicity foreign readers are rarely equipped to notice".
There is, however, a strong suspicion of double standards inherent in this repeated charge of diaspora inauthenticity. Western writers can go off and live in self-imposed exile abroad without being called deracinated or out of touch with their countries of origin: think of Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess in Monte Carlo, Gore Vidal in Ravello, Christopher Isherwood in LA, Hemingway and many others in Paris, Nabokov in America and Switzerland, even Philip Roth for a time in London; but when an Indian writer goes away he is somehow regarded as suspect, and charged with making a living out of his exotic upbringing while actually living in the great urban centres of the west. As Rushdie once asked: Was Picasso deracinated when he drew inspiration from African masks? If not, then why should an African be regarded as deracinated when he draws inspiration from Picasso?
Nevertheless, the sheer scale of this diaspora of India does remain an odd phenomenon. From the 1890s through to the 1930s, most English-speaking readers received their notions of India through the mediation of British-based writers such as Rudyard Kipling or EM Forster. That briefly changed between the 1940s and 1970s with the rise of Mulk Raj Anand, Ahmed Ali and RK Narayan, deeply rooted writers who really lived and breathed the air of the India they wrote about. But by the 1980s, London again became the place of mediation with the rise of Rushdie and his ilk - except that New York (the residence of Ghosh, Gita Mehta and Lahiri), Toronto (Mistry and Michael Ondaatje) and even rural Wiltshire (home to Naipaul and Seth) now had to be added to the major centres of Indian writing in English.
All of which is, in many ways, fine: great writing is great writing wherever it is produced, and literary merit has never been dependent on your home address - except that for those of us who live in India, it is in some ways a surprisingly quiet place in terms of its English-language literary life: one tends to meet far more Indian writers in English at the literary festival of Hay-on-Wye, deep in the Welsh countryside, or Edinburgh or even Sydney, than one ever does in Delhi. For a place supposed to be at the eye of the postcolonial literary hurricane, it is all a little, well, peaceful.
This is a huge contrast to the situation during the last great literary renaissance in the city, 150 years ago. Farhatullah Baig's Dehli ki Akhri Shama, The Last Musha'irah of Dehli is a fictionalised account of what purports to be the last great mushairah or poetic symposium held in Delhi under the patronage of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar: around a courtyard sit several poet princes of the royal house, as well as 40 other Delhi poets, including Azurda, Momin, Arif, Bedil, Azad, Dagh, Sehbai, Shefta, Mir and Ghalib himself. Much of the detail of this mushairah may have been invented, but this stellar gathering of poetic talent could have happened. In a Delhi whose population was then little more 100,000, you could still find a gathering of 45 poets, at least 10 of whom are still widely read and admired today.
Nor was this just an elite pursuit: The Garden of Poetry, a collection of Urdu verse (or tazkirah) published in 1850, contains no less than 53 poets from Delhi who range from the emperor and members of his family to a poor water-seller in Chandni Chowk, a merchant in Panjabi Katra, a young wrestler, a courtesan and a barber. Seth and Lahiri may have a more international audience than Momin or Mir Taqi Mir ever did; but one can't help thinking that, at least as far as Delhi is concerned, something has been lost in the trade-off.
There is also the important question of how far Indian writers in English have to compromise if they are writing primarily for a firangi audience. After all, the market in India itself, while growing fast, is still tiny: most books sell less than 1,000 copies and even 5,000 copies can make you a bestseller; therefore to make a living as an Indian writer in English you have to crack the British and American markets and that can mean serious compromises.
Rushdie vigorously resisted all attempts to constrain the Hindi words in his novels within italics; Roy was also very brave in this respect, making it quite clear that she would not obey her foreign editors' injunctions to explain Indian words: Updike didn't explain baseball for an Indian audience, she said, and she was damned if she was going to explain the ways of Kerala to a Manhattan audience - they could take it or leave it. Other, newer writers, however, have had less leverage to resist such pressure and one often comes across tell-tale passages in Indian novels in English that explain, for example, that dal is a confection of lentils fried in garlic.
The other odd absence from the English-language literary scene in India has been the startling lack of any biography, narrative history or indeed any serious literary non-fiction of any description. Earlier this year, Suketu Mehta published what is without doubt the best travel book published by an Indian author in recent years: Maximum City, his remarkable study of Bombay. But Mehta's achievement only highlights the absence of any real competition, for with the notable exceptions of Naipaul and Pankaj Mishra, and one book each by Seth and Ghosh, there are no other Indian travel writers.
The situation with history is even more dire. Although brilliant young Indian historians such as Sanjay Subramaniam produce many excellent specialist essays and learned academic studies, it is still impossible, for example, to go into a bookshop in Delhi and buy an up-to-date and accessible biography of any of India's pre-colonial rulers, even of the most obvious ones such as Akbar or Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Why is it that much the most popular biography of Mrs Gandhi was by Katherine Frank, an American living in England, and the most authoritative study of Hindu nationalism by a Frenchman, Christophe Jaffrelot? Why are there no Indian authors writing this sort of thing better than us firangi interlopers?
There is even a relative absence of genuinely accessible, well-written and balanced general histories of India. The most widely available introductions to the subject - the two Penguin Histories by Romila Thapar and Percival Spear - are both fine, scholarly works, but pretty heavy-going. This as much as anything else, I think, has allowed Hindu nationalist myths to replace history among a large part of India's middle-class, who are keen consumers of desi fiction, but still have surprisingly little home-grown history to interest them.
In India, with the exceptions of the cricket historian Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India (who has now decamped to Washington) - there is simply nothing like that. What English language non-fiction there is seems to be written by academics for the consumption of a handful of other, rival academics.
As for the future, there is at least a lot of writing going on. The Indian superstars of the 80s and 90s - the Rushdies, the Ghoshs, the Seths and Chandras, the Mistrys - are still in their 40s or 50s and presumably have at least another 20 years of great books in them. Most are still at the height of their powers, and developing in a fascinating way: look at the spectacular way Ghosh's work has grown and matured since The Circle of Reason. Most still visit India very frequently, still think of themselves as Indian (or at least as hyphenated Indians: Indian-Americans, British-Indians and so on), and some may even move back here when they come to give up their day jobs - in contrast to previous generations of emigrants who usually left India for good.
Every year Penguin India produces nearly 100 new books, and this year there looks like being at least one major novel in the pipeline: Inheritance of Loss by New York-based Kiran Desai. And then of course there is the great Elephant in the Living Room that is so often ignored in discussion of Indian writing in English: the whole wider universe of Indian vernacular writers, especially in Hindi, Bengali and Marathi, where authors such as Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, UR Ananthmurthy and Paul Zakaria can sell tens of thousands of copies - much more than most Indian writers in English - but remain untranslated and largely unknown to readers in the west.
The big uncertainty in the years to come, however, is whether it will continue to be Indians in India mediating this country in the future - or will this increasingly come to be the preserve of the diaspora. Here a big and daily growing question mark remains. In Britain during the last four or five years, the waves have been made less by authors from south Asia, or even from the immediate south Asian diaspora, as much as British-born Asian writers such as Nadeem Aslam or Meera Syal, and particularly what Rushdie might call "chutnified" authors of mixed ethnic backgrounds who are, in Zadie Smith's famous formulation, "children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks".
When he was in Delhi last summer launching Transmission, Kunzru surprised many Indian interviewers by emphasising that he was a British author, not an Indian one, and that he was very happy living in London with his British identity: to one interviewer, he remarked that although his books have some Indian characters and partly Indian settings, he is not "one of those expatriate Indian writers who scours the Indian landscape looking for my roots", adding that he "abhors the nostalgic writing that many writers of Indian diaspora usually indulge in. My next book will not have anything to do with India at all." For him, he said, India was a place where his cousins lived and where he came for weddings and winter holidays.
In Hong Kong, he confirmed this: "I am very careful never to describe myself as an Indian writer," he said. "I am a British-born, British-resident author. I have connections to India and I feel they inform what I do to some extent, but more than this I cannot claim. What I and Zadie are doing is British writing about British hybridity. It is a completely separate story to that strand of writing which is about Indian-born writers going somewhere else. People should not confuse the two."
Writers such as Kunzru, born in Hounslow or Edgware or Brooklyn or New Jersey, have a clear and built-in advantage over their cousins brought up in Jhansi or Patna. They have far more confidence in English, and their ethnicity and geography makes them natural bridges between cultures, able automatically to translate an Indian sensibility for the west - if that is what they want to do. Certainly, their background effortlessly puts them in a position to draw together a range of different influences, to work with ease in India and Britain and the US, and to produce art that is readily comprehensible at both ends of the globe.
If the last few years are anything to go by, I suspect that in the years ahead the main competition Indian writers aspiring to win the Booker will face will not be the Alan Hollinghursts or the AS Byatts, so much as their own cousins born and brought up in the west.
· William Dalrymple's most recent book, White Mughals (Harper Perennial) won the Wolfson Prize for History. A stage version by Christopher Hampton has just been commissioned by the National Theatre.