On the Indian Literary Scene

This blogpost is prompted by this set of articles on The Open Magazine: 1, 2, 3.

Hartosh Singh Bal wrote a piece about how easy it is for any British ‘writer’ to be taken seriously in India. William Dalrymple, one of the main people named in the article, wrote back saying that the article was blatantly racist. Mr. Bal replied even more scathingly.

Wondering if all the accusations in the original article are true makes me think about the Indian literary scene.

Now I’m probably unqualified to comment on this, given that I’ve quit my fascination with Indian writing in English since probably my third year at NITK., and am not up-to-date on the scene. I think that probably happened because Indian writing in English rarely if ever is pirated in ebook form.

The stuff I’ve been reading since then is more or less nationality-agnostic, and given that I was going through enough trouble with see-sawing emotional states over the past few years, I have cut out anything that’s even mildly depressing. No tales of rape victims, no suicidal females, no people selling organs or themselves out of poverty. And I’m sick and tired of wordy prose, so all the emo stuff is also out. And, ever since the Mumbai train blasts, since when I have turned internetHindu and internetIndian, I detest, detest, detest any books that espouse the warped leftie-commie-westie perceptions of the Motherland and pronounce it to be the only true point of view [That’s not because of the point of view. It’s just that I feel their case is extremely overstated and I don’t want to hear those arguments again and again and again].

And guess what. The number of Indian books I’m reading has gone pitifully low. Off the top of my head, I can remember only three Indian English books that I’ve read with delight in the recent past. The most recent one is The Immortals of Meluha. It’s okay. It’s not a great book. The plot is rather weak, though the premise is brilliant. Then there’s The House of Blue Mangoes I’ve reviewed before here. And the most, most delightful one has been Gopa Majumdar’s translation of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda and Professor Shonkhu.

Isn’t it a rather depressing thought that most Indian writing in English is tragic, depressing, emo stuff? Or that it’s by foreigners/NRIs who’ve visited Delhi and Mumbai and maybe one location in the South and decided they want to set a novel here, and borrow the mainstream media’s perspective on the country to do so?

This means one of two things. Either India can’t produce people good enough to express themselves well in English, or these forin/NRI folks are actively preferred over India-born-and-bred writers. Ok, third possibility – depressing stuff is preferred anyday over stuff with more joie de vivre. And forin/NRI folk are more likely to write about the depressing squalor of India than the average English-writing Indian (it’s just darn impossible for someone who lives here to constantly be depressed about poverty and rape and abuse and organ harvesting enough to churn out book after book on those topics).

The first possibility seems likely. Yes, not everyone from an English-medium school speaks well in English, let alone write novels in it. But heck, is the situation so bad that we have very few who write cheerfully and well in English? I don’t want to believe that’s possible.

I’m ambivalent about the third possibility. Given that most Indian hit films are escapist fare, I find it hard to believe that depressing stuff is preferred over fun stuff. But then, it’s also possible that the folks who watch the fun movies are not the ones who read, and that the ones who read are folk who prefer emo sad stuff, because it feels more ‘real’. I was one of these people in my less-jaded days where I equated ‘real’ with ‘stark’, ‘explicit’ and ‘depressing’. And back then, I read a lot of Indian writing in English 🙂

The second possibility…. ah, here’s where we lock horns with the likes of Dalrymple. It’s no secret that Western (and even Eastern) recognition and approval is highly prized in India. It’s as if we have no good standards of our own that we look to someone else’s to know what to like and what not to. It’s like Yahoo coming to NITK’s campus for placements and instead of conducting their own set of Aptis and interviews, giving offers to the folks placed in Microsoft (No, that did not happen. And if you want, you can replace Yahoo with Infy and Microsoft with ITTIAM. Or any two random companies. It is immaterial). The reasons for that are many… colonial hangover, our persistent resistance to growing a backbone, our sense of identity and self being derided every single day by own own media… the bottomline is, you can go places here with a forin tag – skin colour, accents, degrees, passports. Even if you are decidedly a worse stringer-of-words-together than the average Indian; your use of the language will be feted as ‘interesting’ and ‘intriguing’ and ‘creative’.

Where’s our own Steig Larsson, JK Rowling (no, don’t point to the scriptwriter for the flick Hari Puttar), Rick Riordan (Amish Tripathi seems to be trying), Eoin Colfer, Agatha Christie? Why don’t we have our own Miss Marple, shouldn’t it be easy to have a nosy lady solving murders here? (Oh hey, we do… I found this series about a detective aunty called Lalli. Except it’s not thaaat well-written). Why don’t we yet have our own LotR, given that our folk myths are so rich and ripe for drawing from?

Where are our school stories, the ones that involve making fresh-out-of-college teachers with weird pronunciations run out of the class crying, and hatching plots over ice-lollies and salt-n-chillied-amlas after school? And what about our own murder mysteries, surely there’s sufficient fodder for that? And given that we have so many threats, where the heck are our spy thrillers? The only one I’ve come across that had a hint of a spy in it is Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey. Are we so unimaginative a people that we can’t produce our own kahani-mein-twist writer, like an Archer or an O Henry?

I’m not saying no examples of any of these exist. I’m saying there isn’t enough. I’m saying it’s not reached a critical mass enough to be its own genre, the way books about (and by) IITians have. The dominant chunk of Indian writing in English is hardly positive, fun-to-read stuff.

So, I repeat, where the heck are all these writers? Too busy slaving away in an IT company? Or gone abroad for higher studies/job and will now only write sickening Indo-nostalgic stuff? Or writing up a storm in some other of our fourteen languages? If so, why aren’t they being translated into English?

Or worse, are there actually none? Surely, judging by the number of user-contributed stories in children’s magazines from, say, eight years back and earlier, there must be a significant portion of good writers in their twenties now?

Coz it’s going to be a depressing next thirty if there actually are none. I see these children’s magazines go lower and lower in quality, and dumb down their content more and more. It’s a symptom of lower and lower standards in English writing in India…. when there is nothing to whet the imagination of children, it is a sad state of affairs, indeed.

Some people might say ‘This is why children should learn their mother tongue… writing in regional languages is far better’. I agree. But we’re looking at a generation of children whose parents themselves aren’t conversant with their mother tongues; and who talk, fight and play in English. Given that we use and abuse English so much in India (and wear it on our sleeves), shouldn’t we be giving back something to the language; is it so unreasonable to expect quality reads of our own stories, in our own language?

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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13 Responses to On the Indian Literary Scene

  1. Thejaswi says:

    Indian English literature is currently obsessed with a few tropes and does not seem to be willing to look beyond these – campus floss, seedy underbellies of cities, and spiritual nonsense.

    (not that vernacular literature has been better. Note for example the obsession with Brahminism in Kannada literature of the second half of 20th Century.)

    What we need are more Manohar Malgaonkars or Nayantara Sehgals. This may be an ironic comment given that both these authors are usually seen as relics of the Raj and are unabashedly Brit-obsessed in real life. But read their books, all well-written, covering a wide variety of premises, and reasonably devoid of ‘Indian’ cliches.

  2. Skanda says:

    I would say what we need is people like Prem Panicker to come forward and write (or retell stories). His Rendamoozham inspired “Bhimsen” was a master piece.

    I am sure there is good vernacular literature (I am familiar with good Tamizh writing) that can be translated effectively, or be used as a basis to good English writing.

  3. Nakul says:

    Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, a brilliant novel on a Mumbai gangster. Exploring many more things in the narrative. Ashok banker, Upamanyu Chatterjee are great as well…

    • wanderlust says:

      have been meaning to read sacred games from a long while now. i haven’t read Ashok Banker, but Upamanyu Chatterjee, I have. English, August was a great first novel. pity he petered out into mediocre stuff after that.

    • Thejaswi says:

      Sacred Games is quite brilliant – especially the Ganesh Gaitonde vs. Sartaj Singh core that it has. Ashok Banker’s earlier works (before his mythological obsession) were essentially an Indian version of dicklit (or lad-lit or whatever it is fashionably called). Iron Bra and Vertigo are good fun reads. As for Upamanyu, like most of India, I’ve read only English, August.

  4. Suhas says:

    Isn’t there an emerging Indian sci-fi scene? The names Samit Basu and Manjula Padmanabhan come to mind (haven’t read any of their works, but I’d be interested to know if they’re worth checking out). I’ve also heard about a couple of indigenous graphic novels, but again they could well be isolated examples.

    • wanderlust says:

      I haven’t read any, but i’ve heard of some of these. I didn’t know Manjula Padmanabhan’s work was sci-fi as we know it…. I only know about her Harvest which was made into a movie by Govind Nihalani called Deham. It’s dystopian future…. and involves people selling organs out of poverty 🙂 which is why I’ve not taken the trouble to read it. The father of Indian sci-fi could possibly be Dilip M Salwi… he wrote some real delightful scifi stories for children. Also the Tamil writer Sujatha has written quite some stories with science as a strong theme.

      Also, I came across a book in my library which was scifi short stories set in india, written by a non-Indian. I’ve forgotten the title as well as the author’s name… rather brilliant plotlines, but blade writing.

  5. Arjun says:

    [Thejaswi] The obsession was a response to what the writers had experienced as children and young adults. And it led to Bandaya sahitya, which did produce fascinating works. Not all of them were good, yes, but the second half of the 20th wasn’t dismal.

    Also, in Kannada (I’m not as familiar with other literature, sadly), we did have historical fiction (TaRaaSu), detective fiction (M. Ramamurthy), biography, literary criticism, social commentary, historical fiction again (all ANaKru), travel writing (Gorur, A N Moorthy Rao), political upheaval (Srinivas Vaidya, just a couple of years ago in “HaLLa bantu haLLa”), mythological revisionism (made up that non-existent genre because what else would you call Parva?) and so on.

    So the vernacular has fared better. Although we could probably do with some of the campus floss and seedy underbelly literature ourselves. A ‘Maximum City’ sort of book about Bangalore in Kannada. By people-who-are-not-Ravi-Belagere.

    [Wanderlust] Enough of the books by and about IIT-ians already, right? And it’s always about the guy who went against the system. No books about the IIT-ian who spent good years there, went abroad and got a PhD and a good job, and then fell into a wormhole that transported him back to the 14th century just before Hakka and Bukka began the Vijayanagara empire. They are imprisoned by Mohammed bin Tughlaq. It’s up to Amit Gupta, hitherto employed by National Semiconductor corporation, to get them out of their prison in Delhi. Along the way, he also needs to tackle renegade Hoysala generals who are out to get him and a mysterious woman who conceals more than she reveals (in terms of information). Can Amit, whose email ID and Twitter handles we can all guess, save the day?

    Then Barkha Dutt steps in and says “You decide.” Though we can’t.

    Samit Basu got praise and applause some time back, didn’t he? Haven’t read his work yet. But you’re right, most of the work we come across are either depressing, bad or very dense and scholarly and uninteresting. In an effort to make it reader-friendly, writers either dumb it down too much or go haywire with the plot.

  6. Thejaswi says:

    Arjun, I didn’t mean to say that it was all we produced. I was only making a point about how easy it is for a ‘literary scene’ to get itself a popular motif or two and before you know it you would have a dozen works on the same theme.

    Andhahaage, we did have some varied stuff. KP Tejaswi’s novels, BGL Swami’s Kaaleju anecdotes, a reasonable amount of maata-mantra stuff, and a whole load of tearjerkers.

  7. Amit Murari says:

    “you suck man!!”

    – Amit Murari, NITK, 2nd Yr, Civil Dept, 4th Block

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