ExperimentalExperience

India As Fiction

In Background Materials on July 25, 2009 at 7:12 pm

I don’t have an exhaustive list – Indian literature is just too extensive and too diverse. I also have not read her writers in anything other than English and Urdu. That may still not represent a significant portion of India’s literary output. But India loves her books – anyone going to Kerala or walking into cafes in Calcutta will know what I mean. In fact, there was a Le Monde Diplomatique essay about the Kerala publishing industry and the love of books there called Kerala: Mad About Books.

Sixth on the list of seven objectives of Kerala’s communist-led state government’s literacy mission is “provision of facilities for library and reading rooms for creating an environment conducive for literacy efforts and a learning society”.

The grassroots level activism that brought about the literacy movement continues in the form of publishers like KSSP (Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad), which was formed in 1962 to publish scientific literature in Malayalam. Today KSSP continues its practice of door-to-door sales and Kala Jathas (literacy rallies). According to KK Krishna Kumar, its former president, KSSP publishes around 60-100 titles and sells books worth Rs 10-15m ($200,000-$300,000) every year.

Anyways, there have been rather ‘famous’ names winning awards recently some of whom are actually worth reading. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss comes to mind. Adiga’s White Tiger does not!

Of course, the late, great Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Shame, and the very popular (though less read) Satanic Verses. I believe that Rushdie has died as a writer since his move to the USA (no necessary connection), but the three works mentioned here remain masterpieces. Certainly Midnight’s Children can be accused of overwhelming the modern Indian novel with its innovation and audacity. Regardless, it remains a pivotal pieces of work.

Amit Chaudari is a beautiful, intelligent and sensitive writer. His Freedom Song and the more recent The Immortals are worth the effort.

Amitav Ghosh, whose In An Antique Land, is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long, long time. It has (we are all adults here), truly one of the most evocative and sensual descriptions of a dance  – I had ever read! Ghosh’s prose is precise, concise and visual, an eye that concentrates on the essentials of the action, something that all photographers can learn from. Here is how he describes the scene, on a hot evening, in the remoteness of a village in remote Egypt:

It was long past sunset now, and the faces around the bridal couple were glowing in the light of a single kerosene lamp. The drum-beat on the wash-basin was a measured, gentle one and when I pushed my way into the center of the crowd I saw that the dancer was a young girl, dressed in a simple, printed cotton dress, with a long scarf tied around the waist. Both her hands were on her hips, and she was dancing with her eyes fixed on the ground in front of her, moving her hips with a slow, languid grace, backwards and forwards while the rest of her body stayed still, almost immobile, except for the quick, circular motion of her feet. Then gradually, almost imperceptibly, the tempo of the beat quickened, and somebody called out the first line of a chant, khadnaha min wasat al-dar, ‘we took her from her father’s house’, and the crowd shouted back, wa abuha ga’id za’alan, ‘while her father sat there bereft’. Then the single voice again, khadnaha bi al-saif al-madi,we took her with a sharpened sword’, followed by a massed refrain, wa abuha makansh radi, ‘because her father wouldn’t consent.’

The crowd pressed closer with the quickening of the beat, and as the voices and the clapping grew louder, the girl, in response, raised and arm and flexed it above her head in a graceful arc. Her body was turning now, rotating slowly in the same place, her hips moving faster while the crowd around her clapped and stamped, roaring their approval at the tops of their voices. Gradually, the beat grew quicker, blurring into a tattoo of drumbeats, and in response her torso froze into a stillness, while her hips and waist moved even faster, in exact counterpoint, in a pattern of movement that became a perfect abstraction of eroticism, a figurative geometry of lovemaking, pounding back and forth at a dizzying speed until at last the final beat rang out and she escaped into the crowd, laughing.

Amitav Ghosh, from In An Antique Land

Qurratullain Haider penned in Urdu quite possibly the great Indian novel, River of Fire, and later did her own translation of it into English. A classic, and a must read indeed. It is vast in its scope and truly amongst the regions great books.

Upamanyu Chatterjee wrote what I think is also a great Indian novel, English, August – about a young Indian man forced by circumstance to take up a job in a middle-of-nowhere town with the Indian Civil Service, and longing to do nothing more than smoke pot and sleep! It is perhaps one of the finest studies of the divide between those who are called to serve as civil servants, and the communities they are expected to administer. And it is laugh-out-loud hilarious to boot!

Mulk Raj Anand has written a wonderful book called Untouchable.

Or Mukel Kesevan’s interesting attempt at a partition era book called Looking Through Glass.

I think someone mentioned Rohinten Mistry earlier (recently famous for being stopped repeatedly at airports by our fine, intelligent  Homeland Security officers while he was on a USA book tour. He cancelled it and returned home!) and his A Fine Balance is a heartbreaking but beautiful read.

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things has to be mentioned if only because I am a huge fan.

Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant and poignant The Romantics is perhaps one of the most insightful books about how an Indian student living int he city of Vatanasi (Benares), an albeit intelligent, educated and liberal Indian, views the tens of thousands of foreigners who mill about India ‘discovering’ themselves or exploring ‘spirituality’.

And the list of some other fascinating writers would include: Gita Mehta, R.K.Narayan, Ardashir Vakil, Bapsi Sidhwa, Ved Mehta – just getting started!

By the way, William Dalrymple’s recent works on India, though largely non-fiction (The White Mughals, The Last Mughal) are in fact fascinating historical studies written with the flair of a fiction writer. His earlier works on India including City of Djins are also fabulously fun to read. But certainly, The White Mughals remains one of my favorites because it explores the deeply heterodox social, political and cultural life of the Indians and the British before the rapid turn around of affairs with the arrival of the Evangelical Christian orientated, and far more racist (a connection between the two propensities I am not so sure about!) colonial administration post-1857.

Basically, Indian writers are ‘hot’ and in fact, so are Pakistani writers. South Asian fiction, that being written in English, is very popular with new talent emerging every month it seems. Tyrewala, Gasgupta, Mohamad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Daniel Moinuddin and many others.

Phew lots to read!!

Asim


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  1. Ha…I’m actually really curious about White Tiger now. Ever since it popped into my radar after it won whatever prize it won, I’ve heard nary a good word from anyone who’s actually read it.

    I picked up The Romantics last week…and I’m quite impressed..and after spending weeks in Jaipur bumping into a gazillion foreigners ‘discovering India’ its proving to be quite an interesting read:)

    If however, the intention of this reading is to get a sense of the place and you’re looking for some quick, light reading I’d doubly recommend some RK Narayan. Amitav Ghosh’s The Imam and the Indian is also a collection of great essays and personal stories. Actually I’d really recommend anything Ghosh (apart from maybe the Shadow Lines – his debut)…just a really fabulous writer.

    Also for Sam – your story is on the elders if I’m remembering correctly? – I don’t know what angle you’re thinking of, but the partition of India and Pakistan might still play a huge role in that generation’s impressions, memories and stories – I would highly recommend picking up Saadat Manto’s Mottled Dawn.

    I have some of these books in my own collection….of course people visiting are welcome to pick a couple for side reading in Ajmer:)

  2. actually dwijo it was hilarious that i forgot to mention any of ghosh’s indian works! now you can see how compelling that moment in an egyptian evening was that i forgot what i was writing about in the first place!
    :)

    hasan sadaat manto is a master writer, probably the finest short story urdu writer and a dissenting mind that took on the powers that be and weren’t quite! dwijo’ suggestion is a good one, keeping in mind that manto, a deeply indian writer, moved to pakistan and wrote bitterly about the experiences of the partition and eventually drank himself to death. he was never really appreciated in pakistan – but then again, what can you expect from a nation that has ignore or exiled most all her finest minds!

    thanks dwijo for ‘correcting’ lapses :)

    asim

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