Life happened because I turned the pages~~Alberto Manguel

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Vice Visa

William Dalrymple expands on a talk he gave at the India Today conclave earlier this year, to make the somewhat controversial case that we have to look to the diaspora for future IWE (Indian Writing in English) stars:

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". ..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."

I know this is going to spark off furious debate, with everyone jumping into the desi versus diaspora argument. But to my mind, Dalrymple answers at least part of his own question further down:

"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."

I would suggest it's a little more than a question of compromises; it ties in with another argument that Dalrymple makes about the relative lack of a literary life in places like Delhi versus places like New York or London. If you don't have a market, or an audience, at "home", then of course it makes more sense in a globalised era to take yourself and your skills elsewhere. That's probably the same reason why, to attempt to answer another of Dalrymple's questions, you haven't had good non-fiction or great biography coming out of India: no publisher here could afford to pay a writer the kind of advance that would take him or her through five, ten years of research. India's still a tiny market in terms of English-language publishing. I don't think it works to sit back and be complacent about it, and expect the market to grow all on its own; I do think publishers here need to start demanding better quality in terms of fiction; but I think it'll change.

I don't want to start thinking in terms of us stuck at Home versus them Abroad; there are too many Indian writers I know who seem emblematic of this generation in the sense that they're perfectly happy occupying several worlds at the same time. This generation travels; it puts down roots in several cities; it explores not just one identity but a whole set of identities. With awards like the Crossword, one of the key problems the prize had to address was the question of how you define an Indian writer--the old markers, such as the passport, the place of birth, the country of origin, just didn't work any more. On the other hand, none of us have any problem defining an "Indian" book, whether it's written here or elsewhere, in English or in any one of India's many languages.

William Dalrymple is a case in point himself, in terms of identity. He's not Indian by birth or in terms of his passport, but I would have great trouble seeing him as a "firang" writer. In terms of lineage, he seems to fit in best with the tradition of itinerant travellers who've visited India down the ages, from Chinese monks to Arabian scholars, and made it, in small or large ways, a temporary or permanent home. This country has always had room for visitors, some of whom have become residents; now it's our scholars and writers who're doing versions of what Alberuni or Ibn Battuta did elsewhere, for pretty much the same reasons--the trade routes are better, the marketplaces are bigger, the discussions are more exciting, and hey, the world's a large place, it makes sense to see as much of it as we can. Perhaps we need to move on from the Passport School of Criticism and just, well, hand out visas to come visit, or to go elsewhere, to anyone with talent, curiosity and an imagination.



In his essay, "The lost sub-continent" (The Guardian, Aug 13 ), William Dalrymple argues that the next batch of successful Indian writers in English will emerge from the Diaspora, not from amongst those writers who are living and working on the Indian soil. He says:

"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."

And why this will be so:

"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."

I guess William has a point here. But the fact is that this has always been the case, with the exception of Roy (incidently, Amit Chaudhuri has returned to his native Bengal from Oxford). For example, what did Picador discover in India? Only Rajkamal Jha and Siddharth Deb?

The fact is the market for Indian (and even African) writing in English is not in India but in America and Europe. It is natural that Indian writers, who have degrees and addresses in London or New York, will succeed as they have better access to literary agents or publishers. Also, the lack of a literary culture in India, especially in centres like Delhi as noted by William, will not be a problem for Indian writers in the West.

Agreed that a majority of 'successful' Indian writers in English will emerge from the diaspora, but I am not sure if all of them will be delivering masterpieces. We never know when another Roy emerges from the shadowy towns of Jhansi or Patna! Who had imagined that such a "Tigerwoodsian" debut-making writer from Kerala would take the literary world by storm? In literature the possibilities are always there.

I had noted the "there is much money in crearive writing these days" scene in Nair's Monsoon Wedding. But to me, that came off as more of satirical comment than anything else. In India, whoever can afford, is either going for a foreign MBA or Creative Writing or Filmmaking course. For Indians, what matters is money and the limelight ('the obsession with sucess'). That will always be the attraction. Remember the "Miss India" craze a few years ago after Aishwarya-Sushmita success?

I liked the description of Delhi mushairas in the essay. Yes, that culture is, alas, gone now. Then artists were patronised by rich nobles. Not any more.

The lack of non-fiction writing in India is because of the incestous nature of the world of Indian publishing. Editors will commission books to only those whom they know only, and won't give chance to new people or look for new talent. Also, where are the lit agents for the Indian market?

By Blogger Zafar Anjum, at 8/14/2005 06:02:00 PM  

such analyses are bound to emerge so long there isn't another big ticket writer from india, i.e. residing here. A Suitable Boy came out in '92, it did take another 5 years before Roy fetched us a Booker. it's only a matter of time before another star emerges on the literary firmament.

By Anonymous Nik, at 8/15/2005 12:36:00 AM  

I think the problem in all of this is the *waiting* for the emergence of a new star writer. To me that makes writing and creativity even more of a commodity than it has become in recent times.

Hence the emergence of genres like chick-lit and desi chick-lit and whatever else.

The magic of good writing and talented writers emerging is one of the only true mysteries left in the literary world. Must we debate where and in what conditions we can trap lightning in a bottle?

Let writers write. If one of the becomes a Roy so be it. Phew! that felt good.

By Blogger Jawahara Saidullah, at 8/15/2005 07:16:00 PM  


the true writer will write … feel the moment i write true writer am venturing into a different field…

returning to this context….of a indian indian vs. indian from the diaspora: this writing is a business…those who accept and grasp this have a better chance at attaining the goals…prizes, recognition, money…sadly…the market economy is the wind in the sails…given this, the sailing conditions are better in the disapora

By Blogger temporal, at 8/16/2005 04:17:00 AM  

About WD's essay:

Great education at boarding schools in the hills surely doesn’t mean intelligence or talent. And, logically speaking, wouldn’t it be tougher for someone from an elitist background to write about “the common man”? It just so happens that some of India’s best writers happen to have attended the Doon School and St. Stephens.

What matters, thankfully, is how well one writes. One’s class background, sex, country of residence, etc, etc, etc, doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

By Blogger Ananya B, at 8/27/2005 10:35:00 PM  

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