Thursday, April 14, 2005

"Knowing South Asia" -- questions on Indian Literature

Tomorrow I'm going to be a respondent at a workshop called "Knowing South Asia," at YCIAS at Yale. The writers invited include Samina Ali (Madras on Rainy Days), Suketu Mehta (Maximum City), M.G. Vassanji (most recently The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, and Meena Alexander (Fault Lines, among several others). There is a long list of academics involved, many of them graduate students at Yale itself.

We've been invited to contribute questions in advance of the workshop (in lieu of a paper). I thought I would run the questions I came up with by you guys first:

1. On "South Asia." It sometimes seems to me that "South Asian literature" is a construct that has more to do with North American university syllabi than it does with the literature itself.

All of the writers are personally connected with India, though they are also physically located in North America, some of the time at least. And most contemporary literature dealing with the Subcontinent –- including recent writing from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Sri Lanka –- is more or less national (rather than transnationally "subcontinental") in frame. Isn't "South Asia" really a geopolitical term rather than one that is culturally specific enough to actually refer to a community of people or a coherent body of literature?

2. The "Arundhati Roy Trap." When in India recently to promote Vikas Swarup's new novel, British publisher Jane Lawson referred to something she called the "Arundhati Roy trap." By which she meant, writing that is intensely lyrical or exotic in its style. Though her comments seem to be pragmatic and commercially-minded rather than critical in the objective sense (she's thinking about what is likely to sell), her dismissal of Roy raises some legitimate questions for writers as well as critics. How does the post-Arundhati Roy generation respond to Jane Lawson? [See this post]

3. Beyond East/West: the place of the Middle East and Africa in the Indian imaginary. For many years, the main point of reference to "outside" for Indian writers was England or North America. Is that changing? Most of the writers involved in this colloquium refer extensively to the Middle East as well as Africa in various ways. Meena Alexander lived in the Sudan, and has memories of Arabic and the desert mixed mixed in her memoirs with the lush vegetation of Kerala. M.G. Vassanji was born and raised in Africa, and all of the books of his that I have read refer to this quite directly (including his most recent novel, The In-Between Adventures of Vikram Lall). The Middle East in particular is also quite important in the transnational networks that define contemporary Bombay in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City. And Dubai and Saudi Arabia are economically and culturally as important as America in defining the crisis facing the Hyderabadi Muslim community in Samina Ali's Madras on Rainy Days.

Does the Middle East symbolize something for India besides terrorism? And what about Africa? Are the patterns of interaction between these different parts of the world changing? Is India's image of other parts of the third world changing?

4. On Indian writers in Indian vs. U.S. Publishing Houses. Recently book critic Nilanjana Roy commented in the Indian magazine The Business Standard that "The general standard [for books published by Indian writers] is still low; it’s still a struggle every year to recommend great fiction that can stand beside the best of Saramago, Pamuk, Murakami, McEwan, Roth and company; some of what gets published is incredibly dreary, incredibly mediocre." She acknowledges that some very good books are being written every year by Indians (at home and abroad), but she feels that much of the Indian writing published in the west (including that written by people physically located in India) is overhyped, padded by the waves of publicity associated with the western publishing industry. She says that much of this writing is "endorsed by the Western world, stamped with the approval of publishing houses we should be able to trust, foreign editors whose names are legendary, authors who are living shrines."

In a sense this is an authenticity question, but it is also not. Roy is also pointing the finger at the seeming endorsement of writers located in India whose work is marketed for foreign readers. She singles out Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop as an example. In a sense, the problem of authenticity for her is one of marketing and subject matter, not the writer's location. Do you think this is a legitimate distinction? How important is publishing when we think about the situatedness of South Asian literature?

The basic question is: How do you compare the Indian English-language publishing industry with the segment of the American book world dedicated to books by Indian authors?

Note: Nilanjana Roy's articles on Indian literature can be read online: here and here. She also has a blog, Akhond of Swat.

5. Creative Non-fiction. Is there a trend towards creative non-fiction? In recent months we've seen prominent books and essays by people Amitava Kumar, Suketu Mehta, Arundhati Roy, and Amitav Ghosh. Some of them are best known as fiction writers, but all have used the creative non-fiction format to make powerful political critiques, even as they write with a decidedly "literary" sensibility. What is the role of creative non-fiction in Indian (or "South Asian") literature?

Most of these are questions I've raised on this blog over the past few months (see, this blog is useful after all...)

Question (1) came up just yesterday, in thinking about the PEN World Voices festival in New York. Question 2 I talked about here. I responded to Question (4) a couple of months ago. I now think my answer was a little too hostile; also, Nilanjana's follow-up column published in The Business Standard cleared up many of my concerns.

Any thoughts on any of the questions?


Rob said...

Not so much a "thought," but I think Q3 is an incredibly interesting and potentially highly-productive one.

1:22 PM  
Quizman said...

At the risk of sounded stupid - not being lit person and all - I would say that the influence of Naipaul and Rushdie are more viable on the Indian writer's psyche than Roy. There is much of Naipaul in Mehta and Mishra (the latter is of course, a far-left version of VSN)

Here's another question to ponder. The term "South Asia" is not only a geopolitical term more or less limited to US campuses and journos, but it is also limited to the English language. For true transnational literature, one may perhaps need to look at Bengali (Ind/Bang) and Tamil (Ind/SL) works.

Would you classify Rushdie's 'Shame' as South Asian? It is, after all, a book on Pakistani politics, written by an Indian expat. Would you classify A Suitable Boy as a South Asian work - since the characters could be replaced by Pakistanis or Bangladeshis and the premise would still work?

Content or Context? or both?

What is a South Asian work? Something that every South Asian (Nepali, Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Maldivian) AND no one else would relate to? Or is any work written by an author in the aforementioned countries?

Heck, there are people in India who find R. K. Narayan ordinary.

2:13 PM  
coolie said...


I think they are all extremely interesting and pertinent questions. I look forward to reading your account of the seminar, how it went, and what the various writers responses were.

3:22 PM  
Amardeep said...


Naipaul and Rushdie have a bigger influence -- content-wise -- but it's Roy who's set the standard for the publishing industry. Her GOST sold more copies than any Rushdie book since the Satanic Verses.

As for the rest of your questions, I'm stealing them for the conference (which begins in an hour).

8:08 AM  
Anonymous said...

Most Indian writing in English that I know of is heavily influenced by issues and ideas that would be of interest to a foreign audience. In other words, it is written primarily for foreign audiences. I would not consider VS Naipaul's writing Indian writing in English, since his is essentially an outsider's point of view. However, I would say that he has had considerable influence on Indians writing in English.

Another way of saying this is that R.K Narayan is an exception among Indians writing in English, since his writing and concerns devolve from an older and more indigenous fictional tradition of regional language literature. He is probably the only Indian writer in English that I know of, whose writing many ordinary Indians (at least those from the South) can identify with. When Rushdie (?) made his comment about the inferiority of regional literature in India to writings in English, he displayed his considerable ignorance of the local literary tradition. I think that in this context, there is a legitimate distinction between the writer's location and the subjects that the writer chooses to write about.

I would argue that one reason for the poverty of quality
of Indian writing in English is the conscious attempt of many such writers to mould their writings and topics to concerns that they may find interesting to foreign readers.
Unfortunately, a reader's tastes and concerns have a specific cultural context, and are partially the result of a certain literary tradition and culture. It is hard to fit into such a tradition by writing fiction based in an entirely alien cultural environment. In my opinion, Narayan was successful partially because he avoided this trap.

7:45 PM  
Prashant Kothari said...

Kaushik and I had an online debate re some of the questions you raise

Banerjee laments the absence in India of the “publishing infrastructure of the kind that exists in the Western world, making books much more accessible to the common person. It is nearly impossible to get a steady supply of good books in the small towns of India, and the prices put them beyond the reach of most people living in provincial towns. Cheaper editions and a better distribution network can increase the market size for Indian English books considerably"

I agree with Banerjee that the publishing and distribution infrastructure within India could be much improved.

But in my opinion, the primary challenge is on the demand side i.e., there’s just not a big enough market within India to sustain the Indian-Writing-in-English (IWE) genre.

This will change. In a decade or so, there will emerge a critical mass of Indians fluent in English and with the necessary standard of living to generate an internal demand for quality writing. But till then, most of the revenue for Indian authors will continue to come from the West.

To some extent, this weakness on the demand side explains the dearth of English translations of Indian language works (Banerjee’s final point).

In my opinion, the influence of the dollar can also explain some of the more forgettable outpourings in the IWE genre -- Gita Mehta's lame attempt at exoticization, The River Sutra or Shashi Tharoor glib and superficial India: From Midnight to Millennium (yet to meet a single reader brought up in India who thinks much of either book)

8:39 AM  
Prashant Kothari said...

Re non-fiction: To the extent that the print media reflects the overall quality of non-fiction writing, Indian non-fiction writing may well remain a thin sliver (at least, for people based in India itself)

A rant from a blog post last year, about the abysmal quality of Indian journalism

" A politically incorrect statement, based on limited data points:The spate of high-quality Indo-Anglian writing over the last two decades masks the woeful quality of writing & journalism in India's English press.

A litany of woes

-- turgid, convoluted prose
-- non-sequiturs galore
-- heavy dose of the passive voice
-- very little analysis, even on the Op-Ed pages
-- no sense of perspective"

I've been an ardent fan of the The Economist for years. And while it has declined markedly in recent years, the Economist is still the best general-purpose magazine in the world. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give the current Economist 6. Compared to that, the mainstream English press in India (The Hindu etc.,) is probably at a 2.

8:46 AM  
Manish said...

... it's Roy who's set the standard for the publishing industry. Her GOST sold more copies than any Rushdie book since the Satanic Verses.

That's because of the review barrier. GOST won the Booker, and I'd venture that Midnight's Children had high sales as well. Rushdie is far more upmarket (in complexity) than Roy.

1:41 PM  
Mazuma said...

The Christian Science Monitor has a review of Vikas Swarup's novel at

8:48 PM  

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