Passages from India: prize-winning literature

From A Suitable Boy to Slumdog Millionaire, Indian Writing in English has dazzled book lovers across the globe over the past three decades. Vision asks the most talented new Indian authors why their work is so popular with international readers

It is hard to remember a time when Indian fiction – by that I mean English-language fiction written by Indian authors – was not a permanent fixture on our nightstands, demanding record-breaking advances and winning many of the most coveted awards. In fact, until the latter part of the 20th century, the country’s rich literary tradition was little known outside India. That much of it was written in the 20 different tongues of its diverse and rapidly expanding population meant that it had remained largely inaccessible. But then, in 1980, came Salman Rushdie’s genre-defining Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize and changed everything. Since then, Indian Writing in English (IWE) has gained an increasingly visible international profile, with publishers considering the country a prime hunting ground for new talent.

Face of a nation

Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, all subsequent Booker winners, are only part of the story. Many will remember the fanfare that preceded Vikram Seth’s 1,350-page epic, A Suitable Boy, in 1993. And prize-laden Rohinton Mistry, whose novels were almost required reading during the 1990s. More recently, writers such as Vikas Swarup, whose novel Slumdog Millionaire was made into one of the most successful films of recent years, and Chetan Bhaghat, the banker turned writer who has churned out five bestsellers in less than a decade, have attempted to show the changing face of the world’s newest superpower.

In January, for the first time, the finalists for the Man Booker Prize International 2013 will be announced at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, an association that its co-founder, the writer Namita Gokhale, feels is “mutually enriching”.

“It’s exciting and also appropriate that an important international prize for world literature will announce its finalists at Jaipur,” she says. “Our festival is both rooted in local language and literature and truly cosmopolitan in its range and reach.” Now in its seventh year, the festival, which is spread over the city’s ancient forts and palaces, is India’s largest and attracts a star-studded international guest list (this year’s edition played host to Oprah Winfrey, Lionel Shriver and Michael Ondaatje) alongside homegrown authors.

Jaipur is just one of many festivals that have sprung up all over the country in the past five years, with others taking place in Mumbai, Calcutta, Goa and Kovalam. Much of the talent is from India itself, and reflects the huge growth of the domestic market, one that is rich with complexity, according to the esteemed novelist Amit Chaudhuri.

Overseas success

“In India, there are all kinds of tensions,” says the author who has written extensively on the subject of modern Indian literature. “There are writers who write in their own language, and they are very good writers, who have their own reasons for feeling both proud of their writing and neglected in the globalised world and marginalised because they don’t write in English. Then there is a market in English, which is forming here in India and growing. That means there will be local heroes who write in English and are well known here but may never be published abroad.”

The success of Indian writers overseas is, Chauhduri feels, entirely unpredictable in today’s market-driven economy. “We still think in terms of the old literary culture, where someone has earned literary merit or recognition because they are critically acclaimed. We still speak in that language but if you look at what is happening it is very unpredictable and capricious.”

A case in point is Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which was slated when it was first published in India, before winning the 2008 Man Booker Prize, and then becoming a bestseller in India. “That book’s trajectory tells us more about literary culture today than it does about the book,” says Chaudhuri.

“I think Aravind Adiga is a good writer. I’m very glad it did win the Man Booker Prize, but everyone here in India was surprised. I’m sure there were people in England who were surprised. That reflects the volatile and unpredictable nature of literary culture, which reflects the volatile and unpredictable nature of the free market. We don’t know who’s going to win and who’s going to lose.”

Some, including the writer Manu Joseph, have criticised international publishers for corrupting Indian writers by encouraging them to write books that package India in a way that is palatable for foreigners. “There is a surge of Indian writers who are trying to sell the great Indian exotica to white people,” he writes in the New York Times, “and they guess that what the foreigners love is tradition, poverty, wedding scenes, rebirths and talking monkeys, among other things.”

Great diversity

That may be so, but perhaps it is India’s ‘otherness’ that readers want. “We tell stories teeming with the sheer diversity of India,” says Swarup, “the seething energy of one-sixth of humanity. Plus, there is a general fascination with India, whether with our ancient spirituality and mysticism or the modern narrative of democracy and development that is taking India to the centre of the global stage.”

International notoriety aside, it is India’s age-old relationship with its own literature that frames the debate. “Some of the oldest literary works in the world were produced in India,” says Swarup, “be it the The Rig Veda, composed in 1500BCE, or the epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata which have diffused into the cultural fabric of India and are well known to every Indian. I think literature was always a part of the Indian psyche.” So much so, Swarup believes, that Indian society requires it.

“Literature performs both an individual function and a societal purpose,” he says. “To an individual reader, it is a mirror of life, a mode of conveying and capturing feelings and emotions. At a societal level, literature seeks to represent the ideas and ideals that make every nation unique. In a country such as India with stark inequalities, literature can also become a powerful tool of social change, giving voice to the voiceless, ensuring that India remains a land of multiple narratives.”