A new generation of Indian writers has burst forth, winning acclaim at home and abroad for everything from sonnets to satire.
Inspired by Salman Rushdie and others, they are irreverently testing the limits of language and venturing into styles rarely seen in their homeland.
While some critics say it smacks of elitism, most write in English, the language foisted on India by colonial rulers but now at least as indigenous to India’s upper crust as Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Tamil.
“I learned to read in English, to curse in English, to make love in English,” says Shashi Tharoor, author of “The Great Indian Novel,” which is scheduled for release in the United States sometime this winter. “I don’t think any of my other languages is good enough to express the ideas.”
Some, such as Rushdie and Bharati Mukherjee, have left their homeland, changed their citizenship, and found audiences in their adopted lands more receptive than those in India.
Meenakshi Mukherjee, one of India’s leading literary critics, credits Rushdie with breaking international barriers with “Midnight’s Children,” which won Britain’s Booker Award in 1981.
Rushdie is now a citizen of Britain, where he went into hiding in February, 1989, because of death threats from Moslems enraged by what they considered the blasphemy of his novel “The Satanic Verses.”
“Salman Rushdie showed that you can do anything you want,” says Mukherjee, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “In ‘Midnight’s Children,’ he uses Bombay as anybody would use London or New York. He’s the first one who didn’t have a glossary to explain Indian terms. If you don’t understand, that’s your problem, not my problem.”
Tharoor and several others, including Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee and I. Allan Sealy, stick to their Indian roots in themes but transcend national boundaries in their literary migrations, whether geographical, cultural or psychological.
A few, such as Vikram Seth, tackle the literary world on universal terms. Seth, author of “The Golden Gate,” a 300-page sonnet of entangled San Francisco loves and lovers, is known in his hometown of New Delhi as “the Indian who wrote the great California novel.”
Seth, who also wrote a China-Tibet travel book called “From Heaven Lake” and recently published a volume of poems called “All You Who Sleep Tonight,” travels around the world but spends much of the year in India.
“There is a resurgence in India-ness, people being proud of being Indian,” says David Davidar, publisher of Penguin Books (India) Ltd. “I think the colonial thing is finally being put to rest. All the younger writers are under 50.”
Indian books have improved technically in the last few years. Fewer paperbacks fall apart in a shower of pages the first time you crack the spine. But it’s the content that’s so markedly improved.
Tharoor purloined the names of characters from the epic Hindu poem “Mahabharata” (“Great India”) to irreverently populate the political landscape of 20th-Century India in “The Great Indian Novel.”
Tharoor’s novel, like 18th-Century Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” succeeds on several levels. At face value, “The Great Indian Novel” is an amusing bit of fantasy. On a general political plane, it pokes fun at the ambitions and foibles of presumably fictitious politicians. But to the reader armed with knowledge of India’s modern and mythical heroes and anti-heroes, the analogies are devastating.
Dhritarashtra, the blind and ineffectual king in “Mahabharata,” is the name Tharoor chooses for his parody of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India.
“He had the blind man’s gift of seeing the world not as it was, but as he wanted it to be,” remarks Ved Vyas, Tharoor’s narrator. “Even better, he was able to convince everyone around him that his vision was superior to theirs.”
The fictional Vyas, at the age of 88, is dictating his memoirs, full of barbs, as future Prime Minister Dhritarashtra embarks on the path that leads to the bloody partition of India and Pakistan, their still-unresolved dispute over Kashmir and his own pre-eminence as a founder of modern India and the Third World non-aligned movement.
Tharoor, 33, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, speaks Hindi, French and “a bit of Bengali.” But he says his novel is “a book that could only have been written in English. The kind of people who speak English in my book would normally speak English.”
Mukherjee says the new novelists seem to have “an idiom that’s almost international--irreverent, playful, you make fun of serious things.” But she’s troubled by their elitism in a country where only 44% of the 880 million people are literate in any language and only an estimated 4% read English.
“All of them come through the conduit of the same small institution,” she says, referring to Delhi University’s St. Stephen’s College. “I don’t feel all that wonderful about it. It brings home to you the social reality of the books. They’re all really upper class.”
India’s earlier generations of novelists, such as R.K. Narayan, whose first books were published in the 1930s, were more self-conscious about writing in English, Mukherjee says. And India’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature (1913) was Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote poetry in Bengali.
The “elite” crowd of young novelists, all in their 30s, includes:
Ghosh, who used his native Bengal as the embarkation point for his ponderous first novel, “A Circle of Reason,” and again for the more delicately crafted “The Shadow Lines.”
Sealy, whose Anglo-Indian ancestry inspired “The Trotter-Nama” and who uses a crazy quilt of literary devices for a family saga that starts in the late 18th Century with the arrival of Justin Aloysius Trotter in fictional Nakhlau, which resembles Lucknow during the British Raj.
Chatterjee, whose “English, August: An Indian Story,” traces a young Bengali civil servant’s search for identity during his posting to a remote village.
Less precocious--and less Indian, at least to Indian readers--is Bharati Mukherjee, 49, who left India to study at the University of Iowa nearly three decades ago and married a Canadian. She became a U.S. citizen in 1980.
Bharati Mukherjee, whose novels and short stories have been published in the United States for the past 18 years, won America’s National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988 for “The Middleman and Other Stories.”
The central thread in “Middleman” is immigrants, and not just Indians who come to the United States. Her characters include an Iraqi Jew involved in Central American intrigues, a second generation Italian-American with an Afghan refugee lover, a Vietnam War veteran coming to terms with the child he fathered in Saigon.
“I like to think I’m writing from the inside about white America,” she says. “For me, America is an idea, an abstract entity. America is a frontier that needs constant pushing.”