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Farewell to spice and curry

Claudia Kramatschek introduces a new generation of Indian writers, a far cry from the senior cultural ambassadors of yesteryear.

These are thrilling times for all things literary, and the excitement is tangible to anyone spending time in India these days and speaking with writers, publishers and literary critics about recent developments and tendencies in book publishing. For India's breakneck transformation of recent years has made itself felt in the world of publishing as well, if only indirectly. The entire IT industry is still buzzing about this country's rise to become a global player – as underlined by India's impressive annual growth rate of approximately 8 percent. The entire country has been caught up in an enormous upheaval centred on an explosion in the field of information and communication technologies, one that has fostered the emergence of a large and consumer-oriented middle-class with tremendous purchasing power.

"No God in Sight" by Atlaf Tyrewala

These social transformations have also contributed enormously to making English, finally, a truly Indian language - it now numbers among the 18 national languages officially recognized by the Sahitya Akademi, the Indian Academy of Letters. And this situation is certainly novel when we recall the embittered debate between English-language authors and those writing in regional languages that has accompanied the development of English-language Indian literature over the past two decades.

This debate was triggered - and at the same time brought to the attention of the West - by a dictum by author Salman Rushdie claiming that Indian English-language literature was superior in quality to that written in regional languages. A cultural war immediately erupted between the two camps: India's English-language authors felt themselves exposed to accusations of disloyalty, while those writing in regional languages saw themselves being relegated to the margins. At the same time, they were apprehensive about being disadvantaged in international literary commerce with the West, where the enormous wealth of India's regional literature has been summarily dismissed because of language barriers.

Here in Germany, "Indian literature" is still perceived through a distorting lens. Today, just as earlier, German reception is conditioned by the works of English-language authors, many of whom live abroad. On the Indian book market, all of these writers enjoy advantages about which their colleagues writing in regional languages can only dream. This is all the more absurd once we realize that popular authors writing in Hindi or Bengali have for their part attained sales figures and readerships that seem almost inconceivably large to their English-language colleagues. In terms of reader numbers, English-language Indian literature plays an extremely limited role on the Indian book market.

"Corridor" by Sarnath Banerjee

Still, the English-language sector continues to exert an influence on publishing throughout the land. Many Indian authors - especially younger ones - will tell you that they experience a certain pressure, strengthened by internationally active publishers, to act as cultural ambassadors. In other words, either to turn out "spice and curry" in the form of easily-digestible novels of the exotic variety, or else elucidations of "Indianness" as such.

But a younger generation of authors now appears to have emerged in the English-language literary sector whose common development manifests a kind of caesura. All are between 25 and 35 years of age – a fact while in and of itself represents a minor revolution in a country where the aura of the senior writer has always shaped the literary canon. All came of age in an India where access to the wider world was available via mouseclick, and all feel at home within the most divergent cultures – and they play with this intercultural network in their literary work as well. At the same time, nonetheless, they are rooted in India to an astonishing degree, and they write about this sense of connection in new and innovative – and at times surprising - ways. A marked turn toward localism is observable, meaning toward the microcosmos of one's own lived world, to the history of the individual towns where these authors lead their lives. In literary terms, this return is associated with an opening toward genre literature and toward what might be referred to as the small form.

No author better represents this new trend than 30-year-old Altaf Tyrewala, whose debut novel "No God in Sight" has also recently appeared in German. Just 170 pages in length, the slender novel is a slap in the face to the tradition of the "Great Indian Novel", the favoured form of Anglo-Indian literature. Within its restricted dimensions, and in a language that is as plainspoken as it is condensed, Tyrewala succeeds in capturing the psychic inner life of Mumbai, India's most frequently portrayed city. Tyrewala himself was born in Mumbai in 1977, where he continues to make his home, having made a guest appearance in New York City. For as he says himself, he needs the city in order to write: "Its incredibly important for me to live with my own culture, in the location I’m writing about. I can’t imagine living abroad and visiting my country once a year to stock up on material before returning to the comfortable First World, where I would live while writing about the Third."

By means of brief vignettes, he anatomises the underside of the glittering capital, where ordinary - and at first glance inconspicuous - individuals move about in the shadows of brilliance and glamour. Above all, his Mumbai is a city of the Muslim middle-classes, whose members (and here is the novel's un-stated framework) struggle for survival and dignity within a political landscape that has been radically transformed by the Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva) party.

"one night @ the call center" by Chetan Bhagat

Indirectly then, a novel such as "No God in Sight" gives voice to critical dissent in relation to the one-sided success story the country seeks to narrate about itself in campaigns such as "India shining" or "India on the rise". Such counter-images are frequently found in the works of this young generation of authors. With "Corridor", Sarnath Banerjee, who was born in Calcutta in 1972 and lives in Delhi, for example, has not only published India's first graphic novel. In it, he combines the motif of city life with a loving search for traces among the local aromas and social milieus which he perceiRana Dasguptaves as doomed to perish in the wake of India's globalisation and homogenisation.

"Corridor" leads its readers (and from the perspective of the collector of curiosities rather than that of the nostalgic) off the beaten in into the everyday spaces of Delhi and Calcutta. Against these backdrops, and with deftness and wit, Banerjee articulates the inner quandaries of young urbanites who find themselves caught somewhere between sexual freedom and social compulsion. "We want to rediscover our own voices," says Banerjee, "which means telling the stories of our own lives. Definitely not tales of three generations, of cinnamon and papaya in little gardens in Tamil Nadu. One example: over the past year, a woman friend of mine has had sexual relations with 16 people. And she can no longer recall which of them wRana Dasguptaas the first. Hardly the classical image of the young North Indian woman. But her story forms a part of the biography of the city, of how life there ticks, in psychological terms, the musical score of the town."

Chetan Bhagat, born in Delhi in 1974, has captured the voice of an entire generation in his "one night @ the call center". His novel which sold 100,000 copies in a single month, and this in a country where the best-seller threshold is 5,000 - is set in the world of the call centre, where ever growing legions of well-educated urban Indians waste their talent and knowledge. The locale is real-life Gurgaon, a satellite town lying 35 km south of Delhi, where gargantuan shopping malls and call centres herald the Indian version of the 21st century. But Bhagat, himself formally active in the IT field, denounces this new lifestyle as a kind of recolonisation of his country – only this time, it operates not by means of violence, but instead by exploiting bodily desires. In stylistic terms, Bhagat’s novel is conspicuous for its use of colloquial English, the true lingua franca of the urban middle classes, and for its renunciation of the type of elaborate diction associated with the works of many Anglo-Indian authors.

It may well be that novels such as "one night @ the call center" are less concerned with literariness as such and far more with the possibilities of identification. For India's younger urban populations in particular are exposed to enormous social mutations. Increasing numbers of call centres are hiring full-time psychologists as the parallel existences of their employees - here global lifestyle, there traditional social roles - is taking a psychic toll. So-called "chick lit" – stories of young, single professional women, or Indian Bridget Joneses - has begun to circulate on the market. As reading material goes, it is distinctly lighter fare. Still, the social displacements articulated therein do weigh heavily.

"The Simoqin Prophecies" by Samit Basu

This differentiation of lived experience is accompanied by a corresponding differentiation on the book market - a reliable index of the growing professionalism of the business as a whole. New genres are conquering the market - the comic book, and especially the fantasy and science-fiction genres. And Samit Basu, (his blog) born in 1979 and currently a resident of Delhi, has certainly performed a service by providing Indian literature with its first fantasy novel, "The Simoqin Prophecies". Here, we find an arresting and innovative melange of myths new and old, Indian fables and Western pop culture, the Mahabharata and James Bond.

All in all, a new level of freedom is in evidence. This is also confirmed by 34-year-old literature critic Nilanjana Roy, also a resident of Delhi, who has followed the development of Indian English-language literature for years. This freedom, she emphasizes, can only mean that prior obligations to specifically "Indian" content have ceased to apply: "I'm delighted to see that today's authors, at long last, are writing out of a sense of freedom, that they’re doing exactly as they please. They can live in India and write about Bulgaria. They can write about their own world, and which Bob Dylan and jazz are just as prominent as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bollywood songs. All these things form a part of our lives, so why should we allow ourselves to be forced into a corset by telling only certain stories? India has more than one story."

This spirit of freedom, which allows the local to mingle with the global, is exuded in particular by Rana Dasgupta's (website) first novel "Tokyo Cancelled", which quickly made it to the top 10 list of Indian bestsellers. All traces of an Indian setting have been virtually eliminated - although the now 35-year-old author emphasizes the importance for his writing of Delhi, his home since 2001. Nonetheless, his novel mirrors in an exemplary fashion a contemporary world in which life - whether in London, Paris or Lagos - is subjugated to the conditions of the global marketplace. A world, says Dasgupta, whose apparent openness calls for interrogation: "You have only to read the newspaper or to buy products to get a sense of finding yourself in many different places simultaneously. To that extent, the geography of my novel is also an inner cartography. And this may be even more true for people living in India. Today's generation grew up in a totally liberalized India. For us, it’s completely normal to switch between cultures. We listen to American music and to Indian music, we watch American films and Indian films, and we see no contradiction in doing so. My book challenges this global situation by emphasizing that it’s not just a question of possession. It’s also a question of which ethical relationships one cultivates in this world. How do we behave, for example, toward refugees and immigrants?"

"Tokyo Cancelled" by Rana Dasgupta

Meanwhile, the English-language media in India is extolling authors such as Dasgupta, Basu, Tyrewala and Banerjee. In general, producers of literature are suddenly being marketed more aggressively by the media, and a new glamour adheres to the literary profession. Today, Dasgupta and his generation are seemingly in a position to live solely from their writings - something about which their predecessors could only dream. An additional novelty is the way these writers have come to form an artistic community, one that fosters an exchange of ideas about new work. In Delhi, for instance, Dasgupta, Basu, Banerjee and some of their as-yet unknown colleagues meet twice monthly at the British Council. There, readings and discussions are held in an atmosphere of transparency and openness. These get-togethers also compensate for the absence of the kind of literary training infrastructure that is familiar in Germany.

When it comes to English-language literature from India, the approaching years are indeed likely to show evidence of a fresh wind. Whereas earlier, the dominance of the English language seemed to threaten the Indian literary landscape with homogenisation, an unforeseen antidote is now available, namely the Internet. That is to say, the same medium that is ostensibly accelerating the inexorable advance of English. And while India's upswing toward the status of an economic power has exacerbated social disparities, the differences between urban and rural, middle and upper classes, conversely, are being levelled out. In the process, other voices are becoming audible, and no longer only from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta. And writing - especially in the English-language - has been conquered by the middle classes, in both good and bad senses. Literary online magazines and blogs are flourishing – and in regional languages as well, incidentally.

Literature, with its numerous and at times contradictory facets, finally, mirrors the situation of the country as a whole, which seems to be developing in a perpetual contradiction to itself. Given this situation, we can only wait expectantly to see which new and unexpected pathways will be opening up within the landscape of Indian literature.


Claudia Kramatschek lives in Berlin as an freelance literary critic. Since 2001, she has been travelling regularly to the Indian subcontinent, a main focus of her work as a critic.

The article originally appeared in German on November 20, 2006 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european