Monday, February 28, 2011

Things I've Been Reading: An Indian Literature Special

 "Your Missing Person: Clearing House and The Bombay Poets" by the poet and novelist Anjum Hasan, a survey of the dynamic small presses of Bombay of the 1970s run by loose collectives of Bombay poets, the ripples of connection and influence they generated, and the idea of Bombay as a cosmopolitan space that loosened the tongues of Indian poets who both lived in Bombay and didn't.

"Three Mistakes This Decade", a short piece by the novelist Chetan Bhagat on the worst things to have happened in India in the decade just gone by. One of these cataclysms is what Bhagat calls "The Godhra Riots" of 2002:
"The train burning incident and the riots thereafter, were both terrible incidents that scarred India's entry into the new millennium. The innocent families who were affected, of course, suffered the worst of this mistake. While a few miscreants did the heinous acts, for a while it tarnished the image of the people of Gujarat, which (sic) in my opinion, are one of the most peace loving people on earth." 
Bhagat's brightly complacent, feel-good, syntactically incoherent reading of what some would call a small-scale genocide, organised by groups much more deadly and efficient than "a few miscreants", is an example of what for me is the main problem with his work, which is that it is deficient just in terms of style (which can be, as Bhagat himself has argued, a subjective position, and something on which one might defer to the taste of others) but also in its thought, in its grasp of what is going on in the world, as in the jeering, stereotypical portrait of Americans in his One Night @ The Call Center. 

"Bankim or Tagore" by the translator Arunava Sinha, who has translated both these novelists into English and now tries to weigh his preference for one or the other ("As a reader, I admire Bankim’s control, structure, richness, characterisation and narrative verve. But as a translator, I was perhaps more challenged by Tagore’s craft, his unfailing ability to create poetry out of sentences, to draw rich pictures in his descriptions, and to present a larger truth through his fiction.")

"Let Poetry Be A Sword!", an essay by Ananya Vajpeyi on the Indian writer DR Nagaraj, whose marvellous book of essays The Flaming Feet was reviewed here recently("In his home state, DR had been recognised from his early days as a student activist and a literary agent provocateur. DR, himself born into an extremely impoverished and backward weaver caste, gave a new kind of voice to Dalit and Shudra identity struggles: compassionate, confident, comfortably learned, and equally critical of both upper-caste humbug and Dalit self-pity.") Vajpeyi is also the editor of a marvellous recent issue of the Indian magazine Seminar called "The Indian Constitution at 60", from which I'd recommend her own introduction, "The Problem", and Pratap Bhanu Mehta's searching essay "What Is Constitutional Morality?"

"The Un-Victim", a long interview with Arundhati Roy by the novelist and non-fiction writer Amitava Kumar. While Roy is very much "in character" in this exchange ("To answer your question, I don’t really do research in order to write. Finding out about things, figuring out the real story—what you call research—is part of life now for some of us. Mostly just to get over the indignity of living in a pool of propaganda, of being lied to all the time, if nothing else"), I was surprised to see Amitava Kumar—usually so flamboyant, so jaunty, so debonair, so chirpy, so forceful—so restrained, so sweet, and so deferential, only once stirring up a bit of trouble by asking, "Is there anything you have written in the past that you don’t agree with anymore, that you think you were wrong about, or perhaps something about which you have dramatically changed your mind?"

"One-Eyed", a striking poem by Meena Kandasamy from her recent collection Ms Militancy.

"Cameron's Cuz Is More The Curzon", a reply by Patrick French to "A Curzon Without An Empire", a review by Pankaj Mishra of his book India: A Portrait ("I was depicted as a Bob Christo character, playing several villainous, alien roles: I was the viceroy Lord Curzon, a shocked 'foreign visitor', a writer influenced by 'right-wing Friedmans', whose book was aimed at 'western businessmen'—and not just any western businessmen, but the sort who 'remain indifferent to the benighted 800 million in rural areas.'") Elsewhere, and recently, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati criticises Mishra in a lecture in Parliament last December called "This Is How Economic Reforms Have Transformed India", arguing that "While economic analysis can often produce a yawning indifference, and Mishra's narrative is by contrast eloquent and captivating, the latter is really fiction masquerading as non-fiction."

"The Final Chapter", a story by the Gujarati writer Pravinsinh Chavda in a translation by Mira Desai, and with an introduction to Chavda's work ("When envoys reached him with news about the ticket allotment for the state assembly, Jagubhai was waiting at the village bus stand, a wet napkin wrapped to his head. He’d reached in a rush, but the one-thirty bus had left right before his eyes, and since the next bus was only after two hours, he sat by a banyan tree, his legs stretched out."). The Gujarati version of this story is here.

"The BJP's Sole Currency Is Its Anger" by Aakar Patel, whose intriguing, homespun view of the Indian public sphere and history is to my mind the most acerbic and the most distinctive of all the columnists in the English-language press today ("We can read all 986 pages of Advani’s My Country, My Life and not encounter a thought or idea about his country’s illiteracy and poverty. Someone else will worry about them. Advani’s concerns are emotional—how Mother India is being ravaged by Muslims and Christians in Kashmir, Assam, North-East and so on. The BJP isn’t interested in economics as a subject of politics, because Hindutva is not constructive but sullen. Though both Manu and Kautilya weigh in on it in their texts, economics has not been a Brahmin concern. The Brahmin’s concern has been keeping his identity pure.")

And last, "The Enigma of India's Arrival", a long and perceptive essay on trends in the Indian economy since independence, and particularly after liberalization, by Kaushik Basu, now chief economic advisor to the government of India and the author of the fascinating new book Beyond The Invisible Hand: Groundwork For a New Economics, which I've been reading ("Virmani’s characterization of the resurgence of India caused by its break from socialism does not survive scrutiny. The primary reason for this is that India never practiced socialism.") If you're interested in this kind of work, you might also enjoy mulling over a paper by Gaurav Datt and Martin Ravallion called "Why Have Some Indian States Performed Better Than Others At Reducing Rural Poverty?" ("Rural poverty rankings of Indian states in 1990 were very different from 1960. This unevenness in progress allows us to study the causes of poverty in a developing rural economy. We model the evolution of various poverty measures, using pooled state-level data for the period 1957-91.")

Monday, February 21, 2011

Arzee the Dwarf in The Drawbridge

The new issue of the British literary magazine The Drawbridge is dedicated to the theme "Flight", and it contains, alongside work by Italo Calvino, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and the Indian novelists Sankar and Anjum Hasan, a long excerpt from Arzee the Dwarf: the bit in which Arzee is seen walking to work, nearly falls down a stairway, and jumps over a wheelbarrow.

And, elsewhere, here is my short story, "Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni Changes His Name".

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ten Ways You Can Change Your Life By Reading Novels

I'd like to invite you to a one-hour lecture in Delhi called "Ten Ways You Can Change Your Life By Reading Novels" on Saturday, the 19th of February, at 5pm at the Alliance Francaise, Lodhi Road. Here's a short description of the lecture:
Novels, more than any other form of literature, offer a thoroughgoing, non-prescriptive education in all the arts of the human self.

How so? By reading novels, we are, through all the means and maneuvers of storytelling, given a contemplative education in the range and depth of human choice and human perspectives, a vantage point on the human mind as it sparks and leaps through thought. The narrative structures of novels allow us to contemplate all the pleasures and problems of the human experience of time.

By offering us language worked up to the most vivid, subtle, and musical meanings and sounds of which it is capable, novels teach us to cherish language, showing us how better language leads to better thought. By showing us the ways in which memory works, and how human decisions are always contingent on particular constellations of circumstances as much as on overriding beliefs and principles, novels allow us to develop a more rewarding understanding of time.
Novels demonstrate to us how doubt is just as useful a human virtue as certainty, and that the good life must respect both rationality and passion. By tracking experiences that lie behind closed doors or within human minds, they instill in us an awareness of the importance of the private life of individuals to the health of society. And by never offering any explicit advice, novels in fact offer the best kind of support to readers -- the confidence that trusts the adult reader to make up his or her mind after considering all the evidence. The wisdom of the novel is not the wisdom of answers, but that of questions.
Choudhury will make his points with concrete examples from novels by a wide range of writers, including Orhan Pamuk, Irene Nemirovsky, Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Anton Chekhov, David Mitchell, and Vikram Chandra. 

And it'd also be good to see you at a prior event on Friday the 18th: the launch of India: A Traveller's Literary Companion.

The launch of India: A Traveller's Literary Companion in Delhi, February 18

I'd like to invite you this Friday, the 18th of February, to the launch of my new book India: A Traveller's Literary Companion at 6.30 pm at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in M Block Market, GK-1, New Delhi.

The book has stories by many great Indian writers, from Salman Rushdie and Vikram Chandra to Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay and Phanishwarnath Renu. The introduction to the book can be found here, and an interview about how it was put together here.

At the launch I'll give a short talk highly opaque, theoretical, jargon-laden, and allusive called "The Pleasures of Indian Literature". Please pre-tune your ears to the polysyllabic range.

You might also like to come to a lecture I'm giving on Saturday the 19th at the Alliance Francaise called "Ten Ways You Can Change Your Life By Reading Novels". All the details are here.

And here is an old post, "Arzee the Dwarf in Delhi, and in love with Delhi".

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Indian Literature 2000-2010: a survey

A shorter version of this essay appeared earlier this week as part of a special edition of Mint surveying the last decade in Indian politics, business, society, literature, and culture. I apologise for some lapses and omissions I'd have liked to say something, for example, about poetry and drama, but I don't think I'm tuned in enough to the scene to have a secure sense of its shape

This is also my final piece as Mint Lounge's book critic, bringing to an end four fulfilling years of waking up every Saturday to find one of my reviews in the paper. An archive of about 180 reviews and essays for Lounge is here. These essays, and my two books Arzee the Dwarf and India: A Traveller's Literary Companion, were my own small contribution to Indian literature this decade. I'll continue to appear occasionally on the paper's books pages, but the space where I'm most reliably to be found is here.

The Decade In Literature
The book business encompasses three universes that overlap substantially but have distinct identities and histories. These are: publishing (the book as a physical object, the mechanics of book-editing, design and printing, the size of the market, the quality and diversity of the writers and publishing houses within it), bookselling (the bookshop as a site for browsing and buying and as a cultural space, the distribution networks of publishers, book launches and other publicity methods), and, less tangible than the other two but the idea grounding it all: the idea of literature, of a reading culture.  

This is the acknowledged power of the written word, deeply considered by an individual writer and then sifted through multiple quality-control filters and put between two covers, for nuanced thinking that calls on all the riches of language, creates unforgettable verbal patterns, beats on the reader's brain with provocative ideas or narrative methods, world-changing argument or a defence of the status quo, offers spiritual elevation or just thrilling timepass, supplies a mirror on the world or a vision of an alternative world. Across all books is a common idea of the book.

This idea, though, is changing. From a global perspective, not since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the fifteenth century has there been a more momentous decade in the history of the book as the one that just went by. Both book-publishing and bookselling have changed shape enormously from the turn of the millennium onwards. In the West, the decline of print culture and the arrival of the e-reader and the e-book have made it possible to imagine a day, due within our own lifetimes, when the printed book, like the printed newspaper, will be no more than a curiosity. Indeed, a hundred years from now the very word “book” may not mean anything, as we move further into a world of integrated multimedia. 

Simultaneously, the spread of the Internet and the growth and burgeoning power of Amazon have precipitated a crisis for bookshops, which all through the twentieth century were the sites where all the elements of literature came together, and mean something vital to you and me that they might not to our children. Meanwhile, globalization has, arguably, made “literature” a bigger and richer space for most serious readers, making more kinds of books more easily available to more readers, permitting old books to be sold alongside new books, and allowing readers, through the Internet, to have a stronger say in book discussion and, thereby, sales.

India’s book economy is, however, on a different arc, from that of the West and, like the Indian newspaper industry, is still on its way up rather than down. For an observer of Indian literature in English (for the purposes of this essay, I include under “Indian literature in English” both work originally written in English and that translated into English), the last decade was full of bright lights on all three counts of publishing, book-selling, and the density and internal diversity of the idea of literature and the spread of a reading culture.

As – whether we like it or not – the hub of the many literary cultures that make Indian literature the most complex and multilingual national literature in the world, Indian literature in English has a huge responsibility, one that it realised better this decade than in any one previously. 

Just as it has taken Indian democracy the best part of 60 years to activate the social and political energies of a majority of its citizens, including many traditionally disenfranchised groups, similarly, it might be said, it has taken Indian literature in English (which is a few decades older than Indian democracy) a very long time to achieve a density and diversity equal to the social and linguistic energies available to it. We might think of this decade as one in which Indian literature both went forward and expanded outward at the same time, bringing into its embrace many of the literary riches of its past and present that were hitherto restricted to speakers of a particular regional language or specialists. (Take an hour, for instance, to survey all the riches of the Clay Sanskrit Library project, which published about 50 titles over the course of this decade).

The birth of many new publishing houses and imprints in the last decade, the explosion in the number of books published,  the increase in the number of bookshops (particularly the big chains like Crossword, Landmark and Odyssey) and the growth of the online book trade all point to one thing. The book business is growing rapidly. In 2010, the estimated value of the trade book market (covering, that is, books published for the general reader, and not textbooks or technical books) was about 1500 crores . This is three times the size of the book market in 2000.

When Penguin, the market leader in the trade segment (with about 15%), started up its operations in India in 1987, it published seven titles that year. In 2000, it was up to 124 titles a year. This year, it was about 240 – a reliable index of how things have come along in two decades. Further, many more players have a slice of that pie than was the case ten years ago. A number of new English trade and academic publishing houses – Random House India, Permanent Black, Westland Books, HachetteBlaft, Navayana, Yoda, Niyogi, Amaryllis, and Srishti – appeared over the last decade to compete with the older guard of Penguin, HarperCollins, Rupa, Orient Blackswan, Oxford University Press, Seagull, Zubaan, Motilal Banarsidass, Picador, Katha, Roli, Mapin, and Stree Samya, claiming a share of the trade even as they helped increase its size with their distinct emphases.

Widening internet penetration has stimulated e-commerce, allowing readers in places without bookshops to buy books, and even those in areas with bookshops to access a much wider range of books, or buy books at substantial discounts. Online bookselling, almost negligible in 2000, now accounts for about Rs.100 crore worth of business annually, divided up between players like Flipkart (where I do most of my shopping), Rediff and Indiaplaza.  

The physical Indian bookshop, though, with some honorable exceptions, continues to be a disappointing place for the serious reader. Stocking an inadequate range of titles and usually manned by staff who have no real interest in or knowledge of books, bookshops in India don’t yet manage to fulfill the publisher Andre Shiffrin’s idea that “The good bookshop doesn’t just have the book you want, it has the book you never knew you wanted.” I find some of the better secondhand bookshops in India, such as Blossom in Bangalore and New & Secondhand Bookshop in Mumbai, far more rewarding than the big chain stores. Recently I spent some very productive hours in Arpita Das's Yodakin in Delhi's Hauz Khas Village, and Sachin Rastogi's Worldview Bookstore at Jadavpur University in Kolkata has an excellent range of academic and university press books at bargain prices.

A great part of the appeal of books, we must remember, is their allure as physical objects: the way they are designed, bound, typeset. This was the decade in which, for the first time in India, books as objects met world standards. When I was a literature student in the year 2000, it was possible to distinguish a book published by an Indian publisher from a foreign one just by taking a look a it. This is no longer the case, and Indian bookshops now take pride in a wealth of books by Indian writers that don’t just read well but look great. If there is something that Indian publishing needs now, it is better editors. To this book-reviewer, too many Indian books are currently let down by their sloppy English: hoary cliches, confusing syntax, superfluities, stilted dialogue, clumsy metaphors, and unselfconsciously purple prose.

Indian literature itself occupies a much larger place in world literary consciousness than it did at the beginning of the decade, with a small raft of big Indian names giving way to a whole schooner of exciting voices. The typical first-time Indian novelist or short-story writer in English today is much less self-conscious in his or her approach to the language than, say, two decades ago, and much more sure of his or her audience. The result is that good new works of fiction appear now not in their ones and twos but at the rate of a couple of dozen a year. In a multicultural and globalizing world, in the age of the Internet and with easy access to a hospitable market, Indian writers are also likely to be from more diverse backgrounds than previously, and to have a far wider range of narrative and aesthetic influences across mediums, from novels to films to music to comic books. 

Unfortunately, writers in English have a much greater chance of being published in markets outside India (something that distorts foreign perceptions of Indian literature). This is slowly changing, but it may take another decade to take full effect. The revolution must begin, however, by more Indian readers consciously seeking out Indian literature in translation (some older essays on what I think are great Indian novels in translation are here: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Indeed, the role and agency of readers, as much as writers, in a literature cannot be overestimated. Any vibrant literature requires a sizeable number of discerning readers who not only follow the work of writers but are in some sense in advance of them, and whose impatience with sterile forms and stories, and skepticism of prevailing power structures, creates an atmosphere of ferment and ambition where distinctive visions and bold new energies can exercise their spirits. Such readers are now everywhere in evidence in India, but their numbers are still too small or them to be gamechangers. Perhaps by the year 2020...

Another pointer to the maturation of Indian literature in English this decade was the emergence of genre fiction of various kinds, from thrillers to chicklit to campus novels to pulp fiction in translation, thereby opening out the market for Indian fiction dramatically and bringing in readers hitherto deterred by or unsympathetic to novels. Most of these books don’t yet meet the standards of the educated reader of literary or genre fiction (and some, as Aadisht Khanna pointed out in a hilarious piece, are so bad they’re good) but they are part of the story of Indian literature this decade as much as an Amitav Ghosh or Aravind Adiga.  

As a sign of India’s growing power within the world of Anglophone fiction, the decade was also marked by the establishment of a number of indigenous prizes for Indian or South Asian works of high literary merit. The Crossword book awards, established in 1998, were joined this decade  by the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction award and the Shakti Bhatt First Book award. While still putting down roots in the Indian book world, these prizes allow us to envisage a day when they, rather than overseas stamps of recognition like the Booker, will be seen as the primary arbiters of Indian literary merit. 

Alongside literary prizes, a thriving literary culture also needs quality literary journals. The two established Indian literary journals in English, The Little Magazine and the Sahitya Akademi-published Indian Literature, were joined this decade by a number of excellent print and online literary journals, including the bilingual Pratilipi (which has recently gone into book-publishing), the eclectic Almost Island, and newer efforts like a webzine dedicated to short fiction, Out of Print. Even a magazine such as Time Out Mumbai, which started out in 2004 and over the course of the decade established itself not just as India's best-written magazine but as a journal integral to the self-conception and historical self-awareness of Mumbai, might be thought of as part of the story of Indian literature this decade, cities and literature always being closely connected. 

Book coverage in mainstream newspapers and magazines, though, is not noticeably better than it was in 2000. For this reason, despite the growth of Indian literature, books do not occupy a noticeably larger space in the minds of educated people than at the turn of the century. This one of the last missing links in the maturation of Indian literature, for without robust literary debate and the reasoned evaluation of books, literature is hamstrung both at the level of its influence in the public sphere and its power to school and widen the tastes of readers.

Currently, Indian literature is more deep and diverse than it has ever been, but no one newspaper or journal – perhaps not even all the periodicals collectively – is able to take full stock of this on its pages, and many outstanding titles (particularly academic publications, books from small presses, and works in translation) come and go without a trace. What Indian literature needs in the next decade is something like a New York Review of Books or a London Review of Books – a New Delhi Review of Books perhaps? – to consolidate the many gains of the decade gone by.