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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Indian Writer Writing in English - Excerpts I had Posted Elsewhere

by Suzan Abrams

Excerpt 1:

South-East Asian writers who publish in the West appear to have been left out of the Man Booker longlist this year. One hopeful was Malaysia's Preeta Samarasan for Evening is the Whole Day. Samarasan is of South Indian origin and Malaysia belongs to the Commonwealth. Many were banking on her to have made the longlist. Sadly, she failed. But this sort of identity description is a bit tricky too.

Like de Krester who is considered of an Australian nationality but is Sri Lankan in race. At the end of the day, she's still seen by the world as originally, from the Indian sub-continent. While Samarasan's fans are careful to keep reminding us all that she is Malaysian, she's still an Indian writer by race. Her plot revolves around an Indian family although other cultural situations are cleverly drawn in as well. To deny a race would be to practically deny ancestry, family ties and a valuable heritage.

So the question is, in lists to come, will Indian writers be recognized by the countries they represent or by their race?

No matter which countries they choose to live in or were born in, they'll still be easily traced back to their homeland. I feel that race will always triumph over country which will eventually be seen as a symbol. I feel that because Indian writers have come into their own in a big way since the time of Rushdie and Roy, they will be around for a while yet and continue to surprise us from different parts of the world.

In the same vein, I do think that Pakistani literature has risen tremendously of late. And this issue came up recently at the South Bank festival where Mohammed Hanif read from his new novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. It came somewhat as a shock to the audience as to the recollection of just how many Pakistani writers had published novels and short stories in the last 2 years alone.

Excerpt 2:

At the moment, the English Language being written by writers from the Indian sub continent worldwide and on homebase, doesn't differ from a text that you would read in England or the States. The majority of writers approach prose in a careful, studied way.

The ethnic voice hardly touches structure or form.

Instead, it nosedives into the heart of the plot as it wades its way through conflicts arising from different cultural customs, traditions, superstitions, rituals and even unusual ethnic settings or objects. The 'fractured' part of the use of English that you mentioned , is currently limited to dialogue and foreign accents. Somewhere along the way, a reader is likely to traverse history. That seems to be the general skeletal frame that shapes such a novel.

Basically after such pioneer novelists as Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, raised popularity for South-Asian writings worldwide, there was a monumental rise of Indian authors and writings all through the 1990s. Most focussed on stories of emigration and identity, where thanks to India's complicated caste system, offered such a lot of difficult introspection through deeply serious works.

Then for a few years, came a sudden lull, a quietness, a dip in popularity if you like.
Now the surge of works has started up again and there appears to be a newer stronger voice...a sharp turn up the road from those common emigration themes.

If you look at Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri's first collection of short stories called Interpreter of Maladies and compare it to her recent bestselling release titled Unaccustomed Earth, you will see the difference. New stories feature characters that tend to focus on present-day events; characters that have assimilated themselves more fully into their adopted countries and no longer stay too mournful about their countries of origin. Also Vikas Swarup who wrote a first novel based on Indian life, has just released a second novel published in London; a chunky thriller titled Six Suspects. He is now threading the road less travelled, for Indian stories.

I think that in the next few years, Indian writings will become more daring and experimental, threading into untouched terrain rather than focussing on emigration themes as a safety net.

Excerpt 3:

When Rushdie indicated that Indian writings in English appears far more confident today today as compared to a few years ago...

Not too long ago, there was a wide gap between the Indian population overall for writers published in their country and Indian writers who had emigrated abroad. There was rivalry and disgruntlement, a subtle sulkiness now and then.

There seemed to be two distinct sides that found it difficult to be reconciled to each other with their various stories. "Living in the West" as the man on the Mumbai street would term the Indian writer living in Europe or the States and this, rather scornfully too, as I might add.

I remember reading of complaints where it was said that the writer who fell into this 'unfortunate' category wouldn't know or would otherwise have simply forgotten the essence of India as it stood. I remember vaguely that this was a big issue a few years ago and Rushdie was named as the perfect example of someone "brainwashed into Westernised ideas with only a superficial idea of what India could possibly be."

This the opinion of farmers, provision shop owners and the like. Rusdie may have had a bone to pick, because of this.

But the thing is Indian life abroad is as much as Indian life in India when it comes to the heart and soul of things. Family ties for instance are so tightly knotted, they will not be dissolved. Also, I think there is a furious misconception that the Indian writer abroad won't know the right Indian stories to tell.

I don't know the nuts and bolts of things but I believe the rivalry has lessened considerably in the last few years and the gap has narrowed to a more harmonious playing field between Indian writers in the Sub-Continent and abroad. Peace. That's what Rushdie may have had in mind as well, using literature as an example to express his relief. Just a hunch and my 2 cents worth.

Excerpt 4:

To separate a writer from his/her heritage and blood ties would be quite impossible I think.

As children of Indian immigrants, these writers are still unsettled and restless, still seeking answers.

That is why too, the Indian diaspora is filled with complexities.

I will add though that I think Hanif Kureishi to be one of the most confident and sophisticated writers when it comes to individual identity. His plots and themes often have broad European themes don't they. In his stories, he is able to switch from East to West with hardly any trouble or questions asked. Another would be Vikram Seth. Think 'An Equal Music.'

Clip art used with permission

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