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Bookest of them all

Jhumpa Lahiri's minimalism is a foil to the grand baroque style that informs some of our English fiction, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2008 22:34 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

As we begin to drum up our roar of approval and self-congratulation for the inclusion of two Indians — the veteran Amitav Ghosh with his splendid, riveting maritime adventure, Sea of Poppies, and Aravind Adiga with his edgy, mordant debut, The White Tiger, — in the Man Booker Prize shortlist this year, we’ve missed something exceptional that has occurred in the world of literary prizes.

And it involves an Indian writer. It is fitting that Jhumpa Lahiri (or, rather, Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri) has quietly, unobtrusively won the world’s richest prize for a short story collection.

Although I can barely recall a murmur in the media about it, her triumph is resounding: for the first time in the history of the Frank O’Connor prize, the judges dispensed with the shortlist. With Lahiri on the longlist, they thought it would be a travesty to announce a shortlist when they were certain that her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, was so infinitely superior to the competition that no one else would have even a sniff at winning the 35,000 euro prize. The award’s director, Pat Cotter, has been quoted as saying that the judges felt that “it would be a sham to compose a shortlist and put five other writers through unnecessary stress and suspense”.

This is appropriate for two reasons. First, because Unaccustomed Earth, in its poise and elegance, its finely calibrated, nuanced grasp of universal human emotions and its closely attentive, flawless prose is — at least for my money — by far the best collection of stories published this year. (I’d go so far as to say that it might be the best work of fiction published this year, and certainly that by an
Indian writer.)

Second, because Lahiri’s writing mirrors the sort of response (or lack of it) that her unique award has drawn: deceptively self-deprecating, layered, detailed, calling no attention to itself, introspective and, above all, quiet. She is a magical miniaturist. Her books are devoid of the white noise that permeates the Big Indian Novel.

On publication in hardback in the US, Unaccustomed Earth went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It was a feat, as the Guardian reported, rare for any piece of serious writing, still less a collection of stories, something publishers are sniffy about because it isn’t likely to sell. (They have been doing this for as long as anyone can remember. When V.S. Naipaul handed his British publishers his first manuscript — a collection of stories — in the mid-50s, they insisted that he first write a novel. Which was why The Mystic Masseur preceded Miguel Street in its publication.)

Lahiri’s admiring reviewers in Britain and the US have most frequently compared her sensibility and approach to those of Chekov’s and Tolstoy’s. They have found similarities between her and the Canadian master, Alice Munro.

No literature, of course, exists in a vacuum though we often stupidly think so, assuming that a book appeared, fully
formed, from merely the imagination of its writer. A book, particularly if it is any good, is always part of a canon.

Lahiri’s ancestry can be traced to a certain kind of Indian writing, the sort in which god is in the details: of
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay in Bengali; of U.R. Anantha Murthy in Kannada; and of R.K. Narayan and Arun Kolatkar in English. It is a lineage to be proud of, and Lahiri is an outstanding keeper of the flame.

We tend to not think too much about this sort of writing when we think of Indian writing (especially in English) largely because Salman Rushdie — and his magnificent Midnight’s Children — created, from the early 1980s, a sort of template for the Big Indian Novel. It was assumed that fiction should aspire to capture the multilingual, chaotic, teeming, larger-than-life reality of India.

But the idea of the Indian novel (at least when written in English) as a rip-roaring, post-modern, post-colonial, baroque, multitudinous, chutneyfied (to borrow from Rushdie) epic is to focus on merely one strand of the writing that we have in our canon(s).

In his introduction to the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, Amit Chaudhuri drew attention to this. “A cursory glance at the ancient and modern literary traditions of India... will confirm that delicacy and nuance are... central to, and manifested with great skill and beauty, in all significant examples of Indian writing.”

We should be thrilled by Lahiri's triumph because it is evidence that that other great lineage of Indian writing is alive and flourishing. It is evidence also — along with Adiga’s novel, Indra Sinha’s 2007-Man-Booker-shortlisted Animal’s People — of the fact that Indian writing in English has grown capacious enough to defy the template of the
post-colonial, baroque epic that Midnight’s Children had unwittingly set forth.

No literature can either thrive or break into the mainstream without heterogeneity. The thing worth rejoicing about, more than our writers getting on to shortlists or winning prizes, is the variety and breadth that inform and illuminate the work of Indians writing in English today.