It’s always tempting — if often misleading — to look for a watershed moment at which we can point and say of a trend or movement: ‘Yes, this was when it all began.’
If we were to try to do that for the instant when that confounding sub-literature called Indian Writing in English (also variously known as Indo-Anglian Writing and, thanks to mistakes more common than one would have thought plausible, Anglo-Indian and Indo-Anglican Writing) became mainstream, one should look no further than this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist.
The Man Booker is the most breathlessly reported literary award in the world, a perfect advertisement for the novelist’s stature as a real celebrity in times when our cultural discourse is dominated by the size of an author’s advance rather than the real thing — the text.
Two Indians and Salman Rushdie make it to the longlist this year. Rushdie, born in India, appropriated by India, knighted by Britain and resident (mostly) of New York, has been on the long and shortlists and won the Booker — and versions of it — on more occasions than I have had caviar. He turns up again with his baroque, cross-continental, post-modern romp, The Enchantress of Florence. Amitav Ghosh makes an appearance with his intricately plotted, funny, chillingly violent page-turner of a maritime adventure, Sea of Poppies. And Aravind Adiga comes in with The White Tiger, a mordant, razor-sharp debut that describes what happens when the New India of the abundant opportunities and overflowing money collides and colludes with the other India of the hinterland. The three books couldn’t be more dissimilar.
There is one thing that unites the three: they were all born in India. So were Nikita Lalwani and Indra Sinha who were on the longlist last year. But neither that nor the fact that they (usually) write about India can justify confining them to that ghetto called Indian Writing in English. (Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music was, for instance, neither set in India nor had any Indian character. Now is he not an Indian Writer in English? William Dalrymple's Mughal trilogy is set in India. Is he an Indian writer in English?')
Whether in the focus on the epic narrative or the minimalist, the provincial or the urban, writing in English by Indians has, over the years, grown sufficiently capacious to burst out of the bag in which we — and the world — seem keen to put it.
We don’t much talk about Canadian Writing in English, do we? While it’s true that English here has traditionally been the language of the metropolitan elite, just as true are three things: the reach of English has widened; its representation — be it in literature or as a spoken language — has changed in India; and Indian Writing in English is an outdated, colonial construct, much like the Commonwealth Prize for fiction that Ghosh had once turned down.
That writing is mainstream enough and various enough now. It’s time. Let’s just talk about writing in English. We need have neither the proper noun nor the prefix.