One of the nicest things about writing books as an Indian these days is that even though you might be a wan and cut-rate writer with only your fully extended family gushing about your works, the chances of you escaping the summer heat are high. Look at me.
While you’ve been enjoying the sub-40¤C bliss, I’ve been somehow managing with the 17¤C blue sky ’n’ sunshine of London over the last four days. And all because I’m part of a ‘dancing-singing’ troupe of Indian writers that the British Council has kindly plucked from the desi vineyards to participate at the 2009 London Book Fair.
It’s not every season that such a Chak de posse of Indians are airlifted and brought out to be displayed. The London Book Fair, like the much bigger Frankfurt Book Fair every October, is really a publishing trade bazaar where rights are bought and sold. The performing authors are just frizzy shavings on the top. But this year, the ‘focus country’ was India, and the likes of Vikram Seth, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Ramachandra Guha got to shake their more lissome writerly limbs for the nation with the lot like me. Ta-dah!
The panel discussion I was in was titled, ‘Battling for the India reader’. The uncalming image of a very large pack of wolves fighting over Very Little Read Riding Hoods apart, I was too excited on hearing Umberto Eco speak an hour before to be focused. So I didn’t kick up a fuss about the fact that I really didn’t want only the attention of the ‘Indian reader’ — a dodgy concept considering we all hardly read the same kind of writers — but I wanted all kinds of readers of my kind of books, Serbo-Croat, Fijian, Gujarati, Canadian et al. All that was required was for readers to have an access code: the reading habit and a reading knowledge of English or French (since my novels are available in that single non-Indian language).
The point I’m trying to make now, in the safety of my hotel room away from the ‘delegation’, is that our culture brigade — whether of the literary or the sahitya disposition — seems to be obsessed with showcasing only one thing: India. It seems that tom-tomming cultural nationalism is something Indian literature gangs do much better than good ole L.K. Advani.
Such an extreme focus on ‘India’ isn’t borne out by readers’ tastes, who don’t read only Indian books or books about Indian things. As a writer I would have been vaguely pleased to find my books selling more than, say, Dan Brown’s in India. But Indians, thankfully, aren’t only interested or entertained by ‘India’ subjects. Well, of course Indian writers are better placed to chat about all matters Indian. An overwhelming number of their works are located in the various Indias bobbing about. And a multi-culti crowd in London listened to Vikram Seth talking about ‘The Indian imagination’ rather than about Russian literature. Which is a pity because if there’s one person who I want to hear talk about Alexander Pushkin’s classic, Eugene Onegin, it’s the author of The Golden Gate.
What I’m mumbling on about is the habit of getting Indian writers to only discuss the future of India, the Indian mind, conflicts in India, the dichotomy of the two Indias...etc etc. Even writers with grand bandwidths are cribbed into narrow zones where they stop being representatives of their own works and imaginative landscapes and become weekend ambassadors of India.
Why can’t we be made to yap away on ‘Death and the death of the novel’? Or ‘The politics of apolitical fiction’? Or ‘Love as asymmetrical warfare’? Or is it that we don’t know enough about the human condition to stray out of the ‘India’ alley?
Frankly, two things have left a lasting mark on me during my stint at the London Book Fair (“Remember, you could come only because India was the trade focus country!” a kurti-clad fairy helpfully shouts into my ear.) One, last Sunday when I arrived here, J.G. Ballard — one of the most powerful writers of our times and someone whose fictional worlds of dystopia I cherish — died after battling terminal cancer for two years. He’d died somewhere in London and I felt a physical grief at the thought of my arrival in the city coinciding with his departure. It was time to go back to his books.
Two, I found to my horror that Murder One, the iconic ‘home of crime, mystery, thriller and romance fiction’ at 76-78 Charing Cross Road had shut down. Since 1988, it had been the specialist bookstore where I had, since 2001, mined for gold in the form of books by Jim Thompson, Stanislav Lem and H.P. Lovecraft. It shut shop on January 30 this year and now carpentry work for a new establishment was going on.
Perhaps the sadness I feel about these two deaths is particularly Indian. But can anyone else but an Indian feel my pain? Bhai-saab?