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Indian writing in English lacks imagination

Indian writing in English is experiencing a deep malaise marked by an absence of generic plots, observes Shylashri Shankar.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2006 15:14 IST

Some of the greatest novelists in English are Indian - RK Narayan, VS Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie.

But I am referring to the current crop coming out of India and overseas - Chetan Sharma's One Night in a CallCentre, Anjali Banerjee's Rani and the Fashion Divas, Sonia Singh's Bollywood Confidential, Amulya Malladi's Mango Season, Kavita Daswani's For Matrimonial Purposes, Sabrina Saleem's ABCD. These books faithfully evoke a clichéd "exotic India" or "IT India" in their titles.

As William Dalrymple wrote in The Observer, since 1997 (when Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize) there has been no new galaxy of Indian writers to match the giants of the 1980s and 1990s.

Not surprising when the new authors are all middle class 20 or 30 something, with nothing much to say. One can be middle class and publish superlative works - after all, RK Narayan's Malgudi series evoked the flavour of life in southern India.

Indian writing in English is experiencing a deep malaise marked by an absence of imagination, generic plots and highly forgettable characters.

As a voracious and dedicated reader, one objects to the assumption on the part of the author and publishers that readers can be fobbed off with a story that evokes nothing.

The Kavya story is yet another in a long line of bland chick lit writing packaged as the next great brown hope. For those who don't know about it, here is a brief summary - Kavya Vishwanathan, an 18-year-old Harvard sophomore, wrote a book titled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild And Got A Life.

Then Kavya got caught for plagiarism, got apologetic, got no forgiveness, and had to see her books recalled to the publisher's warehouse. Kavya had copied between 20-50 passages from young adult writer Megan McCafferty's books.

I have only read the first chapter of the book posted online - it was about Opal being informed by her (actually her parents') dream university Harvard that she would be admitted only if she could prove that she could have fun. It was like going to a mall and eating at the food court.

The prose was bland, hackneyed and terrifyingly commonplace. Here is an excerpt: "And Opal, don't forget PISS!" Dean Anderson turned his head around and gave me a confused look. I couldn't blame him. 'It stands for Positivity, Intelligence, Sophistication, Success,' I explained. 'I see,' he replied and opened the door to his office. So far, so not very good." Amen!                                  

Indian writing in English is experiencing a deep malaise marked by an absence of imagination, generic plots and highly forgettable characters. As a voracious and dedicated reader, one objects to the assumption on the part of the author and publishers that readers can be fobbed off with a story that evokes nothing

Good writing allows you to speak and listen to rhythms of life. As Doubleday editor Jane Lawson points out, a first-rate writer has a voice, a story line, a sense of comedy, and striking characters.

A good book should give you the ride of your lives and transport you away from the humdrum of day-to-day existence.

So what has driven good writing off-kilter? The usual suspects include publishers in search of commercial success, authors willing to go along for million dollar advances, and lastly, readers who prefer smsing and reading about monks who sold their Ferraris or seven laws of success for quick fix solutions to their quarter-life crises.

In their search for literary commercial success, publishers have evolved new mantras like "multicultural writing". It helps if a country like India, which is the third largest English book producing country after the UK and the US, is also home to a long tradition of literary prize winners such as VS Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, among others.

Not surprisingly, authors from an Indian background try to cash in on the craze and market themselves as budding Roys until proven otherwise. And they are, since they disappear off the shelves after a few months.

Unfortunately, new writers are also victims of the cut-throat world of publishing, which emphasises gimmicks of race and nationality over content.

Today's writers choose themes with an eye on fame and money rather than writing on those subjects that inspire them. Even worse, the publisher chooses the plot and then finds the author (allegedly that is what happened with Kavya).

There are exceptions to this rule - Hari Kunzru and Jhumpa Lahiri, who ironically don't like being called Indian writers. Closer home, Suketu Mehta's Bombay: Maximum City, is a deeply perceptive work on the city and its people, while Lavanya Sankaran in the Red Carpet And Other Stories writes poignantly about the impact of the IT boom on middle-class south Indians.

These books reflect what Mario Vargas Lhosa in Letters to a Young Novelist calls the questioning of real life, which is the secret raison d'etre of the literary vocation.

Authors from an Indian background try to cash in on the craze and market themselves as budding Roys until proven otherwise. And they are, since they disappear off the shelves after a few months.

Finally, we readers have to share the blame. In an age of sitcoms and Internet chat rooms, few people are willing to spend several evenings with one book and make the journey with the author.

Summer evokes youthful memories of long hot afternoons, nose in an Enid Blyton, then later in Sherlock Homes and Poirot murder mysteries interspersed with Jane Austens and Stendhals. Now topping the list of "must read" books are those with recipes for instant nirvana.

So what is the solution? There is no easy solution. Novels depict their times - the chick lit and call centre novels probably depict the mongrelised ethos of an age of talking heads and soaps. My recipe for readers is AVOID buying any title that has a fruit (mango and guava), gem (opal), any number from 1-10 (especially 7), and food (spices and curry).

(Shylashri Shankar, who has lived for a decade in the US, is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached atshylashris@gmail.com)