Writers, unless they are still stuck in the Soviet tractor-art mode of extolling social realism, are their own masters. They write what they have to, not what they need to. At least, that is what any self-respecting writer does, never mind whether his or her preference lies in writing lilting descriptive prose about the rural countryside or in telling stories where the background remains the background. However, there is still some confusion about what Indian writers are supposed to write. Or, to put it more bluntly, who is the Indian writer? The one who represents ‘Indian-ness’ in his writings? Or the writer who happens to be Indian? When a major publishing and literary event like the Frankfurt Book Fair decides to have India, the nation, as a guest of honour and has as its theme ‘Today’s India’, this confusion reaches a crescendo.
Unlike the organisers of the ‘German’ book fair, one would have thought that those in charge of deciding which Indian author goes and which Indian author stays would have known better than to choose according to his or her ‘Indian’ quotient. And yet, the roster of authors from India ends up reading like a list of writers who have done most to put India on the anthropological or tourist map rather than stood up for their writing abilities.
When we read Philip Roth or Michel Houellebecq or Ian McEwan, we don’t care how much American-ness, Frenchness or Britishness are contained in their books. They are valued for their output as writers, where each of their backgrounds and cultural templates come into the picture anyway. On the other hand, Indian writers, even established ones, feel the need to apologise (in the form of a disclaimer) for not always being the carrier of ‘real Indian-ness’. Thus, in this weird State-sanctioned literary pecking order, authors writing about caste or poverty or ‘real India’ — that short form to describe the India that is not urban or remotely middle-class — gets upgraded by virtue of their subject.
It is time that the Sahitya Akademi and National Book Trust worthies realise that the identity of ‘real’ Indian writing (itself a dissembling term) is not constricted to the literary equivalent of Films Division documentaries or Festivals of India. Writers like Sadat Hasan Manto or Manik Bandopadhyay weren’t selling ‘India’ in their writings but wrote incredibly vibrant stories that were based on what was going on around them. Writers are not flag-carriers of a nation. They are individuals who write.