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What we are writing now

On the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize and the 21st year of India’s first win, a view of India’s literary landscape.

books Updated: Apr 15, 2018 08:44 IST
Jerry Pinto
Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for fiction for her debut novel The God of Small Things in 1997.
Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for fiction for her debut novel The God of Small Things in 1997. (File photo)

I remember the time the first Penguin India books came out. I stood in Mumbai’s now-defunct Strand Book Stall, reading from Nisha Da Cunha’s beautiful stories, Old Cypress and then saw Padma Hejmadi’s Birthday Deathday. Those were the days when I did not buy a book unless I had already read it and knew that it would be something I would want to own for the rest of my life, a belief that only a young man can have. But I promised myself, as someone who dreamed of having a book out, as someone who dreamed of being an Indian writer in English, that I would try and buy as many Indian authors as I could.

I already had a stack of strange-looking Jaico paperbacks: Nayantara Sahgal and Kamala Das and Raja Rao but those were second-hand books, bought on the streets. Now I would contribute to my biraadari, I would help my qaum, even if they didn’t know I was one of them, by buying their books.

That was 1985. It’s been a long time and much ink has flowed and I have given up even trying to keep in touch. We’re a huge bunch and there’s been two Booker Prizes, Arundhati Roy’s for The God of Small Things and Arvind Adiga’s for The White Tiger. We’re now getting close to what might be called a mature market: we don’t just have literary fiction, the epics and the classics in translation; we have genres: there’s chick lit and crime fiction and romances written by men and thrillers. We have 65 literary festivals across the country; I was told that one just ended in Amritsar. Mumbai has three or maybe five, I don’t know. Universities are organising their own. There are hierarchies now: Jaipur at the top and Kozhikode coming in second with the additional cachet of moral superiority.

This is all wonderful. There are times when it is still possible to make discoveries at a literary festival; and by this, I don’t mean meeting people, although that is important. I mean, hearing of new voices, realising that the flood of books, the democratisation of print can have its downside: you don’t hear the quiet voices among the tumult and the shouting.

Author Kiran Desai. Desai’s book The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker in 2006 (Photo: Jasjeet Plaha / HT)

Who is reading?

What is more troubling is that no one seems to be reading. After all these years of hosting a huge literary festival, there is not a single bookshop worth the name in Jaipur. I watch the people at the festival bookshop: they seem oddly uncertain of how to deal with the choices. Their hands wander over the books, they pick them up and turn them over and around. They rarely do what people who go to bookshops do: they rarely open the book they are holding and begin to read.

There’s a huge amount of publishing going on and this must mean that the books are being sold but to whom? I remember a poet friend of mine looking out at a sparse audience and saying, “Well, at least we have each other.”

So perhaps that’s where the books are going.

To other writers, perhaps? You’d think that would be a natural market.

This happened to me in Shillong, where there were two editions of a wonderful literary festival called CALM which ended when its originator, Sambha Lamarr was taken from us by cancer. A man of mature age came up to me with a sheaf of poems.

“I would like you to read my poems,” he said.

“What poetry do you read?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t have the time to read poetry,” he said airily. “Too busy, you know.”

“Then why should I have the time to read your poems?” I asked. I thought it was a fair question but he got angry and tucked the sheaf behind his back in a protective gesture and marched off. Later, he complained to Ms Lamarr of the bad behaviour of people from the mainland.

Writers who don’t read?

But who does?

The mobile universe

The entire nation seems to have taken a leap right over the book and in to the immersive experience of the mobile phone. No science fiction writer ever saw this coming. Everyone who ever talked about convergence assumed it would be the computer as locus; no one thought it would be this handheld device which has now upstaged almost every form of communication and absorbed those left into its clutches.

Every so often, then, I am called up by some young journalist who wants to know whether I would object to my books being read on a phone. I say that I don’t mind how they are read as long as they are read. This seems needy perhaps; or it may just be that they were hoping for a Luddite response and a rhapsody on tree-corpse-flakes, I don’t know. But the thing is they’re not reading on those phones; they’re not even watching cinema. They’re experiencing the delight of crafting a narrative out of the raw material of their own lives.

Let me explain.

When I started teaching at the Social Communications Media department of the Sophia Poytechnic in Mumbai, a post-graduate integrated communications course, I would ask my students how they liked to spend their downtime. Twenty-five years ago, it was books and movies, neck and neck. Then the movies won but it was a brief victory. Next came television and now it is social media.

At the movies and in a book, the script is written for you and you’re a spectator. You may lose yourself in a book, in a movie, you may say you do, but what you are losing is your sense of belonging to your world. You are entering imaginatively another one.

With social media, the idea is simple: you are the author of your own narrative. You can tell it the way you want: visually or verbally or audio-visually. You can select those parts of your life which you think are attractive to the world. You can film your birthday party or your pratfalls. You are the auteur.

Democracy is here. Come on in, the water is freezing.

Jerry Pinto is an award-winning writer and translator.

Jerry Pinto’s Top 5 Books
All About H Hatterr
by GV Dessani
If you haven’t read Hatterr, put down this paper and order it now. This is an amazing book for its time; it is self-reflexive, ironic and sophisticated. It reminds one of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. You will revel in a language at once strange and also frighteningly familiar: this is how English is spoken in India and this is how it does not show up in most novels. Sterne never had a successor but the brilliant hybrid Hatterr found one in Saleem Sinai and all the other hybrids Rushdie dreamed up over the next few decades in his all-colour hundred-spice literary dreamerama.
Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie
When Saleem Sinai bumped his nose and bled, we were all blooded. The book won the James Tait Prize and the Booker Prize, and then the Booker of Bookers, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the prize. The Empire was now indeed writing back. Here was a boy out of Bombay, whose bum had been numbed by a bench in a school here, and there he was writing as if the subcontinent still flowed rich and hot and curried through his veins. It is still a novel I can go back to and which rewards reading each time. Other favourite: The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Swami and Friends
by RK Narayan
This R K Narayan because the others are just a little too innocent for me, it’s as if the South Indian village of Malgudi never knew a caste atrocity. But with Swami and Friends, I can relax and I can enter fully into the world of a little boy whose friends are Mani the Mighty Good-for-Nothing and Rajam, captain of a cricketing eleven and Samuel the Pea. Narayan was a fine writer, perhaps too fine a writer for how savage an Indian village can be but he got the world of the male child perfectly.
The Shadow Lines
by Amitav Ghosh
Were Amitav Ghosh not such a fine novelist, he would have been a great writer of non-fiction. It is possible to read In an antique land as a novel, so sure is his hand. (Which should answer the question of the other favourite). The Shadow Lines asks a fundamental question: how do we become who we are? And how can we find out? How can you know a city like London before you have been there? (Your cousin Tridib told you about it, everyone’s chachi Enid told them about it.) And how do you understand the nature of violence?
Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai
Nanda Kaul has a certain vision of old age: she is going to spend it on a mountain, she is going to work it all out. But life has other plans for her which show up in the form of a catalytic converter, her grand-daughter Raka. This is a novel about relationships and its silences are as potent as its words and its metaphors. (Other favourite: Baumgartner’s Bombay)
Disclaimer: The author wishes it known that he would have liked to make a list of fifty great Indian novels. There are enough and more. But constrained to five, this is the list.