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The Sign of Three

Nilanjana S Roy | November 18, 2005

When William Dalrymple wrote an article recently in which he argued that Indian writing in English had sputtered out in the home country, I found myself wishing he would just read a little more often.

Dalrymple's arguments have been made over the years within India. There are no contemporary writers of the stature of Rushdie, Seth, Ghosh and Mistry; there have been no great literary successes after Arundhati Roy's God Of Small Things. (We're not counting Allan Sealy, Ruchir Joshi and company -- only commercial successes count in this arithmetic.)

The best writing now comes from the diaspora -- Jhumpa Lahiri, Hari Kunzru -- and the great 'Indian' successes, such as Pankaj Mishra or Suketu Mehta or Siddhartha Deb, or even Amitav Ghosh, increasingly live abroad for at least part of the year. The best future writing, he predicted, would continue to emerge from the diaspora; inside India, the boom had gone bust.

Dalrymple made some valid points. I agree that some of the best writing will come from the Indian diaspora in the future, as it should -- it would be cause for deep concern if crossing the black water robbed Indians of their talent. But the reason why Indian writers need to be in New York or London is simple: that's where the market is, and until local publishing booms, as it might, it's going to be necessary to go to the market.

And Dalrymple's argument that Indian writers travel widely or live elsewhere demonstrates a sad lack of historical perspective. From Tagore to Mulk Raj Anand to Nirmal Verma, there are as many great Indian writers who've explored the world outside India as the ones who stayed rooted in one place. Some, like Saratchandra, were just as curious about Burma, for instance, as they were about Bilayat.

But still, I needed a sign. Could Dalrymple be right, or was his piece merely premature provocation?

Just a few weeks later, we heard about Vikram Chandra's big-bucks deal for a thousand-page novel set in Bombay, featuring Inspector Sartaj. I'd claim Chandra as an Indian success, even though he is, using the Dalrymple yardstick, exposed to Foreign Influences, having taught on American college campuses -- and enjoyed the experience. Tch.

More omens would be propitious, I thought, so I looked for another sign. And found three.

Kalpana Swaminathan first gave notice that she was a writer to watch when she came out with Ambrosia For Afters, an ambitious but uneven novel. Some of us knew her writings already, as half of the Kalpish Ratna combine, a byline she shares with Ishrat Syed.

Then she wrote Bougainvillea House, a darkly atmospheric novel set in Goa. Clarice Aranxa, her protagonist, is a woman of the old school, in the last stages of motor neuron disease, watching as sudden death visits some of the key people in her life. It's a brilliant study of obsession and betrayal, an utterly absorbing tale. And Swaminathan wrote it without the cushion of a large advance or the comfort of a thriving community of writers around her.

Then there's Nilita Vachani, the documentary filmmaker who's out with HomeSpun. She takes some of the biggest myths we've spun around the freedom struggle, around war and around love stories, and refashions them from the inside out. This debut novel has a few flaws, but her portrait of a man whose idealism sorely tests his wife and her look at how a reluctant fighter pilot really died are not easily forgotten.

Nor could I leave Sharmistha Mohanty off this list of new writers to watch: New Life has a predictable plot, with a heroine who discovers strength in unexpected places in love, writing and death, but Mohanty has an astonishing, utterly distinctive handwriting. 

Three months, three writers to watch -- and they're just the pick of what's been a quiet growth of talent from India, at a time when Indian writing in English is just beginning to stretch its wings.

The proper answer to Dalrymple's arguments, which I believe he made in good faith, isn't going to come from rebuttals written by people like me; they're going to come from the books. And I believe that these three writers are part of a quiet but sure gathering of talent in India that is making the counter-argument, slowly but steadily.

I'll stay on hand, anyway. Someone needs to watch the great Indian melting pot of literary talent as it comes to the boil -- and when it's ready, add Dalrymple's article to the mix, so that he can eat his words in comfort.

 

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