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'A readership is being created by offering them exotic tid-bits to titillate them'

Women authors, particularly in the West, are in some way or the other being promoted in a manner which portrays the 'flip side' of their marginalisation as writers, says Sunetra Gupta, who received the prestigious 1996 Sahitya Akademi award this week.

One among the handful of young achievers in the world's ever expanding writers community, she received the coveted prize for the first of her three novels, Memories of Rain. Her other two novels, Glassblower's Breath and Moonlight into Marzipan, have also won her considerable acclaim.

After years of discrimination and indifference by the publishing industry and society as a whole, the writer felt it was probably easier now for a woman to get published. In England, where she lived with her English husband, she said, "if you are a black woman writer, you are likely to be published.''

''Unfortunately it does not mean that some revolution has actually taken place as people think it to be. Fifty years ago there was tremendous discrimination against black writers and now the situation is otherwise, but the same sentiment works behind why they are published more these days,'' she said.

When asked whether Indian writers, especially contemporary ones, are better accepted in the West, she said, ''Indians sell better than they have in the past. But it is symptomatic of a particular state of mind -- probably the same one that causes a lot of Englishmen to take holidays abroad.''

''I don't think there has been an uplifting change in the psyche of the readership there. I don't think many people are reading Toni Morrison because they are in a developed state of being, but because it is 'trendy' to read her,'' she pointed out. ''I find all this very disturbing and my inclination is to withdraw from this.''

The language of market forces has come to affect the body of contemporary literature in a great way and for Sunetra, it is another disturbing phenomenon. ''A readership is being created by offering them exotic tid-bits to titillate them. This is not obvious as something like pornography but the reader is fed a bit of China, bits of India, of this and that and everything is handed over to him on a platter. The reader does not have to work at all and this is something very dangerous,'' she said.

Writing for her is an essentially spiritual exercise. ''I am not involved in any political movement and my main interest is to try to uncover human conditions,'' she asserted.

Asked if she belonged to a group of contemporary writers who have sort of 'globalised' Indian literature, she said her work often had a 'transnational' setting on which the events took place, something one would find in other Indian authors like Amitav Ghosh. ''My characters are really not representative of a particular culture and essentially explore various issues that cut across geographical boundaries,'' she pointed out.

But does such a style help foreign readers appreciate an Indian author better? ''Well, at least for me nothing is deliberate and I am not concerned whether a foreigner understands the nuances of the reality I am presenting in my book.''

As a woman writer, does Sunetra highlight feminist issues in her novels? ''I really don't have time for joining any movement, but yes, some of my characters -- like Esha in Marzipan -- are very strong. She represents those women with strength of character and dignity who do not find under the prevailing circumstances a role to fill in. But they are juxtaposed with other women in my work who represent a consumerist approach to life with an appetite for exotica but lacking in their vision to get to the root of matters," she said.

Writing her first novel was quite an experience for her. ''Suddenly you come to touch a part of yourself,'' she said. Asked to describe her 'growth' from the first novel to her third, Sunetra said, ''My concerns have become more and more spiritual and there is an obvious effort -- a religious dedication if you may say so -- to come closer to the truth.'' The initial self-consciousness, ambition, wanting to present India or Bengal in her work and to be included in a certain community of writers was now over, she said. ''My work is more 'free' now.''

Her father, who teaches history at Calcutta university, remains a major influence in her life. ''Whatever I have achieved today would not be possible without him. My exposure to literature and writing and especially my appreciation of Tagore was conditioned by him,'' she said.

With a Ph D from London University, she now works as a research scholar at the zoology department in Oxford. How does she find time to write? ''You always find time if you want to,'' she says.

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