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'Indian writers are quite adventurous'

By Bijoy Venugopal
Last updated on: August 20, 2008 18:29 IST
Who will win the 2008 Man Booker Prize?

The trade offices of literary fiction have not shaken off the miasma of Midnight's Children winning the Booker of Bookers in July. Reviewers will not let us forget it also won the Best of the Booker in 1993. Only twice in the 39-year history of the prize have these special commemorations been awarded.

For Indian literary fiction in English, glory began in 1981 when a 33-year-old Mumbai-born ad copywriter named Salman Rushdie beat stalwarts Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing to win the Booker Prize. That book was Midnight's Children. Since, Rushdie has been on the Booker short-list three times -- in 1983 (Shame), 1988 (The Satanic Verses) and 1995 (The Moor's Last Sigh) -- but without luck.

Rushdie has now made the 2008 Booker long-list with The Enchantress of Florence, in which he spins an East-meets-West yarn that marries Renaissance Italy with the India of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Critics have compared its protagonist, a dark-eyed beauty named Qara Koz, to his femme fatale Padma Lakshmi.

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Over the past year or so, Rushdie, 61, has staved away most of his demons -- he survived the fatwa from Islamic extremists who burned The Satanic Verses, accepted a knighthood and soldiered on despite the divorce from Lakshmi, his fourth wife. 'I really thought that I might not finish the book,' he told The Guardian.

The long-list, in the words of a former Booker judge, is one in which 'famous established novelists rub shoulders with little known newcomers.' The 2008 long-list, a baker's dozen, names three authors of Indian origin. Veteran Amitav Ghosh has entered the fray for the first time with his sixth novel Sea of Poppies. Debutant Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is -- in the author's words -- "an experiment in giving delight and provocation to its readers."

Completing the South Asian collage is Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes, an irreverent debut novel staged against the event of General Zia-ul -Haq's assassination. "By an odd coincidence I had just started reading Exploding Mangoes last week -- it's an amazing book," says Ghosh.

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While Ghosh is "delighted that Poppies finds itself in such good company", Adiga, a former correspondent for Time magazine in Mumbai, is simply grateful to be on the bus. "The long-list this year has some very famous names in it," he told "I can't speculate on my chances!"

"I can't really complain," Hanif says about being a first-timer on the long-list. "But someone recently wrote that there seems to be a hunger for new voices and as a result some consistently brilliant veterans get ignored."

Some critics and publishers have snubbed the Booker jury for overlooking big hitters like Hanif Kureishi and Doris Lessing in favour of upstarts. Indeed, talk in literary circles points to an aggressive pursuit of young talent.

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"It is a measure of the excellence of writing from South Asia that so many first-time novelists from the region get published," says David Davidar, head of Penguin Canada and former head of Penguin India. "There's been a great vitality in writing from the Indian subcontinent for the last 20 years and prizes are not the only measure of it. Books that have not been on the Booker long-list or short-list have gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. At the end of the day, a long-list or a short-list is a subjective measure of a book's worth based on the views of three or five people."

Judges have been quick to dodge the barbs. Alex Clark, editor of Granta literary magazine and a Booker judge, defends the literary prize as 'a snapshot of an artistic moment'. 'Neither the production nor the appreciation of literary fiction is an exact science,' he wrote in The Daily Telegraph. 'Weighing works of art against one another isÂ… an impossible task.'

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In 1997, when Arundhati Roy won the prize for The God of Small Things, it was feted as an insurmountable achievement -- indeed, one felt that she had won the Nobel for Literature. Anita Desai and Rohinton Mistry, who have made the Booker short-list more than once without winning, never enjoyed such adulation.

Arguably, the success of The God of Small Things typecast South Asian fiction. The success of the genre became a marketing milestone for publishing. Suddenly, Indian writing in English no longer stood for R K Narayan or Raja Rao or Kamala Markandaya. Roy's style, energetic and sensory if obviously ornamental, spawned a tribe of copycats and, with its newfound marketability, thrived.

Davidar, himself an author with two books behind him, does not agree. "It's invidious to try and market to ethnic groups although publishers try this all the time. The only way that publishers can shape the taste of buyers is to publish the best fiction they can find," he says. "The book buyer has a mind of his or her own that is influenced by word of mouth, reviews, other readers, blogs, prizesÂ… It's very difficult to control people's taste in books."

He traces the thread back to Rushdie. "In 1981, when Rushdie published Midnight's Children, he said the only rule is that there are no rules. Today, Indian writers are quite adventurous. They operate across a very wide spectrum of styles."

Kiran Desai, winner of the 2006 Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss , echoes this view. 'My generation owes Rushdie that confidence, that attitude of saying we are not ashamed,' she said two years ago.

"I grew up in the shadow of Midnight's Children," says Adiga. "It has opened the way for South Asian writers to take on the world."

Not every critic has the stomach for Rushdie. Author Amit Chaudhuri decried Midnight's Children as 'all that was most unserious about India -- its loudness, its apparent lack of introspection and irony, its peculiar version of English grammar.' To which Rushdie retorted: 'I don't much care.'

The business impact of a Booker win, says Davidar, is enormous. "It is one of the few prizes in the world which actually drives sales, verifiably," he says. "We published The Inheritance of Loss in Canada, the UK and India -- and everywhere, there was a significant difference in the sales of the book before it won the prize and after."

For writers, does winning the Booker blur political boundaries, or does it underscore them? "Not sure," avers Hanif. "It's an old institution financed by old money so probably all it does is help sell some books for some people."

Of course, there is a fair chance that the Booker may go a non-South Asian novel. What, then, is a writer's insurance against the inevitable solitude that follows the euphoria?

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Arundhati Roy's stardom was immediate. So was her retirement from the genre. She never wrote another work of literary fiction. Rushdie recently told The Guardian, 'I have always thought the secret purpose of the book tour is to make the writer hate the book he's written. And, as a result, drive him to write another book.'

Which is exactly what Rushdie did after the extraordinary success of Midnight's Children. 'I had already written a first draft of Shame by the night of the Booker, and so I had work to do,' he told the newspaper.

Will the 2008 Booker Prize toast victory with old wine? Or will it uncork a new bottle? Come October, all will be revealed.

Bijoy Venugopal