Salman Rushdie never made it back to India this spring to launch his latest novel, The Ground Beneath her Feet. There were too many visa problems, too many security concerns, so ultimately the
controversial, Bombay-born writer decided to postpone his long-awaited homecoming once more.
Five years ago, this would have been a major disappointment for India's literary world. But not any longer. In April alone, there were two major launchings of Indian novels in English in this country, both of which served as provocative, original and handsomely remunerated proof that contemporary Indo-English fiction has arrived as a genre.
First came The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha, a debut novel by the 32-year-old Delhi journalist. Pithy, puzzling and perverse, it broached a still-taboo topic here -- incest -- as a way to expose an equally taboo and far more universal aspect of Indian culture: the repressed and uncommunicative nature of family life. "There is a deafening silence in most Indian homes, and I wanted to break it, to speak what was unspeakable," said Jha, who spent four years studying and working in the United States (including an internship at The Post) but decided to come home and join an awakening generation of young, post-Rushdie, English-language writers. "It's more fun to push the envelope here," he said.
Then, barely three weeks later, came An Equal Music, a heavily hyped mid-career novel by Vikram Seth, 46, whose 1992 Dickensian epic of post-independence India, A Suitable Boy, was widely hailed as a masterpiece and set off the first major bidding war abroad for an Indian-written novel. This time, Seth switched gears completely, composing a meditation on music and love so delicately spare in style, and so authoritatively European in subject, that it defied any attempts to place it in the pantheon of "Indian fiction" -- a distinction Seth clearly had in mind.
"Seth is a novelist's novelist, and this is a very English English-language novel," said S. Prasannarajan, a literary critic and editor at the Indian Express newspaper. At the overflow-crowd book launching in April, Seth entranced his audience with prodigiously researched descriptions of how a British string quartet would approach Bach or Brahms.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the six-figure advances and frenzied pre-publication publicity they generated, both books have been heavily criticized here; Jha's as a perplexing, disjointed string of glib vignettes, and Seth's as a too-cool, too-crafted exercise in "proving genius" rather than moving readers (see Michael Dirda's review in the May 9 issue of Book World).
But in different ways, both Bedspread and Music are symbols of the stylistic diversification -- as well as the growing commercial success -- of English-language fiction here in the past decade. The resulting conundrum that now faces Indian writers is how to keep maturing in the first category without being seduced by the second.
The Rushdie Effect
By all accounts, the phenomenon began with Rushdie and the extraordinary international acclaim that greeted Midnight's Children, his 1981 magical-realist-novel of India at Independence. Before that, most English-language novels about India were colonial tales or exotic travelogues by foreigners or Indian expatriates. Little fiction in Hindi or other regional languages was translated. But Midnight's Children opened doors as Western publishers discovered the market potential of India-based fiction.
"Rushdie's success was a liberating example. It was the main reason many of us began to write," said Mukul Kesavan, a Delhi academic and novelist. Before then, he said, the few English-language writers living in India felt isolated and out of place. Today, there are so many that "you can barely keep up with the gossip about the latest book."
The fledgling genre received a major commercial boost in the 1990s; first A Suitable Boy took off, and then, in 1997, Arundhati Roy's first novel, The God of Small Things, a richly lyrical portrait of South India, won the coveted Booker Prize in Great Britain and sold 400,000 copies abroad. Sanjeev Saith, Roy's editor at India Ink publishers, said the prize "generated a lot of enthusiasm among fresh writers, and it has certainly opened avenues of access to publishers abroad in terms of what a book will fetch in remuneration. But what really matters," he added, "is consistency. How many writers are on their third or fourth book? How good is the quality over time? For that we must wait another decade."
Some observers are quite harsh in their judgment of the recent crop of Indian fiction in English, and of the heady but cutthroat international publishing industry that has egged them on. Some paint a portrait of Roy and Seth wannabes flooding publishers with quick, mediocre manuscripts and demanding to know how large an advance they can expect abroad. "Indian writing in English is not a new invention. What is different is its newly acquired global status as a commodity," wrote essayist Brinda Bose in April. "Are we talking about true merit here, or are we being swept along on a wave of jubilation blowing toward us from English-speaking shores, creating out of us a myth of exotica that we shall never be able to sustain?"
At Penguin Books India, the pioneer publisher of English-language books that opened offices here 12 years ago, chief executive officer David Davidar said he is not overly concerned about the current feeding frenzy among publishers in Great Britain and the United States. "For so long our literature has been in the shadow of other literature -- it's great to see it come out into the light," he said. "The only worry is that of overkill. If too many much-hyped novels fail, there may be a backlash and publishers will start getting cold feet. At some point, things will have to find their own level and people will have to stop launching every book as if it were the greatest thing since Shakespeare."
But even some beneficiaries of the trend -- such as Jha, who received an unprecedented $275,000 first-novel advance after sending just 20 pages of Bedspread to an editor at Picador India, a Macmillan affiliate -- are cautious about where market pressures are pushing his generation of writers here. When Midnight's Children appeared, he recalled, young Indian writers were inspired to tell their stories. But when The God of Small Things achieved such quick commercial success and its unknown author became an instant celebrity, he said, "it sent a very wrong signal: that if you are lucky and can write half-decently you can make a lot of money. It glamorized Indian writing, but it didn't elevate it."
The Indian Spectrum
A number of observers are comparing the recent boom in Indian fiction to the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America, when novelists like Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Chile's Isabel Allende gained enormous international popularity by turning their region's tortured political history into a body of fiction -- mostly translated from the Spanish -- that was surreal, intimate and sweeping. But so far, unlike with the Latin Americans, no unifying powerful theme or distinctive style has emerged among the Indian fiction writers in English. And despite India's long and volatile history, which includes Mogul invasions, British rule, a bloody independence struggle and recent religious strife, some critics say they have yet to see anyone except Rushdie with the creativity and command to tackle such daunting themes.
"You talk about one hundred years of solitude, we have had 5,000 years of drama, but the Indian imagination has not kept pace with it," said Prasannarajan. "Latin American writers like Garcia Marquez had a sense of history and made it come alive. For us so far, only Rushdie has really been able to come to terms with Indian history, its sorrows and chaos."
He pointed out that some excellent novels about Indian society have been written in native Indian languages, and he described one book in the Malayalam dialect -- a novel called Generations by O.V. Vijayan -- as "almost Russian in its sweep and Greek in its tragic resonance." But few such books have been translated or able to leap beyond the limiting label of "regional language" fiction.
The Indian Market
Meanwhile, even as Indian-English fiction acquires increasing cachet abroad, it has yet to reach beyond the small, elite circle of English-language readers and writers inside India. In contrast to Latin America, where most people speak and read Spanish, more than half of India's populace is illiterate, only two percent speak English, and only a few hundred thousand use it as a first language. Books are also expensive to publish and purchase here, there are few literary agents or translators, and even in the major cities there are only a handful of book shops or places to browse. According to Davidar, average domestic sales for an English-language novel are 2,000 copies, a bestseller is 5,000 copies, and even The God of Small Things has barely reached 100,000.
"Salman Rushdie broke the barrier, and suddenly everyone wanted to sit down and write, but we still have only a few superstars," said Davidar. "The environment is still quite immature. We have writers who are comfortable with English now, but we need to develop more who can tell stories well, too. We need more good science fiction, detective stories, romances. We still need to get the wheel turning."
Pamela Constable is The Washington Post's correspondent in New Delhi.