An Primer to the Rich and Colourful Literature of India

Culture Trip

India’s literary tradition is one of the richest in the world, combining as it does the diverse linguistic and cultural traditions which coexist within the Indian subcontinent. Beryl Belsky of the Writer’s Drawer offers an introduction to the riches of this literature, and its evocation of the turmoil and profundity of Indian history and culture.

(Clockwise from top left) W. W. Norton & Company, McClelland and Stewart, Jonathan Cape, Faber and Faber, HarperCollins (USA) / Phoenix House (UK), Alfred A. Knopf, Scribner Book Company, Atlantic Books.

‘A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance’ – An excerpt from the speech of Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, 1947-64, on the eve of the country’s birth, August 14, 1947.

My eyes were first opened to the wealth of literature about India when I saw that ‘jewel’ of a British TV series, The Jewel in the Crown (Granada, 1984), based on the epic four-volume novel The Raj Quartet (1966−75), by Paul M. Scott. Set mainly against the tumultuous backdrop of the final years of the British Raj, World War II, and the Indian independence movement, it explores a range of political, social, and moral issues of the time through the intricate webs of relations developed between British and Indians, between Hindus and Muslims, between young and old, and between members of Britain’s class system, and through a complex of plots and sub-plots involving a variety of strong, memorable characters.
Scott (1920−1978) was first captivated by India when he served there as a British commissioned officer during World War II. His work imbued me with a fascination for India, which in turn led me to native Indian authors such as Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Sujit Saraf, Vikas Swarup, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Davidar, Manil Suri, and others. What is common to all these writers is a depth of feeling for a country whose history, diversity, cultural richness, and immense problems are reflected with great perception and sensitivity in their fiction. Like Scott, a number of western writers, such as Gregory David Roberts, were ensnared by their India experiences and created some excellent works set in India.

This essay offers a taste of some of the wide array of contemporary fiction about India available in the English language by Indian and other writers, its characteristics, and its dominant motifs.

Characteristics and motifs

Perhaps the most outstanding trait of much Indian writing is its combination of humour and pathos. The cruel post-independence realities of such a vast, largely poor, diverse, corrupt, and conflict-ridden country seem to lend themselves to the tragic-comic situations many of them describe. Take, for example, the humble chai walla (street tea seller) in The Peacock Throne, by Sujit Saraf (2007), who suddenly finds himself on the brink of political fame and fortune, an innocent pawn in the cynical manipulations of corrupt petty politicians and businessmen; or the memorable opening line of Manil Suri’s (pictured left) The Death of Vishnu (2001):

‘Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn’t died yet, Mrs Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand.’

This sentence sets the tone for the rest of the story, about an untouchable dying in his ‘home,’ the steps of an apartment block in Bombay, while the dramas of the families living in the building swirl around him.

The corruption that is rampant in India is a dominant theme in many novels. In Vikas Swarup’s (pictured right) who-done-it Six Suspects (2008), the venal home minister of one of India’s states (‘the Politician’) is one of the suspects in the murder of his own son who, unsurprisingly, was acquitted after murdering a bar girl. Swarup is also the author of Q&A (2005; known also by its film name Slumdog Millionaire), in which a penniless waiter who answers all the questions correctly in the equivalent of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ is thrown into prison, accused of cheating, because of who he is, and because the producers don’t have the million rupees he won to give him. In similar vein, Aravind Adiga demonstrates that crime does pay in modern India in his prize-winning novel The White Tiger (2008). Balram, the protagonist, is a poor, low-caste but bright boy (hence his nickname ‘The White Tiger’) from a village in ‘the Darkness,’ of rural India, who emerges into ‘the Light’ as a wealthy member of a top caste in India’s urbanised, high-tech society.

Family, tradition, and the inequities of the caste system are themes that run throughout the narrative in all the books outlined above, as well as in much other literature about India. The four disparate characters of different castes and backgrounds in Rohinton Mistry’s very fine A Fine Balance (1995) are thrown together and struggle to survive during the turbulent times from independence to the period of the Emergency Laws under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. Mistry does not flinch from painting a grim picture of the fate of the poor and the downtrodden in India under Gandhi (such as forced sterilization). One of the most sensitive books on family and family relations in India is his Family Matters (2002), a painful look at a troubled Parsi family, whose problems are compounded when the 79-year-old patriarch is forced to move in with his daughter, son-in-law and children, after becoming bed-ridden.

Hindu mythology, too, plays an important role in Indian literature. Vishnu, the name of the dying untouchable in the above mentioned book by Suri, is, symbolically, also a god in Hindu mythology, the protector and preserver of the universe, while in the complex and wide-ranging Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1993), Vikram Chandra mixes Hindu myth, Indian history, a typewriting monkey, and life in contemporary America.

The sheer vastness and diversity of India also seem to demand a long and complex narrative peopled with memorable characters. How else to explain the length of many of these books? It seems as though the authors are willing us to try to understand the growing pains of this colourful, but troubled country.

The following is the opening line of Vikram Seth’s wonderful A Suitable Boy:

‘You too will marry a boy I choose’.

An Indian variant of Pride and Prejudice? Not quite. But like Jane Austen’s early nineteenth century novel, A Suitable Boy is an epic Indian take by Vikram Seth (1993) on matchmaking, finding-a-suitable-husband, pride, prejudice – and much more. Set in a fictitious town in early post-independence India, the story revolves around the search for love of 19-year-old Lata and her struggles with her opinionated mother who is intent on finding her a suitable match. In the background, but also discussed in great detail, are India’s own post-colonial political and social struggles: Hindus versus Muslims, land reform, and the empowerment of Muslim women. With its vastness (over 1,400 pages; it’s one of the longest books ever written in the English language) and Seth’s inclusion of such a range of subjects, this is one of my favorite books.

Another epic novel in similar vein, though somewhat more flawed, is David Davidar’s The House of Blue Mangoes (2002) which, unlike most of the others, takes place in the first half of the 20th century. His themes include the Indian’s strong attachment to place, family ties, caste wars – and, as the title suggests, mangoes.

Also a hefty tome, but in a more modern style than those of Seth, Mistry, and Davidar, is Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram (2003). Shantaram is the name given to Roberts, a convicted bank robber, in India, where he fled after breaking out of a prison in Australia. It purportedly tells the real tale of his adventures there: living in a hut in a shanty town and setting up a health clinic for the poor, working for the mafia, being worked over in an Indian jail, and acting in Bollywood. Although a Westerner, while relating his story, he, like the aforementioned Indian writers, succeeds in conveying to the reader the colours, smells, and traditions, as well as the diversity and conflicts of India.

One cannot write a piece on Indian literature without mentioning the renowned Salman Rushdie. Rushdie has been compared to Gabriel Gárcia Márquez in his use of fantasy, myth, and magical realism. The book for which he owes his infamy (Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei issued a fatwa – Islamic religious verdict – condemning him to death) was The Satanic Verses (1988). The book is based partly on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, but only a discerning reader with knowledge of the Islamic religion would understand what aroused the ire of so many devout Muslims.

As an introduction to Rushdie (pictured left), the reader would be better advised to try one of his more ‘conventional’ (relatively speaking where Rushdie is concerned) novels, such as The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). The book could be interpreted allegorically. The protagonist ‘Moor’ is misshapen and grows physically at twice the rate of a normal human being (does he represent India?); his origins are hybrid – South Indian Jewish, Spanish Muslim, and Portuguese Christian (perhaps representing the Indian sub-continent?). The book’s poetic title refers to two paintings titled The Moor’s Last Sigh, one painted by Aurora, his mother, the other by one of her former admirers and subsequent nemesis, Vasco Miranda.

If all the above sounds too outrageous, another Rushdie possibility is the acclaimed Midnight’s Children (1981), which tells the tale of Saleem Sinai, born ‘at the stroke of midnight’ − representing, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, the time that independent India itself was born, between August 14 and 15, 1947. This novel, too, can also be seen as an allegory, combining actual historical events with magical realism. Saleem discovers that all children born at the time the state came into being are possessed with magical powers, and he uses his own such powers to convene a ‘Midnight’s Children’s Conference’. Like all great novels about India, the country’s immense problems as it declares independence are intertwined inextricably with the narrative: prominently among them, the resultant Partition, and acute political, cultural, religious, and linguistic differences.

Novels Set Outside India

Some novels by Indian writers are set in other countries. Most of those that feature Indian characters highlight the cultural gap between Western and Indian values. Lima, the heroine in Anjali Banerjee’s comic novel Imaginary Men (2005), for instance, is a professional matchmaker in San Francisco, but is forced to develop a strategy to avoid the traditional matchmaking efforts of her aunt from Kolkata, who is horrified that she is still unmarried.

The excellent short stories in Unaccustomed Earth (2008), by Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, underline the cultural conflicts and differences between first, second and third generation Indian immigrants, as the younger family members struggle to break away from their parents’ close traditional community lives and assimilate into Western society. Lahiri is also the author of the prize-winning short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and the novel The Namesake (2003), both of which, in addition to cultural differences, address sensitive issues such as marital difficulties and miscarriage.

Another novel by Vikram Seth, who is also a librettist, focuses neither on India nor on Indians but on music. An Equal Music (1999), which was hailed by music critics for its musical accuracy, centres on the affair between Michael, a professional violist, and Julia, a pianist. Julia’s approaching deafness and the affair itself affects their respective careers.

The multitalented Seth also wrote a biography/memoir, Two Lives (2005): the astonishing story of the marriage of his Indian great-uncle to a German Holocaust refugee, who met in Berlin in the early 1930s when the former was a student. This complex work, covering almost a century, also includes many autobiographic details.

Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-Bengali writer living in the U.S. Although some of his books centre on post-colonial India, his interest also extends to other countries in the East, such as Burma and Malaya, as well as to Egypt. His sweeping historical fiction The Glass Palace (2000) is set largely in Burma, beginning in late nineteenth century Mandalay, but it also visits India, to where the exiled Burmese king is exiled, as well as Malaya. For those tempted to step outside India to learn about another Eastern country, Ghosh offers plenty of historical and cultural information, as well as romance.

I would like to conclude with a caution, encapsulated in a quote from Michael Wood, of the London Review of Books, which should be borne in mind when reading this survey, as well as English-language novels about India in general:

‘Some 5 per cent of the [Indian] population can read English…Readers and writers of English are thus a tiny minority…The privilege and the proportion [of this minority] exclude so much of what is there…that I’m not sure where this leaves non-Indian readers of Indian English fiction, except with a huge reminder of everything we don’t know and perhaps can’t know. We should remember, too, that much Indian fiction in English is written for readers abroad, or indeed written abroad.’
By Beryl Belsky
Beryl Belsky is a graduate in East Asian Studies from the Australian National University and currently works as an academic editor at Tel Aviv University. Her blog, The Asia Collection, from which this article is taken, offers the Western reader glimpses into some lesser known aspects of Asia, as well as into subjects connected to the region that are of interest to her personally.
Originally Published in The Asia Collection.

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