The Diaspora Strikes Back

In The Lost Subcontinent William Dalyrmple summarizes the state of Indian and Indian diaspora writing. As he notes, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things heralded the commercial viability of Indian litertature:

.. Roy's international critical and commercial success in 1997 radically changed perceptions of Indian writing in English, and not just in Delhi. Roy's book was immediately recognised as a major literary achievement: it won the Booker and sat at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months: by the end of 1997 it had sold no less than four million copies in two dozen languages.

The results were predictable:

There quickly followed a major publishing feeding-frenzy: international literary agents and publishers descended on India from London and New York, signing up a whole tranche of authors, many of whom received major advances for outlines of novels they had barely begun. Picador launched a list exclusively devoted to Indian writing in 1998; the office was soon buried under an avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts. Throughout the late 1990s, barely a month went by without the news of some fledgling scribbler being discovered lurking as a sub-editor on the Indian Express or pushing papers in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Several other writers had of course prepared the ground for this success. Roy could not have happened without VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth: in particular Rushdie's 1981 masterpiece Midnight's Children liberated Indian writing in English from its colonial straitjacket. It also gave birth to a new voice, one that was exuberantly magical, cosmopolitan and multicultural, full of unexpected cadences, as well as forms that were new to the English novel but deeply rooted in Indian traditions of storytelling. It won the Booker, as did Naipaul's Bend in the River. Then, in 1993, Seth produced his massive - and magnificent - A Suitable Boy. Rushdie's prediction that "Indians were in a position to conquer English literature" seemed about to be vindicated.

Unfortunately, that didn't quite pan out..

The truth is, however, that since 1997 there has been no new galaxy of stars emerging to match the stature of those of the 1980s and 90s. Many of the Indian novelists who were signed up with such excitement 10 years ago failed to repay even a fraction of their advances. The only Indian-themed book to win the Booker - The Life of Pi - was written by Yann Martel, a white Canadian. In India itself, there is no new internationally acclaimed masterpiece, no new Roy.


As far as prizes are concerned, since Roy, we have had Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Monica Ali on the Booker shortlist, Jhumpa Lahiri winning the Pulitzer; while off the prize-piste there have been two exceptionally brilliant novels by Hari Kunzru (The Impressionist and Transmission) and a fine book each from Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu) and Nadeem Aslam (Maps for Lost Lovers

Many of the folks on this list are diaspora writers. Could they be coming into their own?

The big uncertainty in the years to come, however, is whether it will continue to be Indians in India mediating this country in the future - or will this increasingly come to be the preserve of the diaspora. Here a big and daily growing question mark remains. In Britain during the last four or five years, the waves have been made less by authors from south Asia, or even from the immediate south Asian diaspora, as much as British-born Asian writers such as Nadeem Aslam or Meera Syal, and particularly what Rushdie might call "chutnified" authors of mixed ethnic backgrounds who are, in Zadie Smith's famous formulation, "children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks".

The diaspora, however don't quite see themselves carrying the torch:

When he was in Delhi last summer launching Transmission, Kunzru surprised many Indian interviewers by emphasising that he was a British author, not an Indian one, and that he was very happy living in London with his British identity: to one interviewer, he remarked that although his books have some Indian characters and partly Indian settings, he is not "one of those expatriate Indian writers who scours the Indian landscape looking for my roots", adding that he "abhors the nostalgic writing that many writers of Indian diaspora usually indulge in. My next book will not have anything to do with India at all." For him, he said, India was a place where his cousins lived and where he came for weddings and winter holidays.

In Hong Kong, he confirmed this: "I am very careful never to describe myself as an Indian writer," he said. "I am a British-born, British-resident author. I have connections to India and I feel they inform what I do to some extent, but more than this I cannot claim. What I and Zadie are doing is British writing about British hybridity. It is a completely separate story to that strand of writing which is about Indian-born writers going somewhere else. People should not confuse the two."

I could sense the politics of this when reading Transmission. There were three plotlines within the book: one dealt with a desi computer nerd finding his way from Gurgaon to Silicon Valley, the second was about a really put-upon Bollywood starlet on location in the UK and the third described the shenanigans of a high class British man. Somehow, I felt the third thread was somewhat superfluous to the overall narrative. The first two narratives came together quite nicely in the end but the third seemed to be more about Mr. Kunzru saying to the readers, Look - I can do non-brown too! Given that his first book, The Impressionist, dealt, once again, with an Anglo-Indian desi during the times of the British Raj, I found Mr. Kunzru's statements interesting. Unlike Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, both of whom dealt with Bangladeshi first and second generation UK immigrants in their debuts, I don't quite see the second generation hybridity in his work. If that's not there and he is disavowing any serious connections with the subcontinent, then there's the faintest whiff of opportunism about the whole thing. Writing about India is "in" - use it's exoticism while you still can. Move on when the masala runs out. Hopefully that's not the case.

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- August 15, 2005 9:41 PM // Books , Diaspora , India