In Search of India
|Aravinda Adiga with his novel The White Tiger.
The theme of the London book fair this year is Indian writing. Vikram Seth, Amartya Sen, William Dalrymple and other writers in frequent circulation in this country are going to be joined by writers - K Satchidanandan, Javed Akhtar - distinguished or popular on their own terrain but less known here, for five days of discussions and celebrations. Something like this happened in 2006 to the Frankfurt book fair, when planeloads of Indian novelists and poets descended on the Intercontinental Hotel, waved to each other over breakfast, and then read from their work to courteous audiences in the afternoons and evenings.
The theme then, too, was India; and the "idea of India" acted as a catalyst to a process that might have already begun, but received, at that moment, a recognisable impetus - the confluence, in one place, of literary and intellectual dialogue with what is basically business activity, each bringing magic and movement to the other. The India-themed Paris book fair followed swiftly.
Both these events proved a few things. Firstly, you were reminded of the variety of genres that Indian writers - especially those who write in languages other than English - had practised for much of the 20th century. In the hotel lobbies, the cafés and restaurants in adjoining streets, not to speak of the venues, you kept running into poets, critics, short-story writers, historians, playwrights from the many Indian literatures; and, of course, novelists. The English language had, it would seem, only thrown up novelists in India in the last 30 years; the truth is that there were and are excellent English-language poets, but few, or none, had been invited.
The other thing that hit you was the amount of money the Indian government had to spare for culture; it was one of the main sponsors of these events, and had made these migratory, crowded, but characteristically desultory congregations possible. Why now? And just how much thought had gone into the meetings and readings? Perhaps a great deal more could have been done over the decades following independence to give us a greater and more acute sense of our literary history as moderns, especially as more funding seemed to have been available than had been assumed. We in India have no equivalent of the Modern Library, for instance, nor anything like the Penguin Modern European Poets series, let alone properly influential critical and scholarly work on 20th-century literature. Are the book fairs, with their new kind of commingling, sending out a hint - perhaps an unintended one - about the timeliness of such initiatives to their organisers?
Another revealing aspect of Frankfurt and Paris was the evidently unconstricted and even unpredictable way foreign rights were sold by Indian publishers (without, necessarily, British mediation) to European countries: this explained the random mix of celebrities and little-known practitioners, of the "latest thing" in Indian writing in English as well as the older and occasionally infirm writers (members of a deceased avant-garde) in the Indian languages. Some of these people have hardly been translated into English, but are often available in French or German, and there are students writing doctorates on their work. The putative common pool of the Indo-European languages (established at first in the late 18th century by a Welshman, William Jones, and put into circulation in Europe by the Germans Schlegel, Schiller, Goethe and later Max Mueller) probably - who knows? - still stirs faintly in the memory of European academia as it hardly does in the Anglo-Saxon world. Or, possibly, the fact that these countries have less of a direct relationship with India than Britain allows for the frequently hit-or-miss but sometimes surprising nature of the Indian list on the European publishers' catalogues.
What will London bring that Frankfurt and Paris haven't? Certainly, it seems to have taken the cue from the two European cities in at least one regard: it hasn't invited only those writers who are published in this country - that is, Anglophone writers of prose. So, for instance, we will have, besides Vikram Seth, Ramachandra Guha and Patrick French, the Urdu-language theorist Gopi Chand Narang, the Bengali poet and novelist Sunil Ganguly, and the English-language poet and novelist Mamang Dai from the idyllic, remote Arunachal Pradesh. In other words, the book fair should bring some intimation to audiences in London of an explosion in writing that is not 30 but perhaps 200 years old, the consequence of a venerable, many-tongued, and still astonishing lineage in modernism.
There will also be two writers who have aired their disagreements with each other in these pages - the Englishman William Radice, poet, translator of Tagore, and, until recently, poet laureate-aspirant, and the younger Jeet Thayil, poet, critic, editor of an anthology of Indian poetry in English, and defender (odd but instructive that it should need defending even now, in a way that Indian fiction no longer does) of the continued viability of Indian English poetry. Not all of these choices are risky ones; many of these writers (myself included) now spend a fair amount of time in the ghostly, mnemonic world of international book fairs, in their guise as crowded transit lounges for the nation; here we wait, eat, talk to each other, ignore acquaintances, as the difference between airport, venue and hotel gradually diminishes. But does this journey lead somewhere? Will it change the way Indian writing is configured within British publishing?
How does travel shape and qualify writing and nationality (a common enough conundrum), especially when they take on this form - the transcontinental literary event; the book reading in a foreign location? And how do these writers cohere and relate to each other in our minds: what is it, besides the book fair and perhaps the place of birth on their passports or some long-standing enthusiasm, that makes K Satchidanandan and Tarun J Tejpal and Dalrymple all, in some sense, "Indian" writers? One thing we do know is that travel is not only about bringing your particular skills, wares, identity and lineage to a place, but being changed by, and learning from, the act of travelling and facing up to foreignness. In roughly the past 20 years India has changed from being a Nehruvian nation-state - an experiment and ideal in democracy - to a portable mode of existence, as well as a form of self-justification for a curious mixture of free-market opportunism and a slyly conservative provincialism. This means that Indians, as they travel, migrate and resettle, have increasingly begun to deflect the problem - and the rewards - of encountering foreignness, and strangeness, and the notion of "India" has helped them in (has, in fact, been crucial to) this deflection. The so-called Indian diaspora ceased, really, to want either to integrate with, or radically revise, the landscape they moved to in the 1980s and 90s (usually, the United States, succeeding the earlier wave of immigration to Britain); instead, they wished to conform silently and, simultaneously, to continue as themselves. This has led to a unique combination of acceptance and denial.
So much of what the Indian middle class sees as its ideal present and its possible future, including its thoughts on the role of literature, emanates from, or emerges in relation to, these American suburbs. In a survey undertaken last year, it turned out that India lagged behind America alone in its love for that country and for George Bush. ("India" here is a metonym for the middle class, and vice versa.) In the Clinton era, and even more pronouncedly in the Bush era, the US came to be seen as a facilitator of India's own teeming, importunate ambitions, for its true place in the world, and, therefore, as a familial figure, in keeping with the Indian middle class's interpretation of family, as an institution that is primarily a guarantor of self-interest. When India looks at America, it sees a comforting or discomfiting (according to the phase of history it then inhabits) extension of its own welfare - much in the way that a child invents its mother.
This version of the familial also seems to direct the way a large number of Anglophone Indians view what they think of as literature. Their incongruously intimate, emotion-prone and proprietorial relationship with the Booker prize is a case in point. Here, feelings of self-approbation and self-doubt characterise the response to the outcome; and rarely was this inability to escape anxieties to do with prestige clearer than in 2008, when there were two Indians on the shortlist. An uneasy family drama ensued in India, with scorn being poured on one Indian, Aravind Adiga, and felicitations being made prematurely to the other, Amitav Ghosh. When Adiga won, there was patrician outrage; national - or family - pride had been violated. Word had soon got out in the British press that the other serious contender for the prize besides Adiga, as far as the judges were concerned, was Sebastian Barry. This Irish writer, however, hardly penetrated the Indian consciousness, and nor had the others on the list besides the two mentioned; the heterogeneity of Anglophone writing is not something that Indians are any longer prepared to do business with. Similarly, there's a sense, in the context of the new, middle-class Indian, of an end to the notion of travel as disjunction and discovery.
Travel, anyway, shapes the literary festival, the book fair, in paradoxically enclosing ways, and with a degree of unreality. You cover great distances, sometimes, to arrive at the literary festival, but the festival itself is a province, an enclosure. This special provincialism and curious lack of movement becomes more intense when the theme is nationality, or a national literature, as has been the case with the "international" festivals concerning India this century.