The Asian Wall Street Journal, Feb 17, 2001.
Curry in a Hurry
By Salil Tripathi
NEW YORK -- If you are not the type that buys all your books from Amazon,
but are old-fashioned enough to browse inside an American bookstore these
days, you will find it almost impossible to avoid bumping into a shelf full
of novels written by authors with Indian-sounding names. In rapid succession,
American publishers like Knopf and Norton have unleashed a torrent of authors
who trace their origins to the subcontinent. Almost twenty years after Salman
Rushdie wrote his landmark novel, "Midnight's Children", Indian authors have
become as marketable and visible in the United States as, it seems, Latin
American authors after the world discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Last year was a particularly important one, as New York-based Jhumpa Lahiri
won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her collection of stories, "Interpreter
of Maladies", and the critically-acclaimed Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction
went to Oxford- and Calcutta-based Amit Chaudhury for his collection of three
short novels, "Freedom Song". These awards build on the 1988 achievement
of Bharati Mukherjee, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for
Fiction that year for her collection, "The Middleman and Other Stories".
Savvy publishers have noticed the Indian gift of gab and the increasing popularity
of Indian culture in the United States. (Starbucks offers Chai Latte and
teenage girls are fond of the bindi (dots) and the mehendi (henna). The proportion
of population tracing its roots to the subcontinent is nearly a million now,
and more important, affluent. Partly to meet their nostalgic yearnings, in
rapid succession, US bookstores are filling their shelves with new novels
by authors of Indian origin.
It might seem that the publishing behemoths behind these authors have discovered
some hidden talent from the subcontinent and earn some brownie points for
studding their catalog with politically-correct multicultural choices. But
these writers are suave and urbane inhabiting urban settings, and are, in
many cases, American. Not as American as apple-pie; and perhaps with an extra
dash of cinnamon and accompanied by kulfi, and not vanilla ice cream, but
One thing they do not fit is the mold of the struggling writer in exile.
Akhil Sharma, whose novel, "The Obedient Father", deals with a corrupt government
official during the Emergency era of the mid-1970s in New Delhi, is an investment
banker. Manil Suri, whose "The Death of Vishnu" is a tragicomedy set in a
Bombay tenement, is a math professor. Karachi-born Kamila Shamsie, whose
"Salt and Saffron" is a sprawling saga of a family spread across the subcontinent
and beyond, teaches creative writing. Abraham Verghese, whose moving portrayal
of life in the rural American South a few years ago captured the imagination,
is a physician.
The marketers' hope seems to be that one of these might prove to be a discovery
as remarkable and lucrative as another Rushdie, or an Arundhati Roy, or a
Vikram Seth. Publicists have been sending advance e-mail notices to likely
reviewers, and internet-based newsgroups devoted to South Asian fiction have
occasionally seen transparently enthusiastic raves posted by new list-members,
talking up books in the hope of luring new readers.
That these authors have often chosen to write on South Asian themes is more
than a coincidence. New York-based novelist and diplomat Shashi Tharoor has
criticized the tendency of some authors to plunder their past. Like in any
other fiction, in some cases, such as Shamsie's novels, the result is moving
and ennobling; in others, such as Suri's novel, the digressions into the
world of Hindu philosophy are, at times, trite.
The authors themselves certainly don't mind the interest, nor the publicity.
Now Massachusetts-based, the renowned novelist Anita Desai, who has been
shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize thrice, said last year
that she preferred the current environment of interest in South Asian writing,
even if some of it was intrusive and some of it after a fashion and superficial,
when contrasted with the often lonely struggle she had to make through the
1970s when her first works were published.
Younger authors like Shamsie who teaches creative writing at Hamilton College
in New York State, are amused by the attention they are generating. "South
Asian writing is certainly in, but other than a shared cultural past, there
is little that you would find in common among the writers," she says. Canada-based
Shauna Singh Baldwin, whose novel "What The Body Remembers" was set around
the traumatic Partition of India and Pakistan, distinguishes the writers
in two categories: the second generation, like herself or Pulitzer winner
Lahiri, and those who migrated to the West from the subcontinent, such as
the now New York-based Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh (also New York-based), whose
latest novel, "The Glass Palace" is published this month in America.
Not only are the sensibilities of the writers different, so are their responses
to gut-wrenching issues like immigration and assimilation. For instance,
Bharati Mukherjee's early work is suffused with angst about being a woman
of color in Canada, and her later easier assimilation in America; but then
she was writing about her formative experience, which was in the 1960s and
the 1970s, when a woman in a sari in the US was a novelty. (In many areas
she still is). Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni who became popular in the 1990s,
had moved to the US a decade later, and her response was different. In her
writing we see the beginning of some conflict between the first and second
generation of immigrants when they encounter one another and fail to understand
each other. Lahiri, in contrast, happens to write about people of Indian
origin; but her stories are quintessentially American, written like polished
products of a good creative writing program (which some of the stories indeed
are), targeted at the fiction editors of The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly,
reminiscent of Carver or Saroyan. (The New Yorker considers Lahiri one of
the 20 writers to watch out for this century).
BUT HOW GOOD are these writers? Are they echoes of their more illustrious
predecessors? And do they need to become part of a marketing machinery that
exoticizes India? Many of the jackets of the books use patterns of Indian
fabric, or a Moghul miniature painting, to entice the reader. Lahiri's jacket
had the delicate filigree pattern of a Moghul window. Shamsie's jacket has
a hibiscus flower which makes only a fleeting appearance in her new novel,
"Salt and Saffron", whose title unquestionably invokes the smells of the
subcontinent, although, to be fair, subcontinental cuisine plays an extremely
important role in her excellent novel.
Suri's publishers (Norton) seem to leave nothing to chance: not only does
the spine have the image of Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Wealth, but there
is a Moghul miniature backdrop to the cover photograph as well, and the typography
of the British edition is made to look as if the script is Hindi, not English.
The entertaining saga, of the petty rivalry between the Asrani and Pathak
families (the high point of the novel, actually) is rudely and frequently
interrupted by meandering prose about the transmigration of soul which would
be more appropriate in a Hinduism 101 class.
To be sure, these novels are well-crafted and smoothly written; the writers
possess the garrulousness that makes novels from the subcontinent so rich
and such fun, with their myriad layers of meanings and allusions. But the
real test will be if they can leave their past behind. With the people who
call themselves Indians increasing in numbers in the United States, it might
be tempting to write a novel that markets nostalgia to the software engineers
in Silicon Valley and investment bankers in New York, and it may have already
become a minor trend. But to become a phenomenon and not turn into a fad,
literary merit will have to prevail.
The test will be if their appeal endures beyond the next season, when the
flavor-of-the-month may well be Iranian fiction. As the British experience
with fiction from the subcontinent shows, of the dozens of authors from that
region who followed Rushdie's 1981 success, the year "Midnight's Children"
was published and The New York Times exulted that it was like a continent
finding its voice, only a few of those dozens have survived the test of time.
For ultimately, what ensures the writer's reputation is not the subject,
however colorful, nor ethnicity, however rich, but, as Hemingway once said,
whether the writer can write a sentence that is true.
Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer working on a novel set in Singapore.