Far Eastern Economic Review May 3, 2001

Diverse New Indian Fiction

By Salil Tripathi


WHEN AMITAV GHOSH respectfully withdrew The Glass Palace from this year's selection for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, saying his life's work would be meaningless if he accepted an award from an institution that he opposed politically, his decision surprised few who'd read his novel.

In The Glass Palace, Ghosh tells an engrossing story about an Indian businessman's rise and fall through tumultuous times. By displacing the protagonist--an orphan from eastern Bengal, Rajkumar Raha, who rises to be a prosperous businessman in pre-war Rangoon only to see his business empire shatter in colonial Burma--Ghosh has written a moving novel about the way colonialism wounded not only nations and civilizations, but also shattered people and their lives.

The Glass Palace is the most accomplished in a line-up of novels by writers from India, or of Indian origin, published in the past six months. These novels, as diverse in theme and style as India itself, include The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri, The Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma, and the paperback edition of The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra.

Sharma's The Obedient Father, written with clinical detachment, is a graphic account of a government servant and his moral debasement during the period of emergency rule from 1975 to 1977. The Death of Vishnu, which has received rave notices in the United States, suffers from trying to do too much--critiquing India's political scene, and romanticizing Hinduism.

Salman Rushdie's remarkable novel, Midnight's Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, placed the Subcontinent on the world literary map. His success directed international attention to English fiction from India, and it also made writers in the post-independent India feel that they could write English as it sounded in India.

In the past two decades, several other Indian writers--including Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Ghosh--have received critical acclaim for their novels; all very different to Rushdie's in character. Seth's A Suitable Boy, a saga of a family's search for a groom for their daughter in the India of 1950s, revived interest in novels of an epic scale  a la Tolstoy. Ghosh's moving novel, The Shadow Lines, gave new meaning to borders and displacement. And Roy's The God of Small Things, a story of twins in a phantasmagoric village, breathed new life into the backwaters of Kerala.

Taken together, these novels are often placed on shelves next to one another, as "new writing from India." But other than their ethnic heritage, the writers, and these novels, have little in common. It is no more possible to categorize Indian writers than it would be to place E. Annie Proulx, Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo and Philip Roth in the same bracket.

Yet, Rushdie's success created the expectation that other Indian novelists would follow his magic-realist mode, of stories-within-stories, of reality merging with fantasy and fantasy masquerading as reality. The toolkit included allusions to the past and mythology, clever wordplay, Scheherazade-type stories that never seemed to end following convoluted plots that exhausted some readers and enchanted others, and references to spices and pickles, fragrances and tastes, making the reading a multisensory experience.

Many of the newer novelists have deeply Indian sensibilities and do not need mystical metaphors or verbal pyrotechnics. Some, like Mishra--whose Romantics is an underrated gem about a young Brahmin's growing up in modern India--resent comparisons and have been critical of Rushdie's influence.

The perspectives of Rushdie, Ghosh, Seth, and Mishra, all of whom moved overseas as adults, differ from those not born in India, or those who moved abroad as children.

Within the diaspora, there is also a generational difference. Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer prize last year for Interpreter of Maladies, is able to write about the Indian experience in the U.S. without emphasizing the differences and is comfortable about her hyphenated identity. A dozen years ago, Bharati Mukherjee's collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, showed an America where a woman in a sari was a novelty. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Arranged Marriages revealed a different clash, between Indians who grew up in the U.S. and those fresh off the boat.

As one goes further afield, as the work of M.G. Vassanji, set in East Africa, or Philip Jeyaretnam, in Singapore, show, authors from the Indian diaspora differ so radically from those who were born in, or spent their formative years in India, that it makes no sense talking of an Indian voice any more.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London