Monday, 3 August 2015

Why I read Indian Fiction

My tryst with South Asian fiction, more specifically Indian fiction began as a literature student. As a third year English undergraduate in India, we had a module on Indian writers as part of our course. We had read only English writers till then, and were eagerly looking forward to the experience. I was particularly excited. There was a craving to read something closer home, something I could relate to as an Indian reader.

Initial days:

As a child, reared on a steady diet of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and later Grisham, my reading was largely unsupervised. Although I had read my share of classics, Indian writers unlike today, were not easily found in bargain book stores.

Indian writers:

Finally, I thought will be reading something from my realm; Indian mentality, culture and experiences. I was disappointed. Thanks to an outdated syllabus, most texts were written in bygone independence era with themes of caste conflicts, oppression, exploitation of the poor by the rich (Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie) or stringent, obsolete religious practices (Anand murthy’s Samskara) back in the 19th and 20th centuries. The themes did not resonate with my metro city upbringing. Also, the language was constrained and inhibited; after all English was not a native language.

There were few exceptions though. RK Narayan’s Guide written in the post-independence era and later made into a famous Bollywood classic is about a self-centred corrupted man who takes to wrongdoing to suit his purpose. It is one of the few novels that transcends the conventional themes and is one of the few texts that can be enjoyed even today. However, such examples are very few and far in between.
The turning point occurred when I moved to another university to pursue a master’s degree.  Provided with a better course list, we were now exposed to an array of contemporary texts that enhanced our experience of Indian writing.

Blazing trail of new writers:

This time around, we discovered Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and thoroughly enjoyed it. I suppose, its success was proof that local talent armed with a definitive instead of an imitative style was now ready to showcase good quality of writing.
By the 2000s, Indian writing also saw a mushrooming of Indian writers based outside India. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri were popular names and their books were most sought after by students like us. I still remember bunking classes to finish Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sister of my heart or the hype surrounding Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Namesake”.  This was mainly because most Indian households, by now, had at least one relative who was based overseas. Their stories was something, Indian readers like us, could relate to.
As someone who had never been out of India, I found the dual identity concept exotic, just as my other friends. Also, the writing was accessible and we all loved the way the language flowed, outlining the immigrant experience and its dilemmas.

Crossing over:

Little did I foresee that I too shall be moving over to the other side when I settled in the UK after marriage. It was as if a whole new experience unfolded in front of me. Although, by now there were more Asians in the UK as compared to two decades ago, I was living in a predominately white community where my Indian accent and hair colour proclaimed my racial status.
I could now understand what it meant to be an immigrant, the need to blend in, yet retain cultural connections. I found the experience clearly reflected in many of the novels by UK based south East Asian writers. It was a fascinating time as I discovered many new names and shared their insight into what went into the making of a British Asian.

However, I do keep a track of what Indian authors are writing, during my visits back home. It was exciting to find shelves packed with various genres ranging from thrillers, chick lit, campus novels to coming of age ones.

Indian writing has come a long way indeed. It has a definitive style and more importantly, reflects the contemporary Indian society and its myriad aspects, in its works. Coming to the UK has opened me up to various south Asian writers who offer a parallel yet unique experience through their books.

It has been a fascinating reading journey, one that started in childhood, that continues to empower and enlighten, till now. 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The High Flyer - Susan Howatch

A disappointing read from one of my favourite authors.

I have loved her books. Wheel of Fortune was the best and her insight and killer observation are amazing. However, when I picked this one without even bothering to read the jacket cover, it left me surprised, shocked and well let down.


Unlike most of her novels, this is a modern one set in the 90s. Carter Graham is this ambitous high flyer doing very well in her work. She has plans of peaking her career and then settling down that way she has both the worlds.

She meets Kim another high flyer like her with similar outlook. They marry and just when life looks perfect, Kim's mysterious past catches up with him. He has an ex-wife who is stalking him. Initially seen a bit of bother, turns into something more sinister and Carter begins to doubt everything around her and ends up having a crisis which is not only domestic but more spiritual in nature.

What works:
  • Howatch's characters are always well rounded and accessible. It is not too difficult to connect with them and be a part of their lives.
  • Howatch has a bit dated but an engaging way of laying out her characters and her plot and for those familiar with her style enjoy the way she does it.

What doesn't:
  • The transformation of the Carter from an atheist to a person filled with doubts is a bit too much.
  • I read somewhere that Howatch too went through a period of doubts and found God eventually. Perhaps Carter was just her mouthpiece to lay out her experience, however it sours the experience for the reader.
  • The plot after a point begins to weigh on the reader, turning it into a more personal piece rather than a piece of fiction. 
  • The impressive personality of Carter comes to nothing when you see how she ends being this confused soul who has lost direction and puts herself in the hands of others. It does not strike a chord with the reader in any way and makes the reading a boring experience.

Despite being a hard core Howatch fan, I couldn't finish the book, leaving it midway not caring to find out what happened to Carter in the end. It left this reader cheated and not worth pursuing it all the way through. 

I feel bad about leaving it half finished. My reasoning however is this; I would rather leave with some semblance of enjoyment from it rather than be miserable by the end of the reading experience. 

Some may believe that not having read it through, perhaps I should not have the right to pass judgement about it. But for me more than getting to the end, its the journey thats more important. 

Don't you think?

Myth=Mithya Hindu Mythology Decoded by Devadutt Pattanaik
A book that encapsulates all the Amar Chitra Kathas(ACK)  I have read in my childhood.

I love ACK. I think they are the most fascinating books for kids and provide a great introduction to Indian mythology. I am trying to get my daughter interested in these books. I really hope she too will be enamoured by the illustrations, and learn to love them.


The books touches upon the various gods and goddesses that form the Indian mythology and also the religious texts. It has a very interesting structure as it talks about the various practices and beliefs and connects the stories to mythological characters.

What works:
  • Everything. Pattanaik has done his research well as he touches upon the cultural beliefs of various communities in India. He is obviously well read and does a very skillful attempt at amalgamating all in the text.
  • The points discussed are most complex in theological and spiritual aspects but the text is engaging and the language simple. A delight to go through it.  
  • As the author himself says, that you can dip in and out without reading in a linear fashion. This in turn offers great flexibility to the reader to grasp the various aspects and revisit them whenever they wish.
  • The illustrations add to the value of the text and add to the clarity offered by the narrative.
  • The structure is well very constructed. It flows well and the matter discussed is clear and concise.
  • I take pride in the fact that I know my indian mythology but reading this book left me a bit more enlightened than before and enriched my understanding of it.
What doesn't:
  • I love this book because I am interested in Indian mythology. For a person not so keen, I am not sure enjoyable the book will be.
A great read for anyone interested in Indian mythology.