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.
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.
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 Thanks to an outdated syllabus, most texts were written in bygone independence era with themes of caste conflicts, oppression, exploitation of the poor by the rich (Mulk Raj Anand’s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.
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.