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A New Bend in the River
The Future of the Indian novel in English
Essay : literature, India, Britain, postcolonialism, empire, liberalisation
Friday, February 26, 2010 20:10 GMT

This article appeared in The National.

Novels and nations are linked by an intimate kind of analogy. If nations are the stage on which modern life and feeling unfold, novels are the form in which these things are recounted, understood and turned, finally, into lore. Such is the apparent scale and ambition of modern life that no smaller treatment than the novel will finally match up – not even cinema, which, for all its protean vitality, has never quite displaced the novel from the pinnacle of modern cultural achievement.

This is why emerging nations strive to beget great novels. During the years of America’s rise, for instance, the project of the "great American novel" was conscious and determined. Industry alone would not make the United States great: to grow beyond Europe it needed to match Flaubert and Tolstoy. In 1897, the novelist Frank Norris wrote that American writers should be focused on the task of creating the novel "which is the most thoroughly American in its tone and most aptly interprets the phasos of American life."

The same challenge has continued to define American writing and literary taste ever since. In awarding the 2001 National Book Award to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, the jurors explained that the novel had proved Franzen "one of the most astute interpreters of the American mind and spirit."

Such formulations understate the game, of course: for novels are not mere “interpretation”, following on from reality. Novels generate the reality too, for nations are great empty abstractions before they are filled up with stories. This is why emerging nations need them so much – why they encourage, reward and fete them. And they keep on needing them: dynamic nations constantly outgrow existing accounts and images, and novels are important engines for the new. America continues to grant its own leading novelists – figures like Toni Morrison and Philip Roth – a far more august position than is the case for their British contemporaries. For America is a self-consciously "created" nation and it is in large part because of its novels that it has become intelligible, even to itself. In the long project of America, the great nation and the great novel have been cogged in a continual cycle of mutual creation and nourishment.

All this will help to explain why the Booker Prizes won by Salman Rushdie (1981) and Arundhati Roy (1997) were such significant cultural events in India, which had not until that point exported any novel to compete with those written about it by imperial outsiders. Both these literary achievements were touted, even by people who could not or would not ever read them, as stages in the emergence of a mature and “confident” nation that had not only put colonialism behind it but was now able to produce literature superior to that of the former colonial masters themselves – and in their own language.

Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children was, in an overt sense, a creation myth for the nation, its children born at born at midnight on 15th August 1947, the nation’s zero hour. It sat comfortably atop India’s history and drew on a great depth of its myth and religion, but it also fielded smart-talking modern characters who lived among film and advertising; moreover it presented all this with a startling new language and sensibility that seemed to be a fundamental innovation, not only for Indian writing, but for the English-language novel in general.

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was a quieter enterprise whose small-town story nevertheless unfurled into an account of the wider nation and indeed of relations with the former colonial power. An exquisite osmosis of Indian feeling and landscape, Roy’s novel depicted a world that was replete with pain but nonetheless fully “independent”: comprehensible on its own terms and complete in itself. A linguistic tour de force, the book took Indian speech as a central theme and worked it into a new and dazzling poetry – and convinced many that the new centre of English-language literature had shifted to the subcontinent.

In a way, however, Roy’s literary project was so perfectly and comprehensively realized that it signalled the end of a line. A colossal commercial success, The God of Small Things was followed by a large number of sari-and-mango novels with brooding trans-generational plots delivered in monsoon-drenched prose. But as the twenty-first century arrived, it felt as if the urgency of such novels was already fading away. Indian politics was dominated by the aggressive nationalism of the ruling Hindu-right coalition; moreover there was, everywhere, a stupefying frenzy of money-making, and the place was quickly ceasing to be “postcolonial.” Indian commercial might and ambition had reached such proportions that the country’s industrialists were buying up iconic Western assets – Arcelor, Corus, Jaguar Land Rover. What was the need, anymore, to insist on the dignity and depth of Indian feeling, or the unapologetic exuberance of Indian speech? As Arundhati Roy herself left behind novel-writing to campaign against the more brutal excesses of the new economy, the fragrant lyricism of 1990s Indian fiction had come to seem disingenuously meek.

Not only this, but the feudal certainties of much of this writing had come under serious threat. India’s English-language writers were from the traditional cultural elite, and this was reflected in their lovingly crafted tales of solid houses, upper-class lineage and steadfast servants. But in turn-of-the-century India this perspective looked parochial. The Hindu-right government drew much of its support from communities that the anglicised classes could barely imagine. Other swelling forces – such as Maoist insurgency or Islamic terrorism – were still more remote from their experience. Even the reins of business were being seized by provincials who might speak little English but who effortlessly outclassed traditional elites in the hustle of twenty-first century Indian commerce. The group to which English-language writers belonged was everywhere on the back foot and they were suddenly aware of how marginal they were to the country’s main preoccupations and affairs.

It is perhaps for these reasons that the English-language writers have found themselves taking very new directions in the last few years. It is often when older models are exhausted that the most striking things occur. Gone, now, are the family sagas, the colourful celebrations of Indian language and sentiment. Gone is the slow accumulation of decades and centuries. The new Indian novel is starker in style, it is not much preoccupied by culture or the seasons, and its story is compressed into a few weeks or months. It is concerned not to enquire after the essence of a formerly colonised place, but to ask sharper, more troubled, eminently metropolitan questions: how do all the radically different parts of this reality fit together, who is in control of it and what does it mean?

Paradoxically, since these novels are written in English, their English-speaking characters are no longer in possession of Indian truth. They may still be the protagonists, but events must force them out of their orbits if they are to discover anything real – for reality is produced by other groups and classes. The aristocratic narrator of Aatish Taseer’s novel The Temple Goers (2010) only hears about the turbulent reality outside his sheltered serenity when he switches on his TV; he says wistfully, considering his muscular fitness instructor from the provinces:

His versatility was like a confirmation of how authentic and robust his world was. His Delhi was a city of temples and gyms, of rich and poor people, of Bentleys and bicycles, of government flats and mansions, of hookers and heiresses, and he asserted his nativity by moving freely between its varied lives.

The plots of these novels seek to access this mobility and versatility, and to escape the besiegement – real or imagined – of contemporary anglicised life. They are built, thriller-like, around unlikely moments of convergence, when many things come together and suddenly it is possible to see an unfamiliar host of jostling, interconnected worlds.

At the centre of Vikas Swarup’s Q&A (the source for the film Slumdog Millionaire) is a poor orphan who enters a television quiz show and wins a fortune when the questions turn out to have been foreshadowed by events in his own life. For Swarup, this unlikely triumph is less significant than the structure of the quiz show: for each increase in prize money, the main character is forced to delve into the most traumatic episodes of his own past and that of the nation – a moving paradox that captures something fascinating about contemporary Indian ambition and success.

In a similar vein, the five men put on trial for plotting the death of a Delhi magazine editor in Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins (2009) provide a means for the author to tell us five detailed, harrowing stories of working-class life. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which won the Booker Prize in 2008, uses a chauffeured car to bring rural underclass and elite together and to explore the worlds of both; his upcoming novel will travel through the many kinds of existence affected by real estate sharks’ attempts to demolish a Mumbai apartment block and the adjacent slum. The stories in Mridula Koshy’s If It Is Sweet (2009) often revolve around moments when classes come together – domestic labour, emergencies or chance urban encounters – in order to discover the things that make partial realities more complete. In another short story collection, Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s Eunuch Park (2009), middle-class characters are taken out of their normal lives by crime or drug-use to encounter a great world they have little inkling of.

What kind of Indian reality emerges from this new fiction? It is almost unremittingly dark. Earlier novels from India were tenebrous too – inequality, violence and misogyny have been constant themes – but in novels like The God of Small Things these things were redeemed by the sensitivity of author and characters, the beauty of the world and the fundamental meaningfulness of life. Literary fiction of the last five years is far more cynical, for in it finer feelings have all but died out and pretty much everything is meaningless. Power mongers and businesspeople are unsentimental and terrifying; their relationships and intellects are crippled. The majority of society lives precariously amid violence and exploitation, and it must kill and manipulate to survive. There is not even any room for moral judgement because the world is so sick – and its protagonists, spirtually lost, have no comment on the terrifying reality they discover. Respite and tenderness are found rarely and usually, as in Koshy’s and Mehrotra’s collections, in uncanny, provisional relationships.

The masterpiece of this new current in Indian fiction has still to be written, but its ambition could not be greater. It is entirely true that, for many affluent people in the cities, contemporary India is little more than a bundle of alienating, inhuman rumours, one that has no internal coherence and little obvious connection – except as a possible menace – to their own lives. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they have so little objection to the pillaging that Indian businesses are carrying out in their name: the dispossession (and worse) of farmers and tribal communities is so remote for them as to be entirely unsubstantial. So telling big stories – connecting the rumours together and giving them human content – is an important task for contemporary Indian novelists. These writers are not particularly concerned anymore by their country’s colonised past: they are preoccupied instead by its expanding, imperial future, and they are looking to find meaning and direction for the whole careening, tormented joyride. Novels can be effective laboratories for this kind of work – it was a precisely similar quest that inspired Dickens, Balzac and indeed Saul Bellow – and we might see some very great novels from India in the next few years. Not novels of empty patriotism or “nation-building”. Novels that help to generate the full and coherent reality whose absence is currently so sapping to this society’s life and spirit.