One opinion, strongly expressed, has caused quite a storm in a large number of literary minds on the veracity of the accolades bestowed upon some distinguished writers. I’d like to see Indian writing caught in the throes of one such vigorous debate some day, with readers bewildered by the sheer quality and variety of work at their disposal.
Anis Shivani, without mincing any words, has launched an onslaught on modern American writing. Here in India, or even in the UK, as is evident from the comments here, the writers in this list may not have been much heard of. I admit to having read only Jhumpa Lahiri from amongst the authors Shivani lashes out at; and I've heard of Amy Tan, but that doesn't really count, does it?
A large amount of causticism has been poured into this article, and it isn't hard to agree with the fact that the proliferation of platforms for brazen publicity has led to a good deal of mediocrity being stood up on a pedestal and worshipped with unrestrained devotion. Does that inevitably lead, however, to a lack or loss of willpower to revolt against whatever is shoved down our throats as acceptable and deserving? A critic's opinion isn't the last word- surely we know how to think for ourselves and make our own decisions on the merit of a book, without succumbing to a more learned/degree-endowed person than us. Criticism shapes opinions, yes, but what is the yardstick that applies to a good critic? Look among the comments in the Guardian link referred to above, and you will find unsparing disparagement heaped on Dan Brown (some readers even use the looking-down-their-royal-noses tactic of having forgotten the name of the author of The da Vinci Code). Stieg Larsson, going by the thread, is headed for the same brand of literary infamy a few years down the line. Which brings to mind Chetan Bhagat, in our context.
Indian writing, and indeed, any English writing outside of the USA and the UK, is hardly referred to in these columns. Readers have been asked for recommendations on underrated writing here- sifting through the comments, I picked up only two Indian names- Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy. A grudging mention was made of Aravind Adiga as a writer who failed to justify the hype. Vikram Seth was dismissed as dull. (Digressing, a few European authors whose works have been translated into English have been suggested, which makes the comments quite a treasure trove of probable good reads.)
Indian writing in English aspires high, but seems to flounder by the way and lose sight of its destination. You don't necessarily have to write an immigrant story to be recognised by the rest of the world, just as you don't need a Nobel or a Pulitzer or a Booker to place a final seal of approval on a piece of literary work and parade it as being something worthy of global attention. Most Indian writers who have a fairly wide reach abroad seem to tell stories of cross-cultural acclimatisation or indulge in a bit of India-bashing, dredging up sensitive subjects that fetch much international mileage and make the world turn superficially horror-stricken eyes on a country that forever escapes its comprehension, whose tenuous balancing of modernity and tradition obfuscates it. Occasionally, something as incisive as Animal’s People is written- but this is a story where the big players will have to share some blame and turn contrite- not comfortable enough for the collective conscience of two continents.
It may not be a conscious attempt at derision, but it is quite difficult to fathom why not enough writing out of India finds a global audience. Why does nobody discuss Tagore in the same breath as Dickens? It isn’t always necessary to write about people and places that are largely identifiable- science fiction isn’t based on credibility, Graham Greene probably had never been inside a temple or within the narrow streets of a colonised village to enable him to find delight in Malgudi. Tagore was humane and sympathetic, and quite often tragic- adjectives that are often attributed to Dickens as well. Why, then, don’t they enjoy an equal amount of popularity among lay readers abroad?
If the present state of writing in India has anything to do with distorting the image of English works produced here in general, there couldn’t be a bigger disappointment. Most Indian writers who find mention among global readers have had some degree of international exposure. What we need, perhaps, are down-to-earth sensibilities. This is where Chetan Bhagat, as I grudgingly admit, scores- his books are extremely affordable, and a bit of smart marketing has helped him strike a chord with a large Indian audience. Either substance or adroit marketing isn’t an option- it never was. Thanks to the amount of hype that can be whipped up in no time, and the minuscule attention spans that we seem to have ended up with, not all honest, genuine writing seems to find its right place.
Don’t get me wrong- I don’t mean to say that finding honourable mention in a British or American newspaper is the only measure of quality. What is most important to a writer is to write for himself- and then, if he is being published, to connect with a wide audience. It is, after all, interesting to see what it takes to transcend barriers and find acquiescence among distant voices. Critics and high-brow readers set their own rules. We don’t have to abide by them, nor do we always have to play to the publishing gallery. We do need to remember, though, that we’re more than shmaltz and garish weddings, poverty and social taboos. We have good stories to tell, and we can tell them extremely well.