Saturday, August 13, 2005

Where will the next Arundhati Roy come from?

In his essay, "The lost sub-continent" (The Guardian, Aug 13 ), William Dalrymple argues that the next batch of successful Indian writers in English will emerge from the Diaspora, not from amongst those writers who are living and working on the Indian soil. He says:

"If the last few years are anything to go by, I suspect that in the years ahead the main competition Indian writers aspiring to win the Booker will face will not be the Alan Hollinghursts or the AS Byatts, so much as their own cousins born and brought up in the west."

And why this will be so:

"Writers such as Kunzru, born in Hounslow or Edgware or Brooklyn or New Jersey, have a clear and built-in advantage over their cousins brought up in Jhansi or Patna. They have far more confidence in English, and their ethnicity and geography makes them natural bridges between cultures, able automatically to translate an Indian sensibility for the west - if that is what they want to do. Certainly, their background effortlessly puts them in a position to draw together a range of different influences, to work with ease in India and Britain and the US, and to produce art that is readily comprehensible at both ends of the globe."

I guess William has a point here. But the fact is that this has always been the case, with the exception of Roy (incidently, Amit Chaudhuri has returned to his native Bengal from Oxford). For example, what did Picador discover in India? Only Rajkamal Jha and Siddharth Deb?

The fact is the market for Indian (and even African) writing in English is not in India but in America and Europe. It is natural that Indian writers, who have degrees and addresses in London or New York, will succeed as they have better access to literary agents or publishers. Also, the lack of a literary culture in India, especially in centres like Delhi as noted by William, will not be a problem for Indian writers in the West.

Agreed that a majority of 'successful' Indian writers in English will emerge from the diaspora, but I am not sure if all of them will be delivering masterpieces. We never know when another Roy emerges from the shadowy towns of Jhansi or Patna! Who had imagined that such a "Tigerwoodsian" debut-making writer from Kerala would take the literary world by storm? In literature the possibilities are always there.

I had noted the "there is much money in crearive writing these days" scene in Nair's Monsoon Wedding. But to me, that came off as more of satirical comment than anything else. In India, whoever can afford, is either going for a foreign MBA or Creative Writing or Filmmaking course. For Indians, what matters is money and the limelight ('the obsession with sucess'). That will always be the attraction. Remember the "Miss India" craze a few years ago after Aishwarya-Sushmita success?

I liked the description of Delhi mushairas in the essay. Yes, that culture is, alas, gone now. Then artists were patronised by rich nobles. Not any more.

The lack of non-fiction writing in India is because of the incestous nature of the world of Indian publishing. Editors will commission books to only those whom they know only, and won't give chance to new people or look for new talent. Also, where are the lit agents for the Indian market?

8 comments:

bibliobibuli said...

Enjoyed this piece very much, Zafar. Maybe straddling two cultures is condusive to good writing?

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharon. London and New York are the mecca for writers from the former colonies or backwaters. Conrad had to go there, Naipaul had to go there to find success. But some could buck the trend also. R K Narayan comes to the mind. But in a way, he too was a product of a college where British lecturers used to teach.

Susan Abraham said...

The literary agents for Indian authors from the sub-continent are all in Great Britain and New York, Zafar. They're nowhere else.

Zafar Anjum said...

I know that Susan, and that's I have posed that question (to William). Thanks for dropping by.

Susan Abraham said...

Zafar, I do disagree with the part where you had written literary agents go to Indian authors with better addresses. No agent would be that naive. Some years back, with the mushrooming of Indian authors in the West, Times Asia did a main story article on quite a few debut novelists in Delhi & Mumbai who had never left Indian shores to settle anywhere else and who were paid six-figure advances. They received cheques in the post and the entire communication between these authors and Great Britain (London) took place via the email. The contracts, letters of acceptances, attachment of manuscripts, the lot.
I'm considering going on to East Africa to write and then anything I send will have an African address. That makes no difference to me at all.
Because at the end of the day, I know that it's always the author's vision and the intensity of a hopeful author's dream (not just mine but many others) and also the inner ambition that matters above else. Of course, this forms as a crust for a shell of what lies inside that really matters. And I'm sure every hopeful author knows its responsibility to produce the best work it possibly can regardless of its place of residence.
A literary agent today (the majority of whom lead a jet-setting lifestyle) thinks nothing of reaching a prospective author anywhere worldwide, as long as that author's manuscript matters vitally to him/her. So an excuse of a prestigious address won't hold water with the publishing houses that count, I'm afraid.
I came to England simply because I stay inspired by its Arts. And it is here where the fluency of my language grows in the subconscious all the time, because that's all anyone speaks. Each author would be driven by its own spirit. There is so much motivation and inspiration for the author wanting to publish English fiction. It is the kind of active inspiration that reaches your doorstep daily. Book talks, discussions, signings, poetry readings, retreats, workshops, one after another. And where individuality of the human spirit is pushed forward over stereotype issues like obvious culture or a predictable patrotism. So that's why I'm here. But not because I needed to be here to publish a book. That reason doesn't seem necessary at all. regards

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks again Susan. But in my comments, I was not referring to you at all. My observations are based on my experiences. I don't always believe what newspapers say. Where are all those writers who got big deals sitting in India? I know Ashok Banker. Who else?

But what you are hinting at--I have already said that. In this day of email and google, agents and publishers can be found from anywhere. But look at the practical situation Susan. That's what William is also saying.

As of living amongst the native speaker, I agree. It helps in many ways. I have made that point.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Zafar, so you were quoting someone else again. I should have realised. Just scanned through your article. yes I have seen William's article in today's Saturday papers. He's probably made his assumptions from observing British writing festivals. And I would say, just a couple. Obviously, he hasn't done his homework. I'll send you a list of established Indian authors who have British agents/publishers, yet, have lived and worked very quietly for years in India & Pakistan, while their books continue to circulate in Brtain and America and even Asia with European translations. What is worth noting is that an author can choose to be as quiet or as public as she/he wants. They can turn down invitations, festivals, anything at all. And in the event they do, these are the very ones with insignificant addresses that you don't see at Hay-On-Wye. And the other day, Hatchards actually recommended one such author's book to me, the staff having read it very favourably. I'll send you a list. Of course William won't know the Indian scene all that well. Having read his piece, I fear he may have done his homework only on this side of the continent. And having hit upon his inspiration from a poplar writing festival at that. I'm sure you know all this. regards.
P.S. By the way, to expand on an earlier thought, yes, agents are everywhere on the Internet. Except its the same list of British & NY agents over and over again. Also, a warning. You'll find the lot more elusive than ghosts unless your work matters to them.

Hari said...

Where will the next Arundhati Roy come from?

Malaysia, perhaps ... one can live in hope.