The empire writes back

<p>A new generation of Indian writers in English is blossoming, S Prasannarajan reports.</p><p>That was a distant midnight, when Saleem Sinai cried his way into an imagined India. It was a word-shifting event, of freedom, of a new beginning. Suddenly fictional India, for so long trapped in the placid pages of R K Narayan, looked, smelled and sounded differently. Tropical, oriental, lush, and with a dash of borrowed magical realism--Tristram Shandy meets The Tin Drum meets One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the forces that turned the pages of Midnight's Children to a brash new India were memory and history.</p><p>Salman Rushdie, forever the Bombay boy even in Manhattan or London, made it possible for a generation of Macaulay's children to rediscover the homeland, to imagine India in English, but not the Queen's variety. He made India fashionable in the marketplace of metaphors.</p><p> Post-Midnight boom</p><p>Father Salman, Zeus-like, may still hover over an India he has lost, saying occasional goodbyes but never meaning them, and making midnight's grandchildren rather self-conscious. But India has travelled so many pages--ranging from aspirational parodies to neo-Victorian time travel to minimalist angst to true astonishments--since Saleem Sinai's first cry in Midnight's Children. Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Allan Sealy, Upamanyu Chatterjee and Shashi Tharoor--they represent the first blast in what has come to be known as Indian Writing in English (IWE).</p><p>Some of the best in Indian fiction is still written by them, Ghosh's The Hungry Tides being the latest. Call them the post-Midnight's Children boom writers. In the literary markets of London and New York, India became an identifiable idea, worth investing in, and the trend spotter came out with the obvious pun: "The Empire writes back". As the sun set over the empire, the erstwhile colony was exporting literary sundowners. The question then was: After the Latin American boom of the 1970s and the 1980s, is India next?</p><p>That may not have happened, but these writers made Indian fiction comfortable in English. In style, they had very little in common, but the shared ancestry gave the writing a new energy, a new grammar. Like the South American or the east European, they were not trapped in history, irredeemable. Nevertheless, particularly in Ghosh (who for some unknown reason remains an under-marketed writer, a loner almost), there was an argument with history (think The Glass Palace and In an Antique Land). He is a novelist of ideas, and in his pages, anthropology, history and imagination merge in perfect harmony. Seth, poet and perfectionist, peaked as one of the finest neo-Victorians the 20th century could afford in A Suitable Boy. Mistry, twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, continues to return to Bombay in search of marginal existence in Such A Long Journey and Family Matters. Sealy is yet to live up to the standard he set for himself with his first novel, The Trotternama, an important work in Indian fiction, but an underrated one. Chatterjee, author of English, August, is still at his scatological best in Mammaries of the Welfare State. Tharoor's social and political angst is intact in The Riot.</p><p> Roy effect </p><p>Then Arundhati Roy happened. That was the event: big advance, international bestseller, an italicised freshness and the Booker Prize. The God of Small Things marked the second phase. And it continues, though Roy herself, after what John Updike famously called a Tiger Woodsian d&eacute;but, has made herself unavailable to literature by becoming the poster girl of left liberal causes. She writes pamphlets nowadays.</p><p>But the Roy effect--rather the God effect--was tremendous. The market wanted more, fantasy-figure advances were within reach, and, much to the delight--and occasionally belated despair--of publishers, first novelists started sprouting from Indian cities. Small novels. Beautiful novels. Lyrical novels. More Jhumpa Lahiri than Salman Rushdie. Though quite a few of them aspired to be Naipaul "lite" in style.</p><p>And the story, too, has changed. No longer the big bad world, shapeless and volatile. Miniaturists are at work. The poet has withdrawn to the cosy shell of existence. Some, like Raj Kamal Jha (The Blue Bedspread and If You Are Afraid of Heights) limned in poetic precision the tender, dark secrets of middle class India; others, like Pankaj Mishra (The Romantics) gave the familiar oriental kitsch of East-meets-West a postmodern touch; and, daringly contemporary, Sagarika Ghosh's The Gin Drinkers dramatised with tragic-comic effect the sociology of being modern in India.</p><p>Still, some first novelists stand apart: Ruchir Joshi with The Last Jet Engine Laugh; David Davidar with The House of Blue Mangoes; and Manil Suri, The Death of Vishnu. And the latest, Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvi with The Last Song of the Dusk. Joshi's novel is audacious and ambitious, and like Rushdie, he dances on the shifting destinies of modern India. Davidar's generational saga, set in southern India, is big and bold, rich in history as well as memory. Suri's Vishnu, the first of a trilogy, set in Bombay, India's most favoured literary destination, is a chiselled piece of humane drama played out in an apartment building. The spiritual is an existential poignancy in his beautifully written book. Shangvi, the new wunderkind, turns a love story into a fairytale; he is another Bombay boy with a dash of Rushdie. These are the writers to watch. And the metaphysical thriller too is getting an Indian flavour, courtesy of Ravi Shankar Etteth's The Village of the Widows.</p><p>Sounds like it's a man's world, apart from a solitary Lahiri. Although Anita Nair, author of Ladies Coupe, can turn a train journey about a few women into one of the finest stories of contemporary Indian fiction--and no feminist angst here. So where is the non-fiction, as almost everyone who can write in English is aspiring to be a novelist? Everyone except perhaps Ramachandra Guha, historian of ideas and cricket. In September India got the literary non-fiction writer it deserves: Suketu Mehta of The Maximum City, the big Bombay book. For so long, the city was fiction's privilege. Now Bombay has got its Boswell.</p><p>It looks like the Indian spring in literature is here to stay. The true benefactors, though, are international publishing houses. They are the primary investors in the new Indian novel. They are the ones who take the risk and pay the cheque. Three mainstream houses--HarperCollins, Penguin and Picador--have an impressive list, the first hype always comes from London or New York. </p><p>Then there are small publishers like Ravi Dayal and India Ink that survive on a small but select list of literary fiction and one man's romance. Ghosh is always with Dayal. India Ink, recently acquired by a big house, was born out of The God of Small Things. As the novel becomes the easiest art in India, their lists are lengthening, and the art itself is turning rather formulaic. So many midnights after Saleem Sinai's liberating cry, the great Indian novel in English remains unwritten.</p><p>S Prasannarajan is deputy editor of India Today</p>