Ever since Arundhati Roy won the 1997 Man Booker prize for her debut novel,The God of Small Things, the politics of the Indian-English novel has become an important topic in India. Each year, readers and writers alike wait with bated breath for the long list, and then the short list, of Booker prize contenders to be announced. Even the Nobel Prize for literature gets short shrift compared to the attention showered on the motley bunch of fiction writers, all citizens of the British Commonwealth, who qualify for this prestigious award.
While the Booker is handed out in the U.K., it is of considerable interest in the writing community for all writers who express themselves in English (excepting Americans, of course), an invisible but strong bond among countries once ruled by England.
Invariably, year after year, there are Indians on the Booker short list. While some of them are resident and others non-resident Indians, they all write about the “Indian experience.” As they say, you can leave India, but India never leaves you.
And therein lies the debate. The scathing commentaries and reviews that invariably tackle each Booker-winning novel—some eloquent and logical, some overtly hostile. General discussion of the underlying issues about writing in English take place all through the year, but it is strange how the debates heat up in India only when the winner of a prize like the Booker is an Indian. In the past, an Indian has won this prize about once in a decade: V.S. Naipaul in the ’70s, Salman Rushdie in the ’80s, and Roy in the ’90s. Perhaps the media hype surrounding the Booker has increased because this decade has already seen two Indian prize winners: Kiran Desai in 2006 and now Aravind Adiga.
The relatively unknown young writer, Adiga, won the 2008 Booker for his debut novel, The White Tiger. Soon after, U.S.-based writer Amitava Kumar published an essay in the Boston Review labelling Adiga’s work “inauthentic.” The essay was honest but harsh.
Considering that English is not a “native” Indian language, there is a strong lobby that proposes that any Indian novel not written in an Indian languages is inauthentic to begin with. Sidestepping this issue, we come to the divide between Indian writers who write in English but live in India and those who live outside India. There is the charge about non-resident Indian writers pandering to a western audience by making India sound like a strange and exotic land, dropping words like karma and guru, italicizing the language-specific words and exclamations. Then there is the debate about the hypocrisy of work that purports to be about the “so-called contemporary India,” work that is penned by people who left the country decades ago, and in some cases by children of immigrant Indians who know only of India through the biased lenses of their parents.
The debate spurred by The White Tiger seems particularly strident. Is it because Adiga is a first-time novelist? Is it, perhaps counter intuitively, because he lives in India? Just a couple years ago, when Kiran Desai won the Booker, there seemed to be less criticism, perhaps due to her literary pedigree as Anita Desai’s daughter.
Can Indian writers who live and write in India be assumed or expected to be more genuine than (and therefore superior to) non-resident Indian writers? What, then, about India itself being such a diverse country, with lifestyles varying tremendously from region to region? Can a novelist honestly tell a story about a part of India that s/he was not been born into or exposed to? Isn’t it, after all, in the writer’s mind that creation takes place? Does the writer’s commitment to the facts that ground the story have to exceed the writer’s commitment to his or her own characters?
As an amateur writer, I have pondered these issues and not come to any satisfactory conclusion. But as a reader, I am confident of my opinion.
As an Indian who grew up in India, and who has now returned to India after 14 years as an NRI, I know that I like Khalil Gibran and Gabriel Garcia Marquez more than Naipaul and Rushdie. I like Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories and novels by Anna Quindlen. I like Shashi Deshpande’s essays, but not Bharti Mukherjee’s stories. My tastes are my own. I connect to writing that strikes a chord in me. Yes, I read English writing, but I enjoy stories that speak in a universal language. I enjoy stories of people who may have lived in different times, in places that I may never see, who may speak a language that I may have never heard, but whose characters linger in my imagination long after I put the book down.
It is not historical accuracy that must be verified, but the validity of the emotional responses of the characters in stories that may or may not mirror my own life experiences. I do not need to identify with the protagonist based on his origin, region, or religion, but I need to find myself firmly entrenched in the lives of the characters. Authenticity lies in the faithful narration of the life of each character in any story.
While it may be intellectually stimulating to debate accuracy and appropriateness, an author’s loyalty is first to his or her creation, and then to the reader who gives a book the place it deserves, not just on a bookshelf, but in her heart.
Ranjani Rao has been a contributor to India Currents magazine and was a prize winner in the 2002 Katha fiction contest.