Our literary fiction written in English has lost its spark

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Something bothers Satyanand Nirupam, even in this moment of Booker’s triumph. Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi took his first steps into the world with Rajkamal Prakashan, the Hindi publishing house of which he is the editorial director. A journey that led to the International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand, the English translation of Shree’s novel by Daisy Rockwell. In the four years since its publication, says Nirupam, Ret Samadhi has sold 1,800 copies, less than 500 a year. But within five days of the award, 35,000 copies flew off the shelves. “For me, it shows that these readers exist, but for them to wake up, it took a great institution, a great prize, a great country to celebrate a work. It didn’t happen organically. Unfortunately, not all of the excellent books we publish will receive awards. And the big prizes don’t always know how to hit great books,” he said.

Success tends to sweep away all questions, but Nirupam is right to cling to his unease. The awards bring in new readers, new resources, and make new connections. But beyond a lavish banquet, it is the daily dal-chaawal-sabzi of an organic literary culture – readers and writers, critics and editors in honest, critical conversation with each other – that keeps literature alive. It makes room for small magazines and passion projects, allows publishers to spot this disturbing and original voice, encourages readers to discover books that speak to them and reduces the hyperbole of the advertising machine. Anyone engaged in literary work in India in any language – where bookstores are struggling to survive, where public libraries are dwindling, where the space for book reviews is shrinking – would know how difficult and lonely this task is.

Even so, the award for Shree-Rockwell is a milestone. About two decades ago, Salman Rushdie, while co-editing an anthology of post-independence Indian writing, claimed that the work of “Indian writers in English” was giving India a place on the world map. world literature much more than writing in “regional languages”. Indian women…be henceforth confident and indispensable participants in this literary conversation,” Rushdie wrote, embarrassingly sounding like he was hosting a panel discussion at a United Nations high table, in the Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997 , only one text translated into English was retained, that of Saadat Hasan Manto.

It wasn’t just Shree’s Booker who proved his hypothesis wrong. For some years now, the world-conquering armada of Indian writing in English so harassed by Rushdie has found itself adrift. In its place is a current of excitement in Indian writing in English about fiction written in other Indian languages ​​- a belated enthusiasm, given that the project of translations between Indian languages ​​is much older. And while not the only measure, it is telling that local prizes for Indian literary fiction in English have been awarded to translations in recent years, be it Mustache by S. Hareesh, Delhi by M. Mukundan or Blue is Like Blue by Vinod Kumar Shukla. In many of these works the breadth of experience, the music of different languages, the embrace of the strange and the sublime have made the novel “Indian Writing in English” (IWE), with a few very good exceptions close, seems too polite and provincial in comparison.

Could this have had something to do with what is considered the big bang moment for IWE? The first Indian English novel (Rajmohan’s Wife) was written in 1864, but the publication of Midnight’s Children’s in 1981 was considered the original adventure. The world threw us a big party, even if writers as different as Amit Chaudhuri and Rushdie or Arundhati Roy and Anita Desai were invited. This heady success set the narrow terms of how IWE was assessed. This set the agenda: you can try another “baggy freak” (in Amit Chaudhuri’s words) explaining India, or writing about upper-class diaspora life. This created a publishing culture that had an eye on the gatekeepers of the West, where writers, drawn from a privileged small pool of metropolitan life, told their stories. In many ways, translations have helped tap into a greater imagination, even though some Indian languages ​​are less popular than others (Hindi and Gujarati, for example, more than Malayalam and Bengali) and some texts bear the burden of “explaining” their cultures to the “nation”.

For longtime IWE readers, it’s hard not to see the slide, not to mention opinions on the “next big thing” or talk about the West’s beloved “literary supernovas.” Most of us find it difficult to identify which IWE works from the past two years we would like to champion. To a playwright friend, it seemed like literature that hadn’t found its place, and was still caught between “European sophistication and desi indiscipline”. that precedes Insta filters – or, its opposite, an anthropological curiosity about the Indian belly.

The fact that this coincided with a wave of bed-festing or generous, uncritical admiration for a fading group of star writers should tell us – even in this moment of celebration for Indian work – that neither fame nor prices do ultimately create writers.

Amrita Dutta is National Articles Editor at Mint

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