E Dawson Varughese
Reading New India: Post-Millennial Indian Fiction in English
Genre: Literary Studies
Bloomsbury: London & New York. 2013
Pages 190 | Price (PB) Rs 799 | $ 37.49
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An Overview of Indian Fiction in English by Indian Writers during the New Millennium
While fiction is the most interesting genre for the general reader, the story of the story, i.e., an analytical overview of it over a period of time would equally be interesting especially when it relates to a brief but momentous span of time. And here is such an attempt by Dawson Varughese to focus on the New Indian fiction in English (NIFIE) in the new millennium by Indian writers and published within India. This is an ambitious and novel project, strenuous though, considering the vast body of literature to be considered. And she has done it with a sense of academic objectivity.
Reading New India: Post-Millennial Fiction in English - “the first book to focus on fiction at the millennium, the crossroad for India’s globalization” - is not a critique or a collection of reviews of individual novels or a generalised assessment of the oeuvre of individual writers, but a representation of various trends, themes, motifs, lineaments, zeitgeist, dynamic & conflicting cultural mores & values informing the fiction in hand, and an analysis of the core themes of some of the individual typical novels written in different voices.
While dealing with the stories, novels and films produced during the post-millennial times, the book doesn’t purpose to philosophise, value-judge, synthesise, or theorise. An experienced field researcher of world literature in English, author of Beyond the Postcolonial: World Englishe(s) Literature and editor of numerous anthologies of short stories from countries like Cameroon, Uganda and Malaysia, Dawson has the credentials to undertake the job.
Though the primary focus is on the NIFIE, the author has rightly juxtaposed it with a brief and contextual overview of the earlier representative production for a proper appreciation of the evolution of the genre. She touches upon “the key literary figures” and “developments and issues in the history of Indian writing in English.” The author, for the purpose, classifies the fiction as pre-Independence, post-Independence, and millennial. She has buttressed her observations with extensive quotations from the material taken up.
The new millennium has been radicalized thanks to globalization, BPO and the consequent enhanced economic and corporate activity in the country with their concomitant ramifications. A new segment of youth – highly educated and buffeted between Western influences and Indian values – is a conspicuous presence on the urban scene.
TV, satellite and film industry - together with the post-IPL cricket, reality shows (like Indian Idol and Master Chef India), Western sitcoms and music videos (like those of MTV) - have palpably impacted the Indian society, fashioning the cultural perceptions of the Indian youth. Satellite and TV have created a new ‘home’ lifestyle for many Indians, and the number of channels with their populist programmes – supplemented by the electronic social media - has been burgeoning.
Publishing of NIFIE has caught on and the production has risen. A number of publishing houses have increased their publishing lists in the last ten years. Dawson opines that the spur was due to Salman Rushdie’s success in reaching out to a larger international readership in the 1980s and the Booker Prize for Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). And the tempo has been maintained with compelling novelists like Aravind Adiga, Vikram Chandra and Chetan Bhagat entering the arena. Capitalising on the increasing metro culture, Penguin in 2010 launched its ‘Metro Reads’ targeting the ‘reader on the go.’ The lightweight books with ‘fun, feisty, fast reads’ priced at Rs150 can be read in commutes.
The vibrant New India with its challenges and aspirations is equally agitated with evils like corruption, and they are tackled in works like Chetan Bhagat’s Revolution 2020: Love Corruption Ambition. Coming to the popular TV show, India’s Got Talent, real talent would come to the fore if our body politic is not vitiated with monstrosities like corruption, red tape and divisive politics. One would wish that talent is not only personal but also collective with an ethos to make India a really global power.
Films and fiction being interdependent, Bollywood – even while dishing out its masala films - has recognised the spirit of the millennial India and come up with hit movies like Slumdog Millionaire and Three Idiots by adapting the Indian English fictions Q&A by Swarup and Five Point Someone by Bhagat.
There is wide thematic diversity in the new fiction - politics, Emergency, Maoist rebellion, terrorism, corporate world & call centres, historical and epic fiction, chick lit, crick lit, sexuality, crime & mystery, SF, graphic novels, et al.
‘Chick lit’ mainly written by women, projects a female protagonist who faces challenges in contemporary Indian society, often including the element of love or romance and a touch of humour. Shashi Deshpande, Anita Desai, Shama Futehally, Temsula Ao, Nisha da Cunha, Kamala Markandaya, Jaishree Misra and Manju Kapur come under this category.
Be it men or women writers, sexuality has become an uninhibited topic, with options like ‘sex before marriage’ in order to work out ‘sexual compatibility,’ MSM (men who have sex with men) and WSW (women who have sex with women) doing the rounds. In fact the ‘gay’ culture has become a sort of fringe religion with a voice far more voluble than their numbers.
Milking the obsession for cricket, besmirched though with scandals, a number of novelists have made it their raw material, and so we have – The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan; Doosra by Rajiv Rajendra; The Premier Murder League by Geeta Sundar; Bowled and Beautiful by Manoj Das; Run, Romi, Run by Tushar Raheja; The 3 Mistakes of My Life by Chetan Bhagat – the last two in the bildungsroman genre.
Hand in hand with fiction, Bollywood has churned out Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India starring Aamir Khan, Hattrick, Jannat and Dil Bole Hadippa.
Crime writing has become dominant, and we have even women writers like Kalpana Swaminathan with her ‘Lalli’ mysteries set in Mumbai, involving murder and the mystery cleverly solved by Lalli.
There is no dearth of fantasy - historical and speculative fiction including SF and slipstream genre (fiction of strangeness). Prominent names are Samit Basu, Amish Tripathi, Ashok Kumar Banker and Usha KR. In tandem with fiction, Bollywood has presented us its first major SF film - the 3D Ra.One where Sharukh Khan plays G.One (Jeevan) and Arjun Rampal plays Ra.One (Ravan).
Also, we have a growing body of fantasy genre inspired by the Hindu lore – like the Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi and Vimana by Mainak Dhar. In the latter, the modern-day politico-cultural thought has been imported into a story set in a hoary background. Covering various historical ages and quite often mixing them, there are The Tenth Unknown (historical inter-continental fiction with magic realism and Indian background) by Jvalant Nalin Sampat and Collision of Dimensions (with forces across time and realms coming face to face) by MV Ravi Shanker which have not found mention in Dawson’s book. The epic or historical fiction is not simply fantasy but an attempt to reiterate and reinterpret “strong cultural and philosophical roots,” in what is continuity of distilled and reappraised ancient genius, traditions, values and wisdom.
The contemporary social novels are also engaged with “Debates on society, Indianness, farmer suicides and war,” and the like.
Mention the graphic novel, and pronto the “Amar Chitra Katha series of comic books” come to the mind. They “celebrate Indian heritage and look to inform young readers, in particular, on Indian history, culture and religion.” The graphic novel got popular in India with the pioneering The River of Stories (1994) by Orijit Sen. The spurt in sales of graphic novels is attributed to the recognition in 1992 by Pulitzer Committee of Maus written by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. The River of Stories “takes on development, progress and the adivasi people” and “embodies the overall sense of alterity and peripheral existence in its choice of form and structure, consciously fashioning it away from the mainstream.”
The output of NIFIE is, obviously, too large to mention every writer – which is why works like Missing Varrun (an Indo-Spanish bildungsroman inspired by global compulsions) by Amar Agarwala and Dilliz Boyz (a multi-layered urban narrative based in Delhi with a flashback to the Partition trauma cum anti-Sikh riots and laced with juvenile peccadilloes and contemporary socio-political milieu) by APS Malhotra.
The ‘Chronological timeline’ included in the book has been done rather perfunctorily with regard to names of politicians except those of Congress. Whereas Chandra Shekhar became the prime minister with the outside support of Congress by forming his splinter Janata Party (Socialist), he is shown as belonging to the BJP.
The biographical sketches of as many as 51 writers offer interesting sidelights and refresh our memory with lesser known or long-forgotten facts.
On the whole the book provides a satisfying bird’s eye view of the NIFIE.
(Original of the adapted version carried in The Hans India, June 30, 2013)