Indian writers are learning to tell the stories that matter

Indian writers are learning to tell the stories that matter

The recent crop of writers, translators and publishers is keen to reinterpret the idea of India and reinvent Indian literature, rather than celebrate dull clichés, writes Nirmala Govindarajan.

The notion of India is often brought to context by writers sieving facts, delving into intricate nuances pertinent to gender, space and race. Today, as India stands at the crux of old world practices, new age realities, the complexities, contradictions and juxtapositions of life on the fast track, writers from our country continue to expose lesser- known facets of our nation and its people through their stories.

“The impression about India one gets from current Indian writers like Vikas Swarup and Kishwar Desai among other authors is that of poverty, technology and above all a sense of rising above the current standards. The complex diversity is visible through their writing as a range is explored from the haves to the have-nots. This is what makes it all the more interesting. The emerging facets of India comprise youth, an urbane culture and deep-rooted traditional systems as well. This juxtaposition is what makes the writing worthwhile,” says Bharti Taneja, manager marketing and publicity, Simon & Schuster.

Between these juxtapositions, writers are exploring emotional and physical spaces through their own experiences of the country.

“For instance,” says Ambar Sahil Chatterjee, associate commissioning editor, Penguin Books India, “what pertains to someone living in a big city would differ considerably vis-à-vis somebody else living in a small town. This gets more complicated if one were to take into account a person’s access to resources or how old they are or whether their gender determines how safe they feel in a specific location or context. What’s refreshing is that writers today are not daunted by these complexities. Rather, they are eager to capture this ambivalence, the contradictions, the subtleties and peculiarities of what it means to be Indian in today’s context. In The Cosmopolitans, for instance, Anjum Hasan addresses some of these issues from the point of view of her protagonist, Qayenaat; in A Bad Character, Deepti Kapoor explores female sexuality; in Foreign, Sonora Jha talks of the reality of farmer suicides; and in A Life Apart, Neel Mukherjee gives insights into a gay young man’s travails. Regional language is also proving to be a fertile ground for cutting-edge fiction that captures contemporary concerns as with Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman.”

In fact, voices tempered with regional insights are speaking up for justice and integration through the voices of women from India’s native precincts. “Our two wonderful collections of short stories from the northeast The Hills Called Home by Temsula Ao, and The Power to Forgive by Avinuo Kire, both by Naga women, deal with sexual violence. Avinuo’s story is that of a woman who has lived through rape and finally finds it in herself to forgive not the rapist, but her father who chose to forgive the rapist, never taking his daughter’s feelings into account. Ao’s story deals with the rape of a young girl by the security forces. While there is no justice for her, her songs, her singing voice, haunt the mountains where the rape took place and every time people walk there, they hear it, pointing to the absence of justice for the violation of women’s bodies,” says Urvashi Butalia, director, Zubaan Books.

It emerges that an increasing number of writers today, irrespective of gender, age and social stature, are rising above the shackles of societal barriers, telling part-experiential, part-fictional stories, and enriching the general discourse on the socio-political environment in India.

“Among the important titles that Speaking Tiger Books has published in 2015,” says the company’s managing editor Anurag Basnet, “are Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India by Harsh Mander. It describes everything we must collectively ensure and achieve so that India becomes the country, which was promised in equal measure, to all its citizens. Daya Pawar’s Baluta, the first Dalit autobiography to have been published, is a searing indictment of the age-old practice of untouchability. As the debate between Jawaharlal Nehru’s supporters who believe in his enduring contribution and his detractors who attempt to deny it continues, Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation, edited by Nayantara Sahgal, examines the different aspects of Nehru’s personality and his legacy. Nandita Haksar’s magnum opus The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present Day traces the tortured history of Kashmiri nationalism through the lives of two men: Sampat Prakash, a Kashmiri Pandit and Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim. The Adivasi Will Not Dance, by the award-winning writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a series of stories, which are as intensely political as they are profoundly human. The Light of His Clan, a novel by Chetan Raj Shrestha, set in Gangtok, follows the fortunes of Kuldeep Chandanth, patriarch, politician and community leader past his prime.”

As Somak Ghoshal, managing editor, HarperCollins Publishers India, points out, “Writers are telling personal stories and it’s a healthy sign. Their politics are driven by extremely personal experiences, especially in the non-fiction genre, where many authors are coming up with memoirs. These books are talking to universal audiences. For instance, among the books I’ve worked on, Sanjay Suri’s retelling of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence talks of what hasn’t happened in terms of justice related to the assassination of Sikhs in Delhi. Among the new titles I have worked on are Keki Daruwalla’s new novel Ancestral Affairs, which looks at the Partition from the point of view of a Parsee lawyer. This entire drama told in the novel is really a microcosmic view of the Partition, not a larger, universal India story.”

Perceptions of India are changing through these writings. Simar Puneet, senior commissioning editor at Aleph Book Company, talks of how Indian writers have been responsible for representing our country to the outside world over the past 25 years. “Before that, you had a disproportionate number of writers and reporters who disseminated ideas about the country that were often superficial, or had preconceived notions, or played to stereotypes. Our writers have increasingly changed people’s perceptions about India for the good,” she says. “Some of the Aleph authors who have been responsible for portraying the country in a largely positive light include Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor, Romila Thapar, Khushwant Singh, Jeet Thayil and Barkha Dutt, to name a few.”


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