Monday, 12 October 2009

'Indian' authors writing in English - some recent reading

I’ve been on a bit of a literary journey recently, catching up on reading fiction by ‘Indian’ authors writing in English. It started out by chance and became a bit of a mission to catch up on those I’ve missed over the last couple of decades.

One of the early ‘American- or British-Asian’ authors I came across was Hanif Kureishi and, to be honest, there were few such authors around during my sixth-form years - well, it was the early eighties and the Eng Lit syllabus was dominated by white British and American authors – we didn’t have the option of Meera Syal and and Benjamin Zephaniah as some schools offer these days. Later I came to read Salmon Rushdie, Meera Syal, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri amongst others.

Fiction-reading opportunities are few and precious these days (my job, two young children, husband, house etc.) which means I normally fall asleep having read about 1.5 articles of the week's New Statesman magazine – and that’s on a good day! But over the last few months these are the books I’ve read on my mini-mission (the few notes I made have been long lost, or more likely scribbled over by my kids, so I shall mostly leave analysis to others):

Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters (2002; shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction):
This is a hugely warm, affectionate and absorbing novel – I genuinely missed the characters when I finished the last page. A real delight for me was discovering more about the Parsi community in India. The Parsis belong to a minority religious community in India who follow the faith as laid down by the prophet Zoroaster – they originally travelled generations ago from Iraq to settle in Bombay. Here’s what two writers have said about the book and the man:

[the novel] is based in Bombay once more. Where his first two novels were set in the 1970s and were essentially ‘historical’ fictions however, Family Matters depicts contemporary Bombay and is set in the 1990s. At the centre of the book is an old man, a Parsi with Parkinson’s Disease. Nariman Vakeel is a retired academic whose illness places renewed strains on family relations (Nariman, an English professor, compares himself to King Lear at one point). A widower with skeletons in his closet, Nariman’s memories of the past expose the reader to earlier moments in the city’s, and the nation’s history in a novel that moves across three generations of the same family. In Family Matters we have the familiar slippage between public and private worlds. Similarly the lives of the residents of ‘Chateau Felicity’ (Nariman’s former residence) and ‘Pleasant villa’ (where he is forced to move by his scheming step daughter) recall the world of Firozsha Baag. Where the earlier novels tended towards a decisive closure however, the epilogue of this novel seems much less ready to console.” [Credit: Dr James Proctor, 2003]

“The author was born in Bombay and earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and economics at the University of Bombay. ..In 1973 Mistry and his wife moved to Canada, where he got a job in a bank. Ten years on, he got a sense that there had to be more to life than this and -- simply to overcome bank boredom -- he enrolled at the University of Toronto to study English and philosophy. It was while he was at the U of T that Mistry first saw himself as a teller of stories. "I always enjoyed books and I thought I'd give this a try," he says today.” [credit:]

Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day (1980; Booker prize nominee):
“Set in India's Old Delhi, Clear Light of Day is Anita Desai's tender, warm, and compassionate novel about family scars, the ability to forgive and forget, and the trials and tribulations of familial love. At the novel's heart are the moving relationships between the members of the Das family, who have grown apart from each other. Bimla is a dissatisfied but ambitious teacher at a women's college who lives in her childhood home, where she cares for her mentally challenged brother, Baba. Tara is her younger, unambitious, estranged sister, married and with children of her own. Raja is their popular, brilliant, and successful brother. When Tara returns for a visit with Bimla and Baba, old memories and tensions resurface and blend into a domestic drama that is intensely beautiful and leads to profound self-understanding”.[Credit:]

Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting (1999):
“Fasting, Feasting might have as its epigraph the author’s assertion 'that different lives are parallel lives', as constant correspondences are drawn between an Indian and an American middle-class family. Uma’s traditional Indian parents, desperately trying to arrange a good marriage for Uma with disastrous consequences, suffer from the same lack of communication with their children as the Pattons, the American suburban family where Uma’s brother Arun is staying while on vacation from his American University. Whether Desai’s characters live on the banks of the Ganges or amidst the excesses of Massachusetts, they cannot find meaningful personal relationships other than with their own solitude” [Credit: Luca Prono, 2004]

A bit of bio info: Anita Mazumdar Desai was born June 24, 1937. She is Emeritus John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been shortlisted for the Booker prize three times. Born as Anita Mazumdar to a German mother and a Bengali businessman in Mussoorie, India. She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English outside the house. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result it became her "literary language" Despite German being her first language she did not visit Germany until later in life as an adult. Her daughter, the author Kiran Desai, won the 2006 Booker prize (and now I’ve got to catch up with her books too!)

Hanif Kureishi’s Something To Tell You (2009):
I think I’ve probably said enough about him in a previous post. Needless to say, I think the novel is great – so many apt little descriptions that capture moments in time and social situations. And of course it effortlessly includes the diversity of London with little fuss, but is just as happy wandering over to Pakistan too.

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008):
A lot has been said too about this winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize – a Guardian interview says of the book “it has an engaging, gobby, megalomaniac, boss-killer of a narrator who reflects on his extraordinary rise from village teashop waiter to success as an entrepreneur in the alienated, post-industrial, call-centre hub of Bangalore.

That is a pretty apt summary – it is an incredible book though has not been welcomed by some Indians who say it portrays a negative picture of India. It is pretty irreverent and that was fine by me. I should also add here that Kureishi himself is about to start on the screenplay of The White Tiger – that might be a film to watch.

The books of less well-known authors in my reading list have included Zahid Hussian’s The Curry Mile (2006). This was a poignant and moving story about a British-Pakistani family who ran a restaurant on Manchester’s famous ‘curry mile’ of eateries, and the relationships within the family, especially between the daughter and father.

And lastly, I have to admit that, nestled hidden, amongst this esteemed ‘anglo-Indian’ reading list was also ‘Bollywood Boy’ by Justin Hardy (2002). In its own words, the book “follows Hrithik’s [Rosen’s] meteoric rise through the celluloid firmament. It could be straight from one the film industry’s own big-budget schlockbusters, with its heroes, heroines, villains, exotic locations, a cast of thousands, myriad costume changes…and like any good Cinerama drama, there is a big chase scene as Justin tries to track down the man behind the hype, the hysteria and the silver disco suits’. It wasn’t Anita Desai, but you what, it was really good fun!

So that’s the recent list.

Why would I want to read such disparate fiction which only has the origin (sometimes only by ethnicity and not even birth) of the author in common? Well such writing does actually constitute a genre, and is part of a larger unit of fiction – that of post-colonial writing. Most university departments will have modules and even degrees devoted to this literature (eg. Leeds University) though some have criticised a lack of such academic studies – see, for example, this piece by Dr Joan Anim-Addo and Professor Les Back of Goldsmiths, University of London called ‘Black British Literature in British Universities: a 21st-century Reality?

But I digress. Back to why one would read this genre. Such writing speaks to readers who have an interest or experience of sub-continental cultures. Thinking about my own reasons, I’m drawn to Indian post-colonial fiction because I’m curious to know about other people’s perceptions of the places and communities with whichI have a connection. And I guess I’d like myself to be able to articulate better and analyse some of my own thoughts and experiences about them – and this is after all part of what literature is supposed to do for you – a form of psychoanalysis I suppose.

In fact, in an interview, Hanif Kureishi has noted that a novel such as the phenomenally successful White Tiger shows that post-colonial fiction has in fact reinvigorated the novel – now that’s a bold claim for what the sub-continent has done for the novel.

One final observation – I was struck by the number of these types of writers who are ‘mixed-race’ (or ‘dual heritage’) – Kureishi (white mother, Indian father), Anita Desai (German mother, Indian father) and Monica Ali (English mother, Bangladeshi father), for starters. Perhaps there is something in their experience of be-striding two cultures which enables them to see their communities with a different eye, perhaps that of an outsider. What do you think? And I’d be interested to hear about your desi reading experiences and recommendations.


Plummy Mummy said...

Excellent post Raven. I have heard of some of these authors as I tend to stick to female ones to get the feminine viewpoint. But I will be putting these male authors on my chrimbo list.
Did you ever watch Mumbai Calling. That absolutely cracked me up and now whenever I get a call from my mobile operator in india, it makes me think of those call centres.

Raven said...

Thanks Plummy.
I managed to catch only a couple of episodes of 'Mumbai Calling' - they were funny (bit patchy and self-conscious in places though). There's a best-selling 'populist' novel 'One Night @ the Call Center' by Chetan Bhagat on the subject which has quietly been quite a hit - I haven't read it though.