Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children sparked off a revolution. A nostalgic look at the decade from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, which transformed the Indian novel in English.
Circa 1981. The year saw the birth of Salman Rushdie Midnight’s Children, his second novel. Critics who had demolished Grimus, Rushdie’s insipid literary debut in 1975, wondered how he had transformed into a brilliant writer in six years. And literary award juries had it easy that year. They were dazzled by the book’s ambition, style and language.
For more than three decades now, Midnight’s Children has been analyzed in countless different contexts and from myriad angles. In what is till now the most inspired output of his long career, Rushdie ensured that an escape from curious-piquing obsession was impossible.
Because of the unforgettable protagonist Saleem Sinai, the rapid movements in time, incorporation of significant—and often, tumultuous—phases in modern Indian history, stunning passages in which phrasal twists and choice of words revealed a master of the craft of writing, Midnight’s Children became compulsory reading for any serious reader of literature in English.
To say that Rushdie lost his way will be grossly unfair, since he has written some fine works of fiction and non-fiction since then. But he has failed to write another Midnight’s Children. Maybe that is his destiny, misfortune, or overconfidence. We don’t know. He won’t say.
Seldom has any one novel in English impacted a nation’s creative environment like Midnight’s Children did. Within a few years, bookstores flourishing in a non-Flipkart-Amazon scenario began to stock novels written by confident Indian newcomers alongside classics and bestsellers from the West. Yes, we could see the signs.
In 1989, a gentleman named Ravi Dayal set up Ravi Dayal Publisher, that published quality titles personally edited by Dayal, whose command over the craft evoked awe and reverence. The brilliant David Davidar, the first editor of Penguin India, published many novels by already established as well as promising writers. Davidar wanted to publish as many as “one thousand writers” in the long run. It was a difficult goal; yet, this proactive approach encouraged many more Indians to start writing with a sincerity and focus which was missing earlier.
Mukul Kesavan, author of Looking Through Glass, a fine novel about a photographer suddenly finding himself in 1942, had reflected in 1995: “Getting published is a miracle.” But by the time Kesavan’s novel appeared (1994), several accomplished works were already out there in print.
In fact, by 1995, those aware of their talent for the right reasons sensed that their book would find a publisher. Of course, many lucky ones did get away with murder, a downside of having a growing market which saw the entry of lesser players who were keen on numbers and hoped to win a lottery someday. The experience of Upamanyu Chatterjee, whose culturally relatable mini classic English, August: An Indian Story (1988) had to suffer eight rejections before Faber & Faber voted in its favour, became a tragedy from ancient history within a few years.
Within a few years, the real-life story of Chatterjee’s collection of rejection slips “way back” in 1988 had become popular both within and outside literary circles. After seven years characterized by the speeding up of time, Kesavan’s Looking Through Glass came along. Quest for recognition amidst enhanced competitiveness encouraged inventive creativity. Those directly inspired by Rushdie had understood what experimentation with style and language and ambition in the selection of subject matter could generate. Others who saw just one aspect of the man—his success—believed that its replication without discarding their individual voices was possible. Many others wrote because they could hope to see the book getting published one day. One way or the other, there was hope.
Educated and living abroad like several others was Vikram Seth, whose command over diverse literary forms remains unmatched. Seth’s first work in prose was non-fictional: a travelogue titled From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983) based on his experiences while hitch-hiking from China to India through Tibet. Mappings, his first collection of verses published by the Writer’s Workshop in Kolkata in 1980, and The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985), tiptoed into the space of Indian poetry in English. Any assessment of these books would have invariably concluded that here was a gifted writer whose best was yet to come.
At home in several countries demolished the need for operating within familiar—and hence, limiting—geographical territories, Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986), a novel in the stanzaic form used in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, fulfilled his initial promise. Set in the California of the 1980s and dealing with the lives of yuppies, Golden Gate was instantly recognized as a contemporary classic.
It had joy and sadness, interesting subplots and a reasonably engaging depiction of the period, discussions on subjects as varied as feminism, civil disobedience and homosexuality, but also passages in which the story barely progressed. Possibly Seth used those moments to depict the spiritual stagnation that life had to offer in Silicon Valley. Maybe he wanted to use silences and spaces as devices to heighten the impact of the next subplot in the narrative. While his approach led to multifarious interpretations, the world acknowledged that a major talent had made his appearance. The Los Angeles Times gushed, “Such fluency probably hasn’t been heard in English since Alexander Pope went around letting heroic couplets tumble effortlessly from his lips.”
The Indian novel in English took another significant step ahead with Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (1988), arguably an even more accomplished effort than The Golden Gate. Ghosh’s second novel after The Circle of Reason (1986), Shadow Lines traveled through history, revealing the writer’s understanding of different eras in time. If one of its characters is the daughter of a diplomat who has experienced the implications of living in different parts of the world, Tridib, an extraordinary product of Ghosh’s imagination, is a knowledgeable young man who shows no interest in finding a way forward in life. He is the sort of person whom many youngsters can be expected to adore, and the novel’s narrator is not an exception.
From the Swadeshi movement to the communal riots in Dhaka and Kolkata in 1963-64, the author used his narrator to show how separation in the name of culture and geographical boundaries are nothing more than “shadow lines” that demarcate one nation from another, one human being from another. History and imagination live as companions within the narrator’s mind, and rigidly defined lines turn hazy as the story progresses. A novel without a plot that leaves the task of interpretation to the reader, Shadow Lines’s ambitious artistic objective was wonderfully concealed by the writer’s unassuming style.
Ghosh and Seth didn’t take long to establish themselves as significant young voices who, in spite of living abroad, belonged to India, their birthplace where they had spent their growing up years. If the protagonist of Ghosh’s first novel flees India after accusations of terrorism, the epicentre of Shadow Lines was India.
After Golden Gate, Seth’s literary adventure was A Suitable Boy (1992). Beginning with the title which has a direct association with the notion of an “arranged marriage”, A Suitable Boy, a 1,349-pages-thick work, tested the patience of many serious readers, who failed to understand why Seth couldn’t have finished the story in half as many pages.
Rohinton Mistry finished his college from Mumbai before migrating to Canada. In 1991, he wrote his first novel Such A Long Journey in which he focused on the community he understood best, the Parsis and Mumbai, the city he knows intimately. By making certain remarks about a certain class of people and a well-known political leader, the author didn’t endear himself to everybody who read it in India: and even others who did not. But if read as the story of a man who gets caught in a whirlpool of treachery during India’s 1971 war against Pakistan, Mistry had to be acknowledged as a writer whose emergence was a reality none could afford to ignore.
By the early 1990s, Indian fiction in English had become a well-established genre. Alan Sealy had already written The Trotternama: A Chronicle in 1988, a mock-epic spanning seven generations of the Trotters, an Anglo-Indian family. Narrated by Eugene Aloysius Trotter, who belongs to the latest generation, the novel, in its own comic way, mirrored certain aspects of Indian history. Affected by a personal setback and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1991, Rukun Advani nevertheless approached his writing in a “playful mood”. He delivered Beethoven Among The Cows, whose lightness of tone in fact highlighted the novel’s true theme: a lament over the death of Nehruvianism, and the writer’s fear that India was on a one-way street to doom.
Nostalgia about the protagonist’s brief stays in Kolkata was the driving spirit of Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address (1991). Alienation, love, music and memories formed the core of his second novel Afternoon Raag (1993), a novel in which the lilt of his language not only obscured but actually eliminated the need to have structural integrity and an ending with an end.
A touching portrayal of reality faced by Indian women in their day-to-day lives, Githa Hariharan merged myths with actual experiences to create the exquisitely detailed story of The Thousand Faces of Night in 1993. “My first novel had imagery and narrative in the foreground, but the new one has ideas at the centrestage,” said Hariharan when talking about Ghosts of Vasu Master, a story about a retired teacher who retreats into his past. A new presence changes his life, and changes it completely. A complex work but not as well-received as her first novel, what was common to both was the lyrical grace of her prose.
The late 1980s leading up to the mid-1990s led to the emergence of many Indian writers in English. Not everybody became a headline because of handsome advance, blinding hype or their ability to spin attractive quotes that attracted mediapersons. Most preferred to operate inside their quiet little spaces, hearing the questions—and objections—of interviewers before responding to them with a smile.
And then there was the debate about the Stephanian School of Literature. When asked about it, Chatterjee, who had become a talked about author after the success of English, August, said, “Yes, many of us are writing fiction. I mean, Hindu College has always been our rival. I don’t know why they are not producing any.” It was said in jest, but nobody could deny that St Stephen’s College in Delhi did produce many writers including Amitav Ghosh, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani, Alan Sealy and of course Chatterjee.
When some of their peers with whom they had shared the same cultural space during their college days had decided to write fiction, why not they? It is possible that this thought acted as a motivation for some Stephanians. There was no such ambiguity about the impact of Rushdie, which Advani acknowledged in an essay in the journal Seminar. But he said the new names belonged to the “Ghosh Generation”, a reference to the pioneering presence of Amitav Ghosh.
The observation was an appropriate one, Ghosh having led the movement to a hitherto unmatched level of condensed complexity with The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), a deceptively slim novel that merged entomology, conspiracy theories, the supernatural—and much more.
The multi-layered novel teased and challenged even the most attentive and perceptive reader. When it won the Arthur C. Clarke award, the UK’s most prestigious prize for science fiction, not many were surprised. The exceptions didn’t invalidate its brilliance; instead, they asked a simple question. Is this science fiction? But, well, it was set in the near future.
A couple of years later, Indian literature in English saw the dramatic emergence of Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things went on to win the Booker Prize. 1997 had been a comparatively barren year that had seen very few works of quality fiction, unlike, say 1992 when Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient had to be satisfied with being joint winner of the Booker with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.
Only one candidate stood between Roy and the win: Jim Crace’s brilliant Quarantine. The jury chose The God of Small Things.
Vikram Chandra had already made his debut, and Jhumpa Lahiri would appear within a few years and win the Pulitzer for her first collection short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies. The revolution that had started well over a decade earlier had delivered unforgettable results. The idea of the new age Indian writer in English had matured into full-fledged reality.
Intrepidness, occasional manifestations of eclecticism, understanding of, and trials, with forms; turning destinations beyond national boundaries into homes for their stories; living and breathing the spirit of India even when the authors lived abroad: every writer didn’t have each of these characteristics. But a few of them, each one did, transforming the genre into a flexible space that accommodated diverse styles and approaches.
Such diversity was the defining note of a generation that was well-travelled, widely read, and applied the benefits of exposure to write their novels. Exposure didn’t mean living abroad; on the contrary, living in the India of the mid-80s was different. The internet hadn’t happened. Neither had satellite television. But television in its primitive avatar was around. Desktop computers had appeared. Reading habits meant a mix of the West and the East, the idea of a bestseller being a Robin Cook and not a Chetan Bhagat. Hindi cinema had deteriorated, but watching quality films from India and abroad was easier because of video cassettes. This atmosphere contributed to expand the boundaries of the writers’ imagination, amply evident in their novels.
Since 1995 or thereabouts, the list of voices from India has grown substantially longer. But, should you listen to them carefully, you might hear echoes from their culturally similar predecessors. Tradition influences creativity; a great tradition, just that little bit more.
(The quotes are from interviews conducted by the author during his tenure with the now defunct Gentleman magazine between 1992 and early 1995. A couple of anecdotes have been retrieved from the archives of personal memory)
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