India through Literature – The Western Perception
In the global literary map India has now imprinted a firm stamp. In the first decade of 21st century, if it is said that India has witnessed a revolution in writing and reading, it wouldn’t be an over statement. Legions of newcomers with fresh thoughts and inventive writing styles – with the thirst of experimentation- have come up. International recognition has become a reality to Indian writers who belong to legacy of what we popularly call IWE (Indian Writing in English). Indian born writers manage to strike million dollar deals with international publishing companies who are eager to get their works published, given the renewed attention for these writings among the western readers.
Before 2000 the literary scenario was however different internationally. Salman Rushdie, of Indian origin, through his ‘Midnight’s Children’ was then, perhaps the most popular and recognizable literary figure among the western readers. Thanks to ‘The God of small things’ being adorned with the Man Booker in 1998, Arundhati Roy managed to turn the limelight on her. Internationally readers get to know about literary works and the writers mostly through awards and recognitions. Though awards are not the only yard sticks to ascertain the quality of any work, it is an undeniable fact that it boosts the sales.
Around mid 2000s, there was an instant shift. The international recognition that IWE gathered was unprecedented and it even created an impression out of the blue, all the literary giants of the world lived in India. In 2006 Kiran Desai’s (Daughter of eminent writer Anitha Desai) ‘Inheritance of Loss’ won the prestigious Man Booker award- dubbed the literary Oscar. But that was not all. It just was a beginning. In 2008 Arvind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ bagged the Booker. I like many literary fans was taken by a surprise that the shortlist that year had Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’ too. This kindled great interest among the Indian readers that the books with award tags sold like hot cakes.
The shortlist for 2012 Booker had Jeet Thayil’s ‘Narcopolis’. My surprise doesn’t doubt the quality of these works or the skills of the writers but it’s over the sudden interest on Indian works.
Sometimes it would be interesting to notice the interconnections between things that we assumed to be totally disconnected. Reading among young Indians has sharply risen. There are many youngsters whose quest for knowledge, their formal education never capacious to feed their hunger for knowledge, turned to self learning. Books naturally became their paradise. The global survey on reading habits puts India on the front. This is good news for the publishing industry. Back in 1990s when the neo liberalization let the cosmetic companies to set foot in India and we had a list of Indian beauties winning the Miss World crowns. We’ve already discussed it in ‘Fairy tales’ series. This sudden interest over IWE might also follow the scenario.
Beyond the idea of boosting book sales there is one more fact behind this. Forever the western perception of India is that it is a land of the poor, illiterate corruptive society. Though India has moved way beyond this imagination, the pro-western mind is not willing to alter its mental imagery of India. Among the Booker recipients ‘Inheritance of Loss’ tells the story of Biju an illegal Indian immigrant. The major theme of the novel rests on highlighting the effects of post-Colonialism. And we have ‘The White Tiger’ that takes a dark look on class struggle in India in the globalized world. ‘Narcopolis’ sheds light on the 70s opium underground of Mumbai. ‘Sea of Poppies’ though is again on opium wars, its ambitions had India only in parts.
Majority of these works shed light on the pages of India which suits the western perceptions. The question here is not on the acknowledgement of the Indian literary works by the pro western minds but on the thematic choices they make among the available lots.