SEVENTEEN flight-hours away from India, two months from the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, and at any street corner in New York, $3.50 will buy you a paean to the subcontinent, a toast to its literary elves, fairies and giants. Ganesha graces the cover of the June 23-30 special India issue of The New Yorker.
India has arrived on the international literary scene--or, the world has discovered India at its bewildering, evocative, intellectual best. The New Yorker celebrates both those thresholds masterfully. "What can you say about Indian fiction? Too much and too little. You can point to both its extravagance and its spareness. It can be fabulist, realistic, chatty, mad, or wildly eccentric. There are qualities in its language that you won't find elsewhere," writes Bill Buford in his introductory comment.
The selection that follows is a marigold garland of the most creative modem Indian minds: from Midnight's Child Salman Rushdie to skilful debutantes Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai, from Amitav Ghosh to Vikram Chandra, from Rohinton Mistry to Chitra Bannerjee Divakamni. American writer John Updike, too, exhibits infectious enthusiasm for Roy's debut and showcases R.K. Narayan, complementing stunning photography by Max Vadukul.
The issue stands for all that the recent Granta India special didn't. It gives Indian writing centrestage and concedes, in perhaps an international 'first', the awesome agility of Indian writers--in English, on India. One of the various skeins threaded into The New Yorker's gracious tribute is international awareness that English is perhaps India's 19th language-in spite of vernacular and Anglophone chauvinism in the subcontinent and in the white, English-speaking world, respectively.
"English has become an Indian language. Its colonial origins mean that, like Urdu and unlike all other Indian languages, it has no regional base; but in all other ways it has emphatically come to stay," writes Rushdie in an essay as insightful as allergenic. For elsewhere in the piece, the irascible intellectual provokes and stimulates--and is bound to raise many over-sensitive Indian hackles. "The prose writing...created in this (post-Independence) period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the...so-called 'vernacular' languages of India, during the same time," he opines.
But as Rushdie unfolds, the claim, he acknowledges, "runs counter to much of the received critical wisdom within India itself". He concedes that his own linguistic limitations may have restricted him to reading translations which may not have lived up to the artistry of the original writing.
While criticising V.S. Naipaul for aspects of his Area of Darkness (including an irate dismissal of Munshi Premchand), which was written "a mere 17 years after Independence and a little early for an obituary notice", Rushdie agrees in part. "The novel is of the West," runs a Naipaul excerpt quoted by him. "It is part of that Western concern with the condition of men, a response to the here and now. In India thoughtful men have preferred to turn their backs on the here and now to satisfy what President Radhakrishnan calls 'the basic human hunger for the unseen'. It is not a good qualification for the writing or reading of novels."
John Updike is given the twin task of commenting on Roy and Ardashir Vakil's Beach Boy . He salutes both, the latter albeit to a lesser degree. Roy "peels away the layers of her mysteries with such delicate cunning, such a dazzlingly adroit shuffle of accumulating revelations within the blighted House of Ipe, that to discuss the plot would violate it," Updike writes, rejoicing in Faulknerian echoes and Joycean passages in her first work. "(Vakil) and Roy give us an India remembered, a land, like Nabokov's Russia, glistening with the dew of early impressions and ominous with dimly seen, uncontrollable machinations of adults." But where Rushdie--himself a Bombay boy--finds Vakil's novel "sharp, funny and fast", Updike finds its latter stages "impulsive, spotty, censored".
To comment on Amitav Ghosh's tautly worded, wholly gripping reportage on the Indian National Army, or on Kiran Desai's first published work which places her firmly in the Austenesque (Rushdie) tradition set by her mother Anita, or on several other contributions, would require not just more space but considerably greater literary talent, on part of the reader/commentator.
Similarly and more importantly, a prognosis on the future of Indian writing is also best left to the masters of the word. Updike sobers the euphoria: "Is there a place...for an English language literature within India, where a bristling nationalism staves off Asian neighbours and a Hindu fundamentalism arises to compete with the Islamic variety? A writer is a spy in childhood and a self-interrogator as an adult. Who will read the debriefing report? These two (Roy and Vakil) do have a past--vivid, problematical, precious--but where is their future?"