January 18, 2020
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Modern India As Art

Granta marks the resurgence of Indian writing with a special issue

Modern India As Art

PITY the poor art of writing. Assaulted by celluloid and marginalised by cyber-expansion, it has been banished to the seminarists’ ghetto, to a dwindling constituency that still regards the written word as the foremost article of history. Yet according to Ian Jack, editor of Granta, a prestigious literary magazine published in Britain with a circulation of 85,000, there is still space for a ‘cerebral’ magazine. Granta comes out four times a year, it is called the ‘magazine of new writing’, is financed by an American millionaire—Ray Hederman—and sells mainly in the US. In April next year, the entire issue of Granta will be devoted to "India—then and now" as Jack puts it. He hopes to get Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh to contribute.

He also hopes to publish extracts from India’s hottest new literary export, Arund-hati Roy’s book, The God Of Small Things. "A terrific book," says Jack. "Well worth the huge advance". The big difference between Indian writing in the ’70s and now, according to Jack, is the emergence of writers who actually live here. "Earlier, those who wrote on India looked at it from the outside, there were external views of the place, whether in the writings of V.S. Naipaul, Nirad C. Chau-dhuri, Dominic Lapierre. Now writing fic-tion in India has become a possibility for people who live here, a process in which Salman Rushdie had a critical influence."

 Granta is emphatically not an academic journal. It rejects empty intellectualism for original reportage from exciting hot-spots, it shuns pontification for good fiction that tells "good stories and casts light on life". Founded in the late 19th century by a group of Cambridge University students, it was revived in the ’70s by Bill Buford who gave it its character of no-nonsense creativity. "Narratives, stories, a piece of reporting if it’s done well enough, but the emphasis is on writers and not just journalists, basically on decent writing," Jack says.

 As correspondent for The Sunday Times, Jack first came to India in the ’70s and has spent many years here. He says he is sad at the passing of the austere, rather puritanical ethos that marked the first decades of independent India. Now the globally packaged shopping mall stalks even Lutyensland. "Earlier, street hoardings were all about family planning and exhorting citizens to develop a civic sense. Now they’re only about buying things." India must indulge foreign visitors who grieve about its loss of innocence. "My friends no longer ask me to get them anything," Jack smiles.

Yet, from diverse social and political changes has emerged a corpus of writing that can no longer be clubbed together as ‘Indian fiction’. "Salman Rushdie is very different from Amitav Ghosh who is very different from Vikram Seth. But, of course, art takes a long time to emerge, fiction takes time to catch up with the facts, so that often contemporary trends are not reflected in the works of say, Ghosh, Rushdie or Bharati Mukherjee. Journalism is perhaps a more useful tool for reflecting India as it is now."

 Jack started the critically acclaimed Independent On Sunday, whose Sunday Review section, he believes, was emulated by a number of publications all over the world. "I grew up in the western, liberal, oppositional tradition of journalism and used to be quite shocked at the manner in which some Indian journalists talked about promoting the ‘National Interest’," he says. Today he thinks the journalistic culture in India has become partisan. "So many of the stories appear on the basis of who the proprietor knows or who is paying the bills." Jack says he wonders whether the reading public here is still interested in the routine ‘scams’ that travel across the front pages of dailies. "Is there still any interest on how many MPs are on the take in Bihar?" Indian newspapers in general, according to Jack, spend too much time targeting the urban upper class. The writing is more fluent now, but there has been a loss of seriousness.

Yet notwithstanding the minutiae of Indian politics, India still ranks high in literary couture. "Publishing is like the world of fashion and India has been very fashionable in the ’80s and ’90s. Although I wonder how many of these new books are successful in publishing terms, people in the West still like reading about India, they like being baffled." Ian Jack’s ‘India’ issue of Granta will not only enhance modern India’s status as good art, it will also reassure aspiring ‘Novelists Of The Nation’ that India-in-change is still considered aesthetic. 

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