Dispatches From a Gated Community

Limitations of form, setting, theme and language plague our recent English fiction, which mostly speaks from and of a sterile, English-only world

01 February 2010
Forster: A foreigner who captured rural India in his work.
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Forster: A foreigner who captured rural India in his work.
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WE’RE NOT LYING in sort of a bath of warm water and reflecting upon, you know, our sort of quirky, funny families.” This is what Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin thinks separates recent Pakistani writing from work being produced in India.

Mueenuddin is not alone in thinking this. A few months ago, I wrote a short article bemoaning the state of recent Fiction Written in India in English (FIE), in which I complained about a lack of ambition and a repetitiveness of theme and setting. It triggered an intense debate, with many endorsing what I had said, but at least a few publishers and bloggers objecting strongly because they felt I was prescribing a norm for the Indian novel. The novel, though, can accommodate anything and everything, and individual novels can hardly be faulted for either subscribing or failing to subscribe to any norm. My complaint had to do with a collective.

In his novel 2666, Roberto Bolaño writes of scholars gathered together for a seminar on German literature in Amsterdam: “…the applause sparked by English literature could be heard in the German literature room as if the two talks or dialogues were one, or as if the Germans were being mocked, when not drowned out, by the English, not to mention by the massive audience attending the English (or Anglo-Indian) discussion…’’ The parenthesis is telling. There is no separating Indian Writing in English (IWE) from English literature; in fact, the term IWE is so diffuse that it is almost without meaning.  My criticism was directed at what is being written in India in English – hence the term FIE.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

Keywords: English Zadie Smith Pankaj Mishra Arvind Adiga Salman Rushdie Indian Fiction Hartosh Singh Bal IWE Indian Writing in English Raja Rao Booker
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