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

Forster: A foreigner who captured rural India in his work. {{name}}
Forster: A foreigner who captured rural India in his work. {{name}}
01 February, 2010

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.

Even those who took umbrage at my article, such as blogger and former publisher Nilanjana S Roy, wrote in to say that “the one thing I do agree with Bal about is the ‘monotony’ of much that is published these days.” I can only think that the suggestion of monotony and the perception of a bath of warm water both indicate a problem that needs some attention.


IN A RECENT ESSAY in The Atlantic, Monica Ali made the case that:

In our modern, multicultural world, one that has become geographically unbound, perhaps literature too has become unanchored. It can only add a sense of rootlessness, as writers and books traverse the globe […] This is not just a question of geography, of migration patterns. It’s also about trends in fiction itself. We’re all postmodernists now. Or at least we must give a nod to the idea that fiction cannot reliably hold up a mirror to an individual life. And if fiction can’t do that, then what hope for telling the story of a nation? I believe just the opposite – that fiction is still essential to the way that a nation understands itself, perhaps more so than ever before.


If you agree with Monica Ali, as I do, then it is worth asking: what of India? Literature in the Indian languages is a vast enterprise, and books in one language are barely accessible to those who speak another. To understand ourselves through this vast corpus may be as futile an endeavour as the map that Jorge Luis Borges dreamt up, a map that in every detail is a true copy of the real world. FIE should in principle work far better as an atlas; after all, it can potentially represent every part of the country. But it doesn’t and this failure is, I believe, one of the main reasons for the monotony it evokes.

Let me come to this failure through a digression, which is only my way of defining FIE through what it is not. Journalists range from the perpetually peripatetic to those who would rather never leave Delhi because they feel that all that there is to know in this country transpires there. I prefer to know a few places well, returning to them time and again.  I have spent several years reporting out of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, so I can claim some knowledge of these two states.

Over the past three years I have been working on a travelogue set along the Narmada River. My fascination with the river has led me to explore how other writers have written of the terrain. By ‘the terrain’ I don’t just mean the river, the Vindhya Mountains or the palash tree in bloom. I also mean the life and history of the small towns along the river whose course stretches over 1,200 kilometres from Amarkantak in south Madhya Pradesh to Bharuch in Gujarat. As far as non-fiction goes, there are a few recent travelogues in Gujarati, Hindi and English, and there is, of course, no lack of Puranic history. But as soon as I turn to fiction, there is almost nothing since Kalidasa wrote of his beloved Avanti. In Meghdutta he describes the river Reva, or the Narmada, and the young men comporting with courtesans on the hills near Vidisha.

Daniyal Mueenuddin, from the Pakistani side of the border, has managed to heed Raja Rao’s 1938 advice on FIE. {{name}}

In FIE I know of just one book published in the last decade that touches this terrain – Amita Kanekar’s A Spoke in the Wheel – a historical novel set in Mauryan times. I have to go back a little to find Gita Mehta’s River Sutra and in actual truth the feel of these small towns is best portrayed in A Passage to India, a novel set in the Indo-Gangetic plain but born out of EM Forster’s experience in Dewas, a town barely 20 kilometres from Indore.

It was only natural to turn from this paucity and wonder if it is peculiar to Madhya Pradesh. But Punjab has been no better served by FIE in the recent past. In the early years of FIE, Mulk Raj Anand and Khushwant Singh wrote extensively of the state, but from the last 10 years I only know of Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop and Neel Kamal Puri’s The Patiala Quartet.  And even these books have registered a shift from the rural settings explored by the earlier authors. I believe much the same holds true for the rest of the country. FIE has for the most part retreated from the world that lies outside metropolitan India.


This failure stems in part from the transition the country has undergone since 1991. Authors in their early 30s or younger have been predominantly shaped by the post-liberalisation world. For many of them, English is their first language; the world they move in is almost entirely constructed in English. Only a few recent works escape these limitations, such as Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut, about a university student in Delhi who goes back to Patna to work as a journalist and write, and Omair Ahmad’s The Storyteller’s Tale, a perfectly-structured fable constructed out of the stories a noblewoman and a poet fleeing a Delhi laid waste tell each other. The overarching tendency, though, has been a retreat to a world defined by English.

Rupa Bajwa’s book, The Sari Shop, develops its character further than the more acclaimed The White Tiger. {{name}}

It is a retreat to the past. We are a culture where the elite have always spoken a language of their own: Sanskrit to begin with, then Persian and now English. If you apply the paradigm of a national fiction to what has come down to us in the name of Sanskrit literature, you can see the similarities. It is circumscribed in its failure to step outside a gated world; individual authors such as Kalidasa or Bhartrihari are worthy of attention, but as a collective the terms monotony and a bath in warm water are not out place.

In similar fashion, a number of good novels and good authors can exist comfortably in a setting where the multilingualism of the country does not intrude in any real way, but taken as a collective this kind of fiction will become repetitive in tone and character.  Authors may well be writing about the world they know best, but the world all of them know best seems increasingly to be the same world. It is as if the same novel is being written over and over again. The writer in Sanskrit was working within an aesthetic framework that resulted in his consciously leaving out much of the world. We have no such aesthetic defining us and yet, through the unconscious act of borrowing an aesthetic, we have ended up similarly circumscribed.


THIS UNTHINKING RETREAT from the diversity of languages and settings in India is only a subset of a larger retreat from the diversity of form. Just a decade ago, Amit Chaudhuri, in an essay called Huge Baggy Monster: Mimetic Theories of the Indian Novel after Rushdie, had complained of “the tautological idea that since India is a huge baggy monster, the novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well….’’ He went on to claim that:

Post-Rushdie, the Indian novel in English has been constructed, in both popular and critical terms, as something distinct from – indeed, as alternative to – the conventional English novel … Indian life is plural, garrulous, rambling, lacking a fixed centre, and the Indian novel must be the same. Delicacy, nuance and irony apparently belong properly to the domain of the English novel and to the rational traditions of the European Enlightenment; and inasmuch as these traditions have been involved with the history of colonialism, nuance and irony must be looked on with suspicion.

While I don’t know about nuance or irony, Chaudhuri’s case about baggy monsters no longer stands. In the intervening years, the length of the Indian novel in English has shrunk, the Rushdian burden, if it ever existed, has been thrown off, and the prevailing model is squarely within the realist traditions of the English novel. More and more, as we become comfortable with the idea of English as a first language, our reading is confined to what comes to us from the Anglo-American world. We could not have picked a worse model, for it leaves us with two equally limiting alternatives – to remain within the world where only English is spoken (the bath in warm water) or to step out armed with a form unsuited to the task at hand.

Zadie Smith: “Structures should change like skirt lengths.” {{name}}

Consider how bizarre a realist novel that seeks to escape the confines of the English-speaking world can be.  We are supposed to unquestioningly accept the idea that every character in such a novel speaks English with equal ease. In the Indian context, it is more plausible to imagine characters that can fly. Even when the reader realises that the writer is working with a translated reality, how is he to make sense of a territory where reality is lived out in at least two languages and where it is the interplay between these languages that settles the balance of status, power and class?


THE QUESTION OF LANGUAGE, which is intimately tied to the question of form, is central to the whole enterprise of FIE.  This was not lost on the first generation of Indian writers in English. In the foreword to his 1938 novel Kanthapura, Raja Rao notes:

One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language. I use the word ‘alien,’ yet English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up – like Sanskrit or Persian was before – but not of our emotional make-up. We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We can write only as Indians.

Indians also may well empathise with the 20th century Europe of Robert Musil. {{name}}

In the manner Raja Rao chooses to tell his tale of Kanthapura, in the cadence of his sentences and in the flow of the narrative, he gives us at least one possible way of writing as Indians. GV Desani’s All about H Hatterr followed a decade later.

Salman Rushdie, though failing to take note of Raja Rao, wrote:

Hatter’s dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language. Desani’s central figure – ‘fifty-fifty of the species,’ the half-breed as unabashed antihero – leaps and capers behind the work of many of his successors. … This is the ‘babu English,’ the semi-literate, half-learned English of the bazaars, transmuted by erudition, highbrow monkeying around, and the impish magic of Desani’s unique phrasing and rhythm into an entirely new kind of literary voice.

 With this awareness, it should come as no surprise that Rushdie himself faced the problem head on. The problem was not settled by these efforts, however. It never will be. For that very reason, it requires new engagement with form, new answers in every generation and not the blind adoption of a model. I Allan Sealy, from The Trotter-Nama to Red, has shown that issues of language, setting and form are intimately tied to each other and each book is a new answer.

It is not that realism cannot work in the Indian context outside the metropolitan setting, but it manages to do so rarely and only in the hands of an author conscious of what he is doing. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is an illustration of the amount of work that would need to go into a novel if the realistic mode has to be carried through to its logical end in an Indian setting, and even here, I personally do not think the result is worth the game.

The one book that has lived out Raja Rao’s premise is Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a view of feudal Punjab from across the border. Much has been said about the economy of its prose but I find myself equally fascinated by the ease with which interactions across social hierarchies have been depicted. When I read the book I can almost hear the dialogue in Punjabi.  It is not an easy trick to pull off. Nawabdin, the electrician, addresses his patron KK Harouni:

Sir, as you know, your lands stretch from here to the Indus, and on these lands are fully seventeen tube wells, and to tend to these seventeen tube wells there is but one man, me your servant. In your service I have earned these gray hairs … and now I cannot fulfill my duties as I should. Enough sir, enough. I beg you, forgive me my weakness. Better a darkened house and proud hunger within than disgrace I the light of day. Release me, I ask you, I beg you.

Mueenuddin has managed to mould the language to his requirement.


RUPA BAJWA’SThe Sari Shop, set in a world far removed from the one FIE usually addresses, explores the power of language through a narrative device. Ramchand, the sari shop attendant, glimpses the world inhabited by those who speak English in India and hopes to make sense of this world through a knowledge of English. The book he picks up – Complete Letter Writer – leaves him absurdly adrift among Phyllis and Peggy writing to each other about a motor tour to Caernavarvon and Betws-y-Coed.

The Sari Shop, even if only partially successful, is an attempt to look at a gated community from below, from the point of view of the world of the household – maids, drivers and washerwomen – and its extension into the commerce of daily life in the form of office boys and the owners and attendants at vegetable stalls and kirana stores. It actually works better than a novel far more acclaimed outside India for its portrayal of ‘the seamy side of the Indian reality’ – The White Tiger. The two books explore some of the same territory, but so much is shrugged off in Adiga’s book, including the ease with which the central character acquires his knowledge of English in a Bihar village, that his driver remains a cipher, a mouthpiece for the author himself, in tone and in thought. An experiment with form cannot be born out of the need to conceal an ignorance of the material at hand.

Our critical responses to the two books point to a larger malaise. We don’t trust our own instincts and rely too much on the Booker Prize, The Guardian or The New York Review of Books to make up our minds for us. I cannot keep count of the number of times I have been forwarded articles about India from The New York Times or The Guardian. Such articles circulate through the expat Indian community in the US and UK and then find currency in India to the point where their claims come to substitute reality. Much the same happens with book reviews in the British and American press, which eventually determine our view of books, sometimes against our better judgment. If we actually believe that the truth about the spread of Naxalism can only be revealed by an Op-Ed in The New York Times, then certainly the merits of The White Tiger are obvious only when the Booker Prize is announced.

Hermann Broch’s Europe has a lot to teach writers in India today. {{name}}

In March 2008, Italian writer Claudio Magris spoke in Delhi on ‘The Self That Writes’:

It is not easy to talk of oneself, of the self that writes. Every time I find myself in this position I feel like Scipio Slataper, a Triestine writer who at the beginning of this century, in 1912, in some way invented, created, the literary landscape of Trieste. Trieste, a city at the eastern border of Italy, now bordering on Slovenia. An Italian city which belonged for a long time to the Hapsburg Empire, a multinational Empire that included Germans, Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Croats, and Rumanians. Trieste also has a Slovenian minority, resident for centuries, other communities like the Greek and the Serbians, and during its commercial boom in the eighteenth and nineteenth century assimilated many people from different countries of Central Europe.

Rao’s Neustadt Prize was overshadowed by Rushdie’s infamous The Satanic Verses in 1988. {{name}}

How much sense that Trieste makes in India and how little does London. Yet that lecture was attended by a handful; I did not see the literary bloggers there or the newspaper or television crews that had flocked just a couple of months earlier to Jaipur to surround Ian McEwan. It is not as if McEwan does not deserve critical attention but I know for certain Magris does. We really have not arrived at our own judgments. McEwan is fêted not because he is a writer but because he is a celebrity in our eyes thanks to the Booker and The Guardian.

A look at the invitees to the Jaipur Literary Festival year after year is illustration enough of this obsession with the Anglo-American literary world – an obsession that has burdened us with the realistic narrative mode in the first place. In an essay on Middlemarch, Zadie Smith writes:

As writers and readers and critics, we English remain terribly proud of our conservative tastes. Every year the polls tell us Middlemarch is the country’s favourite novel, followed by Pride and Prejudice, followed by Jane Eyre (sometimes this order is reversed). Oh, the universality of the themes. Oh, the timelessness of the prose. But there is a misunderstanding, in England, about the words universality and timelessness as they relate to our canon. What is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need novelists who seem to know and feel, and who move between these two modes of operation with wonderful fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though, is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths.


RAMCHAND’S FATE as he seeks to make sense of a motor tour to Wales is not very removed from the one that awaits an Indian reader of recent works of FIE. Maybe we could rescue ourselves from this fate if we were used to reading literature that lay outside the Anglo-American world. Societies similar to ours have produced literature that resonates far more in our context. We should take note of the diversity of central Europe of the early twentieth century, a diversity Magris so vividly describes. I certainly find the echoes of my surroundings in the clash of languages and identities that was mediated by the vast bureaucracy of the Hapsburg Empire. The best guides to this era are still writers such as Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, and for this reason they are good guides to our world as well. I know of nothing quite as insightful about the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s sudden emergence in small-town India as Broch’s The Spell, which traces the rise of fascism through the eyes of a doctor who has moved to a remote mountain village. These authors also point to another possibility we could explore, which is the presence of the intellect in the narrative, so far from the fear of ideas that besets the Anglo-Americans. I could quote from Zadie Smith again but I think a reader would be far better served by dipping into Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.


Liberalisation is driving us in the direction of the Anglo-American world and we have no way of tapping into world literature directly. Even an Orhan Pamuk comes to us from the West. Perhaps we should, therefore, occasionally look back. The baggy monsters that so affronted Amit Chaudhuri, and note that he is the most ‘English’ of our novelists, shared nothing with each other but their length. In 1988, when Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, Raja Rao won the Neustadt Prize for The Chessmaster and his Moves. No two books could be more different yet each was challenging in its own fashion. We have chosen to ignore the exits these books had opened up. The publication of Daughter of the Mountain, the second volume of Raja Rao’s trilogy, has been held up for over a year due to disagreements between his estate and his publisher. The lack of attention given to the issue points to where our literary criticism, or what passes for it, directs its gaze.

Ten years ago Pankaj Mishra had bemoaned: “The idea of a literary work or corpus adding to our self-knowledge has been swallowed by a shallow colonial pride about Indian writers making it big in the imperial metropolises; and increasingly, you are left with books whose interest lies in not what they contain but the paradox they represent: the paradox of a literature that goes on at great length, swarms with events and characters, ideas and information, possesses a correct political passion and tells us just about everything except who we are.” His essay ran with the subhead – ‘Writing in English, an Indian Elite Discovers Nothing.’ I’m not sure if that was ever completely true. But if it was substantially true then, it is far more so today. The problem is not that we write in English but that we write as the English in a country that is not England.