Vice Visa

William Dalrymple expands on a talk he gave at the India Today conclave earlier this year, to make the somewhat controversial case that we have to look to the diaspora for future IWE (Indian Writing in English) stars:

More than a decade later, however, it has to be said that there is a slight sense of disappointment in Delhi. According to David Davidar, the founding editor of Penguin India, who did much to kick-start the Indian publishing boom, after the excitement of the 1990s, the situation has, as he diplomatically puts it, “stabilised”. ..The truth is, however, that since 1997 there has been no new galaxy of stars emerging to match the stature of those of the 1980s and 90s. Many of the Indian novelists who were signed up with such excitement 10 years ago failed to repay even a fraction of their advances. The only Indian-themed book to win the Booker – The Life of Pi – was written by Yann Martel, a white Canadian. In India itself, there is no new internationally acclaimed masterpiece, no new Roy.”

I know this is going to spark off furious debate, with everyone jumping into the desi versus diaspora argument. But to my mind, Dalrymple answers at least part of his own question further down:

“There is also the important question of how far Indian writers in English have to compromise if they are writing primarily for a firangi audience. After all, the market in India itself, while growing fast, is still tiny: most books sell less than 1,000 copies and even 5,000 copies can make you a bestseller; therefore to make a living as an Indian writer in English you have to crack the British and American markets and that can mean serious compromises.”

I would suggest it’s a little more than a question of compromises; it ties in with another argument that Dalrymple makes about the relative lack of a literary life in places like Delhi versus places like New York or London. If you don’t have a market, or an audience, at “home”, then of course it makes more sense in a globalised era to take yourself and your skills elsewhere. That’s probably the same reason why, to attempt to answer another of Dalrymple’s questions, you haven’t had good non-fiction or great biography coming out of India: no publisher here could afford to pay a writer the kind of advance that would take him or her through five, ten years of research. India’s still a tiny market in terms of English-language publishing. I don’t think it works to sit back and be complacent about it, and expect the market to grow all on its own; I do think publishers here need to start demanding better quality in terms of fiction; but I think it’ll change.

I don’t want to start thinking in terms of us stuck at Home versus them Abroad; there are too many Indian writers I know who seem emblematic of this generation in the sense that they’re perfectly happy occupying several worlds at the same time. This generation travels; it puts down roots in several cities; it explores not just one identity but a whole set of identities. With awards like the Crossword, one of the key problems the prize had to address was the question of how you define an Indian writer–the old markers, such as the passport, the place of birth, the country of origin, just didn’t work any more. On the other hand, none of us have any problem defining an “Indian” book, whether it’s written here or elsewhere, in English or in any one of India’s many languages.

William Dalrymple is a case in point himself, in terms of identity. He’s not Indian by birth or in terms of his passport, but I would have great trouble seeing him as a “firang” writer. In terms of lineage, he seems to fit in best with the tradition of itinerant travellers who’ve visited India down the ages, from Chinese monks to Arabian scholars, and made it, in small or large ways, a temporary or permanent home. This country has always had room for visitors, some of whom have become residents; now it’s our scholars and writers who’re doing versions of what Alberuni or Ibn Battuta did elsewhere, for pretty much the same reasons–the trade routes are better, the marketplaces are bigger, the discussions are more exciting, and hey, the world’s a large place, it makes sense to see as much of it as we can. Perhaps we need to move on from the Passport School of Criticism and just, well, hand out visas to come visit, or to go elsewhere, to anyone with talent, curiosity and an imagination.





6 responses to “Vice Visa”

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