The BS column: Indian writing

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, March 28, 2006)

Just before the Hutch Crosswords award ceremony began, Krishna Sobti nudged me. “See how the conversations are going?” she asked.

Urvashi Butalia, a judge for the English Non-Fiction prize, was immersed in a discussion with two of the translators. Ira Pande, whose Diddi was a non-fiction nominee, had just finished talking to Sobti, both of them comfortably switching between Hindi and English. Suketu Mehta (whose Maximum City won the non-fiction prize) was in the centre of a group that also included Rana Dasgupta, with Cyrus Mistry a step away. Just behind them was Kiran Nagarkar, whose fictional versions of Bombay were being discussed elsewhere by a group of Marathi and Hindi writers.

“This is the way it should be among writers,” Sobti told me, “with no division among the languages, no pitting of English against the rest, or Gujarati versus Bengali, or Hindi versus Marathi. We have so few common platforms.” Then the ceremony started, and welistened to Salman Rushdie make his acceptance speech for Shalimar the Clown (winner of the English fiction prize this year) over a crackly cellphone connection. He was in Italy; “I walked into a plate-glass door when I heard the news,” he said, sounding pleased with himself.

This year, I was a judge in the English fiction category—our nominees were V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Siddhartha Deb, Rana Dasgupta, Cyrus Mistry and Shauna Singh Baldwin. Rana now lives in Delhi, after spending his life in other places; Rushdie and Naipaul often return to India but live elsewhere; Deb, who grew up in Calcutta and the North-East, now lives in New York; Baldwin, who grew up in Delhi, now lives in Canada; Mistry, who studied in Bombay, lives elsewhere too.

I arrived at this list of places only now; when we were judging the actual books themselves, where each writer lived was so irrelevant that it was never discussed. But as the Hutch Crossword prize grows up, it will need to address the Kim> problem.

The Kim problem is simple: is Kipling’s book an Indian novel? It’s set in India; the lama and Hurree Babu are uncompromisingly Indian characters, the language shifts from British English to Babu English (which Kipling often lampoons) to philosophical dialectic (which he doesn’t); and Kimball O’Hara is caught halfway between the East and West. Kipling shouldn’t be defined as an Indian writer; but Kim might qualify as an “Indian” book. Given that the Hutch Crossword is there to honour the best of Indian writing, in English fiction and non-fiction and in translation from other Indian languages, what puts the “Indian” in “Indian writing”?

Last year, the Crossword rules stipulated that the author must be an Indian passport-holder. This ruled out Hari Kunzru and Jhumpa Lahiri—fair enough, one defines himself as British, one as American—but it also, unfortunately, ruled out Anita Desai. The rules would disqualify a book like Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram –no one disagrees that this is a classic Bombay book, but its author is indisputably Australian, not Indian.

When the rules are relaxed to allow authors who would define themselves as Indian, regardless of what passport they hold, to be eligible for a prize like the Crossword, the complaint is that this unfairly benefits “diaspora authors”, or authors from “elsewhere”. But “elsewhere” is a tricky place. Amitav Ghosh lives half his life in New York, Suketu Mehta increasingly lives all his life out of a suitcase. They’re still Indian writers to me, as are writers like Baldwin or Dasgupta, Rushdie or Deb or Mistry, regardless of where they happen to live. I don’t think these writers should be penalized because of where their work has taken them.

“You’re going to have to define this clearly,” Rana Dasgupta said when we discussed the matter privately. He brought up the example of William Dalrymple: would Dalrymple be eligible for an “Indian” prize? Technically, no: William doesn’t see himself as “Indian”, nor does he hold an Indian passport.

But if you look at Dalrymple’s life and work, I would find it impossible to sustain the argument against him. He lives in India for the most part of the year. We may argue about whether or not he’s “Indian”—or even wants to be–but he is, beyond argument, a Dilliwala. His last book and his forthcoming set of novels about the Mughal Empire all explore the history of this country. I’m sure the Crossword will eventually work its way through the tricky maze of definitions; but I’m very glad not to be the one, on next year’s panel, who has to explain to all our Almost-Indian writers why they don’t qualify!





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