Speaking Volumes: Untold stories: India’s non-fiction

(Published in the Business Standard, April 26, 2011)

In the first chapter of The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee starts with a quote from Shakespeare, and a personal story about a patient, Carla.

He runs through the conversation he will have with her, and notes ruefully that there is something rehearsed even about his sympathy, given the demands of the months he’s spent working as a cancer fellow: “In those ten indescribably poignant and difficult months, dozens of patients in my care had died. I felt I was slowly becoming inured to the deaths and the desolation — vaccinated against the constant emotional brunt.” Two paragraphs down, without ever losing sympathy for the individual struck with cancer, Mukherjee has moved deftly to Solzhenitsyn, to a bigger picture, using, as he writes, “the past to explain the present”.

Reading The Emperor of All Maladies before it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, I was struck, as were many other reviewers, by how polished Mukherjee’s writing was (“The emperors of exploration”, Business Standard, February 1, 2011). Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, had no creative writing or journalistic background — the two traditional catchment areas for non-fiction writers.

But in the middle of his busiest years as a surgeon and a cancer fellow, he had served a kind of apprenticeship — pieces by him had appeared in medical reviews (Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine) and in mainstream publications known for their demanding editorial standards (The New Republic, The New York Times). Mukherjee’s recording eye for detail, matched with a deep empathy for his patients and an ability to do the historical research required, made this not just a prize-winning book, but a classic and lasting work of non-fiction.

In 2010, when Basharat Peer’s memoir of Kashmir, Curfewed Night, was published, one of its most enthusiastic champions was William Dalrymple, who called Peer a “new star of Indian non-fiction”. A few months later, Dalrymple spoke of his excitement at what seemed to be a new trend — the slow shift towards non-fiction replacing our somewhat obsessive focus on Booker-winning novels and other fiction.

Samanth Subramanian, like Sonia Faleiro, is one of the new stars of non-fiction; Following Fish, narrative journalism exploring India’s coastline, remains one of the best food and travel books of recent times. “This is just the beginning,” he says. We both agree that a handful of authors and non-fiction books from the subcontinent isn’t enough to call a movement, yet.

But as Subramanian points out, what may be changing – and where Dalrymple is correct – is a sensibility, as our curiosity about our own stories is matched by the willingness to actually go out and tell them. “There’s never been a paucity of academic non-fiction – good or bad – in India,” Subramanian notes. “But general non-fiction, journalistic non-fiction hasn’t had much of an outlet.”

Even among the journalists, someone like Sonia Faleiro, who wrote Beautiful Thing after reporting on the lives of bar dancers for Tehelka, or even Suketu Mehta, whose Bombay biography Maximum City sparked a curiosity about Indian non-fiction seven years ago, narrative non-fiction is something you have to earn. Few Indian publications support essays longer than 1,500-2,000 words; and even fewer would offer that space to issues other than politics.

The Caravan, run by Jonathan Shainin and a crack team of writer-editors, who include author Anjum Hassan and former Random House editor Rajni George, is one of the few magazines that look for and nurture narrative non-fiction, aside from a handful of men’s magazines that occasionally commission lengthy essays. (You could make the argument that magazines like Esquire and Playboy contributed much more than centrefolds to US culture —by commissioning short stories, long interviews and long journalistic essays, they helped several generations of writers to survive and grow.)

It’s tempting to see Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer triumph as confirmation of the Indian success story in non-fiction; but in a way, Mukherjee’s success as a writer is a very American, not Indian, success. What would it take to have a The Emperor of Maladies come out of India? More supportive publishing houses, more magazines with demanding editorial standards, more imagination and willingness to go after the untold stories on the part of writers? I don’t really have the answers, but it’s an interesting question.

Tailpiece: The release of the Ibn-e-Safi thrillers (Poisoned Arrow, Smokewater, The Laughing Corpse and Doctor Dread) could revive nostalgia for the days of “clean” blood-and-guts fiction. Ibn-e-Safi’s son says his father, already a well-known Pakistani writer when he considered writing the Jasoosi Duniya series, rose to the challenge when he was told that the books wouldn’t sell in India without sex and violence. He refused to include women, and his spy stories proved successful all the same.

There may have been precedent, though. Indian tastes ran to Alistair Maclean, whose thrillers were notable for his stern abjuration of romance. Maclean famously said that sex gets in the way of the action, a sentiment he may have borrowed from yet another creator of largely celibate heroes, Desmond Bagley, who said that sex gets in the way of the plot. How James Hadley Chase managed to juggle both will, presumably, remain a mystery.





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