Asia Life | Society | South Asia

A Splendid Lack of Isolation: Indian Writers in the Global Mainstream

While the circle of English-writing authors still behaves as an exclusivist club, some Indian authors have managed to join it.

Krzysztof Iwanek
A Splendid Lack of Isolation: Indian Writers in the Global Mainstream
Credit: Unsplash

Two books I read recently reminded me of a certain important trend. The books were a novel, Gun Island, and an “immigrant’s manifesto,” This Land Is Our Land. The moral of the first stresses the need to accept refugees and tackle climate change. This Land Is Our Land focuses, much more concretely, on accepting immigrants, particularly in the United States. These subjects, together with the language the books were written in – English – could have suggested that the authors came from the broadly-defined West. But this is not the case.

Gun Island was penned by Amitav Ghosh, an Indian writer known for, among others, his trilogy of novels, The Ibis. The other book, This Land Is Our Land is a work of Suketu Mehta, an American citizen of Indian origin (I wrote about it for The Diplomat here). What struck me was that along with the above-mentioned similarities, both books were about global issues, about things we can all refer to, whether in India or in the United States, in Africa or in Europe. In other words, these works reminded me that some Indian writers have become a part of the global mainstream, a long-running process.

For the purpose of this article, I will focus on authors that write in English, not those whose works are translated. There is still a vast statistical difference between how many authors publish globally recognized books in English, while not being native speakers of the language, and how many writers publish acclaimed books in their own languages, which are then translated into English and successfully popularized worldwide. While I could, for instance, name quite a few globally recognized current and past Polish authors, none of them, with the historical exception of Joseph Conrad, writes or wrote in English. The same is not true for Indian literature, however, within which books written in English may be considered a genre by itself.

Indian elites are in a very peculiar position. Most of their representatives are not only fluent in English but are often brought up in English-medium institutions, sometimes from a very early age. This gives them an edge in various walks of global competition, although school education in a foreign medium has many disadvantages as well.

If dominant Indian languages are like trains – as they link broader regions of the subcontinent and are accessible to all – English is like an airline: it is used by the richer class, it connects the urban centers, and offers the quickest and easiest way to connect with the outer world. This “airline” facilitated the success of not only those Indians writing in the category of critically acclaimed literature (though mostly them). The same vehicle allowed Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A to become popular enough to be turned into a movie, Slumdog Millionaire.

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But let me pose a counterpoint to my own musings: Apart from such instances, how often do those English-writing authors – Indian or others – attain success while not being connected to the West? Does not such a career usually lead to the West, or through it, at least at some point?

Amitav Ghosh is based in the United States. Suketu Mehta, as mentioned above, is an Indian-origin U.S. citizen. One of the best-known authors among those writing about India in English was V.S. Naipaul, who was not born in India. Originally from a British Trinidad and Tobago family of Indian roots, he lived in the United Kingdom for most of his days. Equally famous in this group is Salman Rushdie, who born and raised in India but has been based in the United States for many years. So is another successful and internationally acclaimed Indian writer, Vikram Chandra (Sacred Games remain his most famous book). The author of Londonstani, Gautam Malkani, was born in the U.K. although his family has Indian roots. Sanjay Nigam was born in India but is based in the United States, and his works, like the novel Transplant Man, reflect this experience. Western literary culture is like an elite and exclusivist club. It is easier to be praised and supported by it when one holds membership. 

There are also practical reasons for such conditions. Publishing a successful English-language book on the international market is still usually easier through a Western publishing house. Living in the United States or the U.K. and knowing the right people makes it easier to access the right companies or agents. There is nothing particularly cultural about this aspect; this is how our world functions, across many countries and in many professions. 

It is also hard not to notice that those non-Western authors who succeed in the West often express adherence to liberal values in their novels or essays (although not always and not uniformly). Both Ghosh’s Gun Island and Mehta’s This Land Is Our Land are good examples of this. I personally subscribe to this worldview myself, but it should be fair to notice its predominance in these literary circles. Let us imagine an Indian writer who stays in his own country, has no connection to those Western elitist clubs, and upholds, say, a conservative worldview expressed through his works. Would he have the same chance of succeeding on the global market only by writing in English?

And yet it would be equally unfair – and simplifying – to brand all of the above-mentioned authors as “Western.” They belong to both worlds. Whether they were born in India or brought up in Indian communities elsewhere, most of them keep or kept visiting their country of origin. Their works display an Indian sensitivity, as well as knowledge of South Asian history, society, and customs. Take Suketu Mehta’s earlier book, Maximum City, Bombay Lost and Found. It is an astonishingly well-researched account of the life of this metropolis and a book, I believe, as acclaimed in India as in the West.

The West has not held a monopoly over global trends in literature for a long time, but it still dictates the language of the global mainstream (English) and some of the more popular subjects. And yet the fact that there are Indian and other non-Western authors who manage to break into the circle is significant, as they brought in their own perspectives, their knowledge and sensitivity, and the stories of their countries and communities.