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Updated: November 10, 2013 14:48 IST

National narratives

Suneetha Balakrishnan
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Author Emma Dawson Varughese
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Author Emma Dawson Varughese

Emma Dawson Varughese opens up to the author on her latest book and her love for Indian writing in English.

Emma Dawson Varughese, independent scholar, works around language, culture and literature, and looks into ‘World Englishes’. Her first project was ‘Beyond the Post-Colonial’, an interdisciplinary study challenging the orthodoxy of post-colonial literary theory. Her interest in Indian writing in English is a long-standing one. In her new book Reading New India (2013) which is a cultural studies enquiry into post-millennial Indian Writing in English, she largely approaches the topic with an emphasis on the sort of writing that's being sold and read, irrespective of the reputation among the literary elite. This work brings together Indian Englishes, the changing socio-culture dynamics and the role of literature in English post-2000.

How did you go about powering your interest in IWE to the point of a project on post-millennial Indian fiction in English?

I could see from spending time in India, in particular, in leaving and returning to more and more change that the fiction I was buying was somewhat in sync with these changes. It was as I left Mumbai in 2009, that I knew that a book was needed to capture this growing body of new writing in English from India. I also knew that it needed to be a book which was settled as much as possible in India whilst remaining accessible for readers outside of that market, to learn of new trends in post-millennial writing. Reading New India is published by Bloomsbury which has offices in the U.K. and India and this arrangement has always been important to me as the book deals with many authors known within India but not necessarily known outside of India. This book challenges the idea that Indian literature is only that which is known within the U.S., U.K. (or Australia), I think that it is time and more, that awareness of this body of new writing is cultivated as widely as possible.

Could you talk a bit about your concluded projects and forthcoming ones too?

Before Reading New India, I completed and published an international, fieldwork-based literary/cultural studies enquiry into the post-millennial literary scene in English in Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and India (Beyond The Postcolonial, Palgrave, 2012). This publication took many years to complete given that my fieldwork covered Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda and Kenya in Africa alone. In this project, I was driven by the idea of ‘literature as data’. The fieldwork involved sourcing new writing in the form of short stories in English(es) and many of these were published in a series of anthologies of new writing. The title story of the Ugandan collection is entitled ‘Butterfly Dreams’ and this story made the shortlist of the Caine Prize in 2011. As a global cultural studies scholar, I’m always interested in the conversations between literary works (and their production) and society, most specifically contemporary society and where the role of Englishes is at play, Beyond the Postcolonial really engaged with this agenda and used empirical methods and grounded theory to explore this literary scene.

Reading New India was launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2013 and although I’m still busy with follow-up work and conversations around this project, I am now engaged in new activity. I’m currently writing on graphic novels in English(es) from India, grown from the chapter on graphic novels (GN) in Reading New India. I’m interested in the idea of the ‘perceived’ marginal form of the GN which in turn, recounts ‘marginal’ experiences. The use of the term ‘marginal’ here is used to represent various experiences and various semantics, as these ‘marginal’ experiences encompass subjects such as child abuse, terrorism and untouchability. I’m also writing on science and faith in post-millennial Indian fiction in English from India, using cultural studies approaches to analyse works such as The Krishna Key (2012) and Bali and the Ocean of Milk (2011). Here I am interested in ‘the popular and the peripheral’ in this contemporary Indian literary production.

What were your methods and criterion in identifying the authors for Reading New India?

This part of the Reading New India project was almost empirical. I bought a lot of writing in English and as I did so, I organised it in such as way on my bookshelves that ‘groupings’ started to appear. Some of these groupings were through genre and some by theme, moreover, they also dovetailed with preoccupations of India post-millennium. The book moves from Urbanscapes, Young India (including the topics of call centres and sexuality), Crime writing and graphic novels to Chick Lit and fiction I have termed ‘Crick Lit’ and ‘Bharati Fantasy’. It became clear that certain motifs of post-millennial India featured in this collection of new writing, most notably in young India and the urban. Alongside these themes, new genres and forms of expression have emerged post millennium, such as graphic novels, crime fiction and a growing body of narratives which draw on Hindu epics and mythology– I have discussed some of the works in Reading New India in relation to issues of ‘reception’ in a chapter section entitled: ‘Bharati fantasy or historical fiction?’ .

How influential is ‘changing India’ on fiction?

Reading New India (2013) certainly suggests that ‘changing India’ as you describe it, is influential on fiction in English from India. In terms of production alone, post-millennial India has seen a rise in publishing houses, printing and production options, technology, skilled workforce and of course, marketing. In terms of market, ‘changing India’ has, and continues to create markets of new readers, ‘old’ readers with more disposable income and multifarious outlets of book selling and buying. Since 2000, the opportunities for book purchasing have increased (and changed) immensely, physical book stores, independent as well as chain bookstores in malls and the like, as well as possibilities of buying through online retailers which deliver the books to your door without charges. The book catalogues of online booksellers from India are substantial and in addition, book websites have grown and developed extensively, in particular since the mid-2000s, online opportunities for browsing, purchasing and reviewing have grown exponentially. We take all this for granted nowadays but if we compare the book buying trends 15 years back, we really are able to take stock of the impact of some of these developments.

How much does politics affect Indian Fiction in English? 

I suppose politics affects everything in a sense, but I think it would be wrong to say that there has been a real surge of Indian politico-narratives post millennium in the sense that we might say there has been a surge in Chick Lit or romance novels. There have been some novels that obviously connect with politics demonstrably such as Chauhan’s Battle For Bittora (2010), but there are also a significant number of narratives which deal with ‘political issues’ such as corruption in society, nationalism, religion, violence and environment, these include: The Man With Enormous Wings (2010), The Harappa Files (2011), Through The Forest Darkly (2010), The Sound of Water (2008), Jimmy The Terrorist (2010), Revolution Highway (2010), Lost and Found (2010), Kashmir Pending (2007).

Is Indian Fiction in English on an upward trend or a decline?

A. Certainly post-2000 the publishing of Indian fiction in English is enjoying an upward trend, but I wonder how that might be maintained. Anything that continues to grow exponentially risks saturation, stagnation or general overload, but this is a risk, not a given. Such environments can also lead to increased creativity, license to experiment and can foster non-conformity. When the scene is buoyant and sales are up, publishers can sometimes be more inclined to take on a manuscript that would be otherwise perceived as ‘risky’ that is, in more difficult or austere times.

Is long or short fiction the strength here?

I do recognise that currently long fiction dominates the literary scene in English in India, although Anjum Hasan’s collection of short fiction, Difficult Pleasures (2012) does buck that trend. It would be good to see short fiction being encouraged more, possibly through creative writing programmes, publisher calls, literary prizes or other ventures grown in the Indian context, especially for the graphic novel scene. The urban seems to lend itself to the production of short fiction, that is, collections of short stories such as Window-seat (2009), Crowded Rooms (2010), Bangalore Calling (2011) and some stories in Eunuch Park (2009), all of these being single-authored collections. It is however, the Penguin First Proof editions or The HarperCollins Book of New Indian Fiction (2005) that comes to mind when we speak of short fiction. A flick through First Proof however, reveals names of authors who have gone to be published as novelists, very few of these have gone to be known for their short fiction - FP1: Anuradha Roy, FP2: Chandrahas Choudhury, FP5: Vamsee Juluri as examples - Prem Nath and Temsula Ao as obvious exceptions.

The short story is not the only avatar of what might be considered ‘short fiction’. Omair Ahmad’s the Storyteller’s Tale (2008) works fantastically well as a novella, Sawian’s Shadow Men (2010)is another recent novella that comes to mind and interestingly, some of the publications in the more ‘popular’ Metro Reads present more as novellas. It is often the parameters of publishing and literary awards which dictate the trends and therefore, changing or usurping these boundaries might produce more variety in both form and genre.

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I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Dawson Varughese give a talk on her work recently. This is ground-breaking and important scholarship, produced by a dedicated researcher, and presented with verve and intelligence.

from:  Rob Spence
Posted on: Nov 10, 2013 at 17:50 IST
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