Books set in relatively smaller cities and towns are beginning to make a splash.
For many years Indian literature has perpetuated the India-Bharat divide. It is oft heard that the real Indian literature comes from the Indian languages. Those writers have the scent of the soil, the depth, the feel. Writers in English at best skim the surface. The translations, it is claimed, are the only way to bridge the divide, take Bharat into the drawing rooms of India, and bring India to the chaupal of Bharat. Yet within this alleged monolith there is a clear stratification.
While places like Delhi or Bombay find prominent space in English works of fiction and non-fiction, not many authors until now have dared to venture beyond to places like Patna, Lucknow, Mussoorie, Bhopal, or even Chennai. For too long has the Delhi-Bombay combine represented urban India in English literature. A change was in order, and it is sweeping across the nation, with books set in relatively smaller cities and towns beginning to make a splash. Not just the enviable works churned out by Ruskin Bond from and about Mussoorie, but books giving biographies of our cities are ruling the roost.
Over the past year or so we have had Amit Chaudhuri’s “Calcutta: Two Years in the City”, Biswanath Ghosh’s “Tamarind City” (about Chennai), Amitava Kumar’s Patna biography called “A Matter of Rats” and Nirmala Lakshman’s “Degree Coffee by the Yard” that gives us the grammar of Chennai. Not to forget Parveen Talha’s “Fida-e-Lucknow: Tales of the City and its People”. Then there are works of fiction too. For instance T.S. Tirumurti’s “Chennaiwasi”.
Coming up next are biographies of Udaipur, Kolkata besides another one of Lucknow by Mushirul Hasan, the man who has seldom strayed from history. Indeed, for many of us English writing is becoming the link to ‘real’ India.
Seasoned author Amitava Kumar whose book on Patna has been widely acclaimed, sees it differently. “People living in the metros or even outside the country have started writing non-fiction about places in the hinterland, but this has to do with the changing character of small-town India. With its assertiveness and ambition. In other words, it is the towns themselves that are demanding attention, and some of the new writing reflects that.”
Seasoned publisher David Davidar gives a historical perspective. “Literature in English began addressing the real India a long time ago — R.K. Narayan’s ‘Malgudi Days’, the works of Mulk Raj Anand, and more recently Vikram Seth’s ‘Brahmpur’ or the setting of Arundhati Roy’s novel, not to mention the dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction that are routinely published every year, show that publishers are increasingly putting out books that accurately reflect the reality of Indian writers and readers.”
Davidar cheerfully states that English is the link language today and English authors are read everywhere. “English has always been the only pan-Indian language we’ve had, that is spoken from Kohima to Kanyakumari. More people are choosing to use English to communicate. It may not always be grammatically perfect, but it is still recognisably English and it is distinctly Indian. It works just fine as a medium for transmitting information and entertainment and knowledge.” The point is reiterated by Nirmala, just back from the book fair in Bangalore where her book has elicited good response. “English is a means of tapping the syncretic energy of the nation. It takes India to Bharat to the actual pluralist tradition of our nation.”
Not everybody agrees though. Kumar says, “I never think of language as the Grand Trunk Road: that broad, continuous, unending stretch of land that unites places and people. I think of it as a whole series of small pathways and byways that leads you to hidden places which have their own particular identity. So, I wouldn’t want to impose on English or any other language the role of a unifying force.” He points out, “I think some of the most vital writing in English in India is that which preserves its limited sense of locale. English need not be like a national franchise of restaurants selling the same fare; let the novel written by a Bengali in Barackpore be utterly distinct in its linguistic registers from the one being penned in Patiala.”
It is a point reiterated by Parveen. She feels, “There is a sense of despair among Urdu writers and speakers in Lucknow. My book which shows vignettes of the city has been well received but a book reflecting the sense of anguish of a Lucknow-wallah is yet to come. Today, the city lives in two parts: the age-old Lucknow and the modern day 21st Century city. This reality has to be appreciated and reflected in English writing.” She is working on a novel based in the city and another book talking of the pulse of the place.
Yes, there are books coming up on different cities, each claiming to open a window to the place. Yet the books are usually written by either authors settled abroad or in big cities within the country. Or even by those who have forever thought and worked in a language other than their mother tongue.
Beyond biography, Kumar notes, “I don’t see much literature, which is to say fiction or poetry, coming out of such places in a way that literature itself can serve as a bridge. In Hindi or other languages, a writer who is both linguistically sophisticated and deeply rooted, could live and flourish in smaller places. In English, such folks are likely to be exceptions. Examples would be Ruskin Bond or Allan Sealy. The English writer, at the current moment, is still likely to be an urban creature.”
He insists that often, even now, the most genuine writing comes from smaller places. “In my recent book, ‘A Matter of Rats’, I have expressed admiration for several Hindi writers who have their roots in Patna. Even a page of a Hindi writer like Phanishwar Nath Renu is better than entire books by mediocre writers in English.”
Nirmala though feels, “A book like ‘Degree Coffee’ is like a little portrait of the city. The aim is to capture the spirit of the city rather than giving only a historical or political perspective. It is not like academia. More of an impressionist account. It is about giving equal importance to the feelings of a washerman and a top bureaucrat. It is more of an egalitarian view of the city; the idea being to reveal its contours at the socio-economic level.”
The debate goes on. Meanwhile, with titles by Naresh Fernandes, Malvika Singh and Indrajit Hazara, besides Parveen and Hasan on the anvil, we are going to see a lot of India on the literary map of the country.
Parveen says, “Lucknow has had a position of pre-eminence in literature though it all changed following the First War of Independence. Now, (following the success of “Fida-e-Lucknow”) people are seeing the city in a new light.” Davidar sums up, “The short format by exceptionally good writers who convey the essence of great cities to readers seems to work very well.”
Keywords: Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Biswanath Ghosh, Tamarind City, Nirmala Lakshman, Degree Coffee by the Yard, Amitava Kumar, A Matter of Rats, Indian writing in English, Parveen Talha, Fida-e-Lucknow: Tales of the City and its People