A new crop of Indian writers are trying different and interesting things with fiction.
When it first came on to the world stage, the Scandinavian crime novel was like a breath of fresh air. Unlike its Anglo-American forebears, it showed a willingness to sacrifice narrative pace for character development. Its protagonists were highly conflicted anti-heroes who did their thing in a bleak setting where, more often than not, it was dark and rainy. The bleakness of the setting complemented the darkness of the subject matter, and the whole enterprise came across as a marriage of material and atmosphere made in literary heaven. But now, like any popular trend, it has become formulaic. At the beginning of this month, I actually said, ‘Oh, no,’ when someone presented me with yet another Scandinavian crime novel. I won’t mention the author’s name, but just from the cover, the weight of the book, and the précis at the back, I knew what lay between the covers. Another baggy novel that moved at a leisurely pace, with a number of female victims, a protagonist so obsessed with his job that he had screwed up his personal life, and villains so diabolically evil that they would give the likes of Amrish Puri a run for his money.
Against this backdrop, meeting two novelists who were actually trying to do something different was refreshing. Kishwar Desai’s first novel Witness the Night dealt with the issue of female foeticide and won the Costa Book Award for the first novel in the U.K. in 2010. She has just released her second novel Origins of Love which repeats her protagonist Simran Singh from Witness the Night. She didn’t set out to do that, she told me when we met in Delhi. It just so happened that the feedback received on Simran Singh from the first novel was so overwhelmingly positive that her agent suggested it. Once she got into it, however, she found it fun to develop the character in ways she had not in the first novel. Repeating the character allowed her to develop a back story for her that gives the reader more of an insight into why she is the way she is.
Most novels that repeat characters tend to ape the successful formula of the first outing. In that sense, Origins of Love represents something of a departure. Unlike female foeticide, the issue of surrogate motherhood has global connotations. In addition, Desai has chosen to tell the story from multiple points of view, instead of opting for a single narrator. Using multiple points of view is risky for a writer, since the reader is constantly asked to detach from one point of view and attach to another. It is far easier to fasten the reader to one point of view and keep him or her there. When I asked Desai why she chose such an approach, she said she felt the story demanded it in order to bring the whole world of doctors, surrogates, commissioning parents, customs officers… the entire surrogacy nexus to life. Hence, even though she was initially daunted, she decided to go ahead.
In writing about the surrogacy nexus, Desai is doing something that hasn’t been done before in Indian fiction. In addition, she is focusing on it at a time when human fertility rates are dropping and childless couples abound all over the world. It is a topical issue, as well as an interesting one. I wish her the best of luck with her book.
The morning after meeting Kishwar Desai, I met Nilanjana Roy for an interview. Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings tells the story of a clan of cats living in Nizamuddin in Delhi. Needless to say, just from the premise, it is a hugely imaginative novel. Even for a Delhiite like me, who has visited the area numerous times, it is something of a revelation to see it through the eyes of animals. No wonder, when my editor asked if I would do the interview, I said yes immediately.
After the interview, which appears elsewhere in the Literary Review, Nilanjana Roy and I discussed the new breed of popular fiction in Hinglish that is cropping up all over India. The confidence of the writers, many of whom have forsaken the traditional path of breaking into print and gone in for self-publishing, is laudable. Many of them may not be up there in quality, but they have shown an ability to connect with large swathes of the reading public which is commendable in itself. Over time, they will only get better.
Finally, many congratulations to Jeet Thayil for being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. You just gave the rest of us a big shot in the arm, mate. Good on you and the very best of luck for winning it all.
Keywords: Scandinavian crime novels