Most Indian writers in English grew up on British Classics. Now they’re returning the favour.
Louise Doughty, a novelist, playwright and critic, talks of how effectively Indian writers have captured the imagination of the British public. In Chennai to conduct a creative writing workshop (organised by the British Council), she discusses her optimistic views about India’s burgeoning literary scene. “In a way I can’t believe it hasn’t been happening for decades. It’s long overdue,” she says, settling for a chat at the Taj Connemara, after day two of her workshop (organised by the British Council.)
An influential critic and cultural commentator, London-based Doughty has written five novels and one book of non-fiction. She has chaired the panel of judges for the Orange Award for New Writers. More recently, she was one of the five judges of the Man Booker Prize in 2008.
In love with India
“The U.K. literary scene is completely in love with India,” she says, talking of how this is, in a way, an old habit. “After all, the U.K. was always enamoured with India. With novels like E.M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ (1924). But now what people want is Indian writing. And while the older generation of writers — like Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie — are already well-established, what’s interesting is there’s a new wave of young writers who are highly successful.” She adds with a laugh, “In fact, British writers are envious of the advantage Indian writers have.”
In a country that’s just beginning to realise the value of its exoticism, it’s easy to dismiss a trend like this as a result of savvy marketing. However, Doughty doesn’t believe that’s what’s luring contemporary audiences. “I think it was the case once upon a time,” she says, “In the 70s and 80s there was a sense that people were looking for exoticism. First, there was the fascination with Latin American magic realism, then India. But now people are much more interested in stories of India today.”
A good example is how Arvind Adiga’s gritty novel “The White Tiger” ended up winning the Booker the year Louise was on the panel. “There were about 120 books that year,” she says. Then, on top of that, every publisher — who submits two books to the jury — also contributes to the Call In list. “It gives them a chance to suggest other books they would have liked to submit. They write a 1 page defence of the book and based on these presentations the judges call in between 8 and 20 other books,” says Doughty, adding regretfully, “Obviously on a human level, the judges already know they have to read 120, so they call the bare minimum the rules permit. In my year, Michael Portillo, who chaired, said — right in the beginning —‘I’m letting you know – we’re calling in eight.” Doughty called in Hanif Qureshi’s “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”. “I thought it would be interesting to read a novel out of Pakistan.”
Doughty adds that India always has a good showing every year. “Normally, Australia and Canada have some great novels,” she says. “I was sorry not to see ‘Late Nights on Air’ by Elizabeth Hay make the long list (13 books from which the short list of 6 novels was drawn up.)
The decision to give the Booker to Aravind Adiga, she states, was not unanimous. The five judges ended up voting — by secret ballot — and he won with three votes. Doughty’s was not one of them. “I voted for Sebastian Barry’s ‘The Secret Scripture’,” she says, “but I was very happy to see Adiga win. I loved his book. If we could have split the prize between the two, I would have. But when it came down to choosing between them, I just felt Barry’s book was better.”
Yet, she defends Adiga from the many Indian critics who feel he didn’t really succeed in connecting with the real India. “It’s very interesting because every country likes to kick its own.” She reckons, “Inevitably, when a writer’s very successful, people thrust an ambassadorial role onto him. Then there will always be people who say, ‘Hang on, he’s not representing me.” She adds that’s really not fair. “He’s simply written a book that was true to him as an author.”
Doughty talks of the general movement in British literary culture towards a narrative and plot-driven novel. “I’m like that too.” Her stories are deeply personal — drawing upon family history. The last two, “Fires in the Dark” and “Stone Cradle”, spoke of the trials of the Roma community, which is part of her ancestry, and how they have been discriminated against. “I write when something annoys me,” she says, talking of how anger fuelled her stories. “It stems from a very personal need to tell your story.”
WORDS AND IDEAS
The Creative Writing Trainers’ Workshop is the first of a series of Creative Writing courses organised by the British Council. Taught by Louise Doughty and Rimi B. Chatterjee, a novelist and academic, it is a part of ‘Lit Sutra’ a programme of cultural relations through reading and writing.
Lit Sutra was sparked off by the British Council’s festival of Indian writing at the London Book Fair this year. For over one week in April 2009 (in association with Reed Exhibitions’ The London Book Fair) about 53 Indian writers representing 15 Indian languages took part in the British Council’s ‘Through Fresh Eyes’ cultural programme.
This workshop aims to strengthen cultural relations between India and the U.K. with sustainable literary activity. Doughty believes India has tremendous raw talent, and plenty of enthusiasm. Aspiring Indian writers simply need some direction. “It can take years to write a book,” she says. “It’s like building a building with your bare hands. You can do with all the help you can get.”