When you want to read up on a multi-faceted country like India, where do you start? Aparna Karthikeyan has some suggestions.
Often, while shelving books at a cosy-little second-hand book-shop in Edinburgh, several people — the majority intending to visit the sub-continent — asked me to recommend “a good book” on India. I was, every single time, quite stumped; how do you go about suggesting one book to define a country as diverse as India? How can a mere 400-odd pages convey the flavour of a nation, where every state, every town has its own identity, culture, microclimate, dialect and dress-sense? Tired of me standing there, gawping, they would generally plump for a globally familiar Naipaul or Rushdie…
And yet, had I managed to snap myself out of my reverie, I might've perhaps sent them home with a copy of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, a justly famous and fascinating account mostly set in small-town Kerala. Her opening lines paint a word-portrait, immortalising Indian summer — The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dust-green trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. And from there, she takes the reader on a journey, intimately Indian, sometimes maudlin, at others, tenderly sweet, and never ever boring…
On a similar vein, refreshingly Indian, R.K. Narayan narrated stories about everyday characters, generously garnishing his prose, not unlike Wodehouse, with lashings of gentle, unprejudiced humour. As the creator of an all-too-real fictional village — Malgudi, Narayan is rightly hailed as the man who put Indian writing in English on the world stage.
For a more up-to-date version of India though, one has to necessarily look past the annoying stereotypes (the country, in the past, has been variously lampooned as the land of sadhus, snake-charmers and run-away elephants) and opt for the current crop of writers who reveal the nation with remarkable honesty, with its many, ugly warts and shiny, newfound wealth. The British are no longer the villains, bureaucracy is; democracy is a given, but so is corruption; and globalisation, besides India's status as the world's preferred back-office becomes almost a minor character!
Aravind Adiga shot to fame for doing just this. His widely acclaimed The White Tiger is a startlingly insightful study on the insurmountably huge chasm that divides the nation's rich and poor. Chetan Bhagat, on the other hand, might not have won lavish praise from book critics, but his stories, told with a breezy “been there, don't that” confidence — be it a love story set in a call-centre or the much-loved tale of three boys at IIT — clearly resonate with the youth, who buy out his books minutes after it hits the shelves!
While Indian writers take the insider-view, writers from across the seas manage to transfer to print their shock and surprise when they encounter this land of co-existing contradictions. The openly expressed grief on the Ghats of Varanasi, the extra-ordinary modesty even by the sea-shore, the colourfully chaotic festivals, the grinding poverty existing alongside insensitive, ostentatious displays of wealth, conflicts — thanks to language, religion or resources, the hot-white sun and the cracked, parched earth…there is scarcely paucity of material!
Michael Palin writes about his experiences in India, in his mammoth work Himalaya, employing breathless prose to convey the sense of urgency, the smells and sounds that define the country… All, you might think, is well, but then he goes and bungs in the cow-sentence, adding thoughtfully, “I think we should use cows for traffic calming at home. They're much more effective than sleeping policemen, and they give milk.”
But for truly scathing wit, not many can beat Jeremy Clarkson whose books bristle with razor-sharp observations of all that really need not be immortalised in print. On the Indian driving test (in his essay on India in Motorworld), he says, “the examiner finds a quiet piece of road and asks you to demonstrate that you can make the car move and stop. Then he gives you permission to take part in what is by far the most dangerous game on earth: driving on the subcontinent.”
For a balanced, outsider's view of the sub-continent, I can't help but recommend Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon.
The beauty of this book — straddling both rural and urban India, and all the quirky characters he meets on the way — is the incisive use of language to describe the sweeping, curtain of rain that routinely inundates India's west coast, as well as Cherapunjee:
Soaked to the skin within seconds, I felt a wonderful sense of flooding warmth and invigoration; it was, indubitably, a little bit like being born again.
Dip into a few pages, and I'll bet you will want to visit the west-coast with the advancing thunderclouds! Now, if that is not great PR, what is?