The session, ‘Tellers of Tales’, had authors Sumana Roy, Abdullah Khan and Amitabha Bagchi in conversation with Mini Kapoor

Indian writers in English are creating a composite language, said the novelists in the session titled ‘Tellers of Tales’

January 19, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Storytellers: Amitabha Bagchi, Sumana Roy, and Abdullah Khan in conversation with Mini Kapoor

Storytellers: Amitabha Bagchi, Sumana Roy, and Abdullah Khan in conversation with Mini Kapoor

Three novelists got together to converse with The Hindu ’s ideas editor, Mini Kapoor, about the story-teller’s craft, in a session titled ‘Tellers of Tales’ held on the second day of The Hindu Lit for Life. The first question that came up concerned why they chose to take up novel-writing.

Sumana Roy, author, most recently, of Missing , said that becoming a literary novelist was “Not like becoming an IAS officer; your parents don’t tell you to do it. You just become one.” Roy said that the idea for her last book came to her from hearing carpenters chat while working at her home in Siliguri: their version of events around them was very different from she was hearing on television news channels. An acclaimed poet, she initially began by trying to tell the story in poetry: “But it needed more directness than what is afforded by the elliptical nature of verse.” A trigger for her, she said, was inequality: in some ways, her writing stems from having read almost nothing about her hometown in fiction and a desire to “draw attention to one’s part of the world.”

Abdullah Khan, screenwriter and banker, whose debut novel Patna Blues was released in late 2018, said that when he was seven, his father gave him a story book: he told his father that some day, he too would write a book. But, Khan said laughing, it was only the day when Arundhati Roy won the Booker that he actually started writing. It took 20 more years for his book to appear in print.

Amitabha Bagchi, author of Half the Night is Gone , which was shortlisted for both the JCB Prize and The Hindu Prize for Fiction, said that he had never had any confusion about genre. After having written seven or eight short stories, he realised they were not quite short stories. What he wanted was, without going to the lengths someone like Tolkien had, “recast the world and live in it. To escape into an alternative world not too different from the one we live in. A novel meant that this would carry on for a bit. Through language, you can create a world.”

“The Indian novelist in English is first a translator,” Roy said, talking about telling the story of small-town India and its cultural and linguistic universe in a book in English. Missing , she said, “is a Bangla novel in English.” Khan spoke of writing about worlds and realities different from his own, saying he doesn’t always have to eat just litti: “If I want pizza, why should I go back to biryani?”

Bagchi said he envies those who wrote in Indian regional languages because of the cultural continuity and history they get to inhabit: “English must work harder for legitimacy.”

Even so, Indian writers in English are no longer writing an English that is received from somewhere else. At the same time, writing in English has a certain power, and “There is no shame in admitting I want that,” Bagchi said.

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