A Harvard undergraduate, daughter of Indian expatriates, was recently in the news. She had authored a work of fiction which was a bestseller; she was on the point of signing with her publishers for a new book, for which an advance of $500,000 was on offer. Something went wrong. Passages in her first book were found to be lifted from an earlier publication by another author. The offending publication was withdrawn from the market and the contract for the second book was cancelled. It was a scandal of modest proportions. For a brief while, the Indian diaspora in the United States of America experienced, if not disgrace, at least some discomfiture.
But can one blame the young woman too much' She was a victim of circumstances. Indians are, after the Mexicans, the largest ethnic group amongst migrants in the US. Their educational qualifications are much higher than that of the average American; the average income earned by them is also higher than the American mean. Not surprisingly, there is much curiosity about this community, so smart and so determined to be successful. Indian ethnicity is, therefore, attracting lots of attention: films like Monsoon Wedding have, for instance, drawn raving crowds.
Fiction with an Indian theme sells briskly as well. English is the language in vogue in the milieu immigrant children grow up. Those among them with a flair for writing, not surprisingly, dream of producing a tome of a best-seller that would make them, overnight, fabulously rich; they would not mind cutting a few corners if that is necessary to put together the tome. On this side of the Atlantic too, literary-minded expatriates are hard at work. Many in this genre aspire to grab a global market, concentrating on spinning stories containing bits and pieces of intra- and extra-ethnic goings-on, apart from throwing in the usual dollops of romance.
Thanks to the cultural transformation rendered by inroads of information technology, books in general are experiencing a receding trade. Even so, if people can scrape together some spare moments to read, they prefer to opt for racy fiction. A sign of the times, stories with an overlay of Indian ethnicity tend to sell more than others in the global book market. Big publishers make a bee-line for such fiction, and use a high sales pitch to market them; it is an ordinary phenomenon for their sales to reach several hundred thousand copies in the course of a year.
Others joining this lucky club include offspring of affluent families in India's metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Calcutta. From their infancy, these children feel more comfortable in English than in any other local language. Their way of living, too, is more proximate to expatriate existence in Britain or the US. Provided they have a well of imagination and a command over the languages, they too break into the international market for English fiction, and mint money. The other name for neo-colonialism is, after all, globalization; the frail Indian market for English fiction is also taken over by these global workers writing to formula.
There is, back home, another literary world though, a world of modesty and diffidence, bound as much by the country's poverty and backwardness as by the diverse tensions its religious and cultural heterogeneities give rise to. The great language of English is, in this setting, a domestic species. It is just one of the fifteen languages officially recognized, the preferred language of not just many urban snobs, but also the mother tongue of quite a number of tribal groups, particularly in the North-east. The animosity of the Lohiaites notwithstanding, English, in this incarnation, is an established Indian language. It has also the additional attribute, along with Hindi, of providing a medium for inter-state communication.
Inevitably, a literary tradition has got established in English, the English that is a severely Indian language. The Sahitya Akademi formally recognizes the output in this language. It has, however, failed to find a footing in the international market; perhaps it did not even try seriously to pursue that objective either, and is content to remain a distant, poor relation.
And yet, this genre of English literary output has a charm of its own. The colonial stigma is not easy to cast off; the native lot writing in English had to fight against the residual hostility that such efforts met in the earlier phase. Their integrity and sense of belonging nonetheless helped India-made English writings to come through. The international success stories of expatriate English literary works did not rattle the writers on the domestic front. They knew where their demure frontiers lay; they kept within the limits. This English literature produced in India deals with cultural, social and economic issues emerging within the nation's contours. There is almost an impatient insistence that India's problems may be kindly spared, thank you, the irritant of being placed on the agenda of international concerns. Githa Hariharan's writings perhaps represent the sharpest and relatively more aggressive facet of this particular Indian oeuvre. But its best manifestation has been in the output of Shama Futehally. She used to write extraordinarily simple prose ' dainty and, at the same time, marked by precision. She also had a way of exuding charm through whatever she wrote. Quiet sentences arranged themselves one after another; they spelled tranquility; they also transmitted the nuances of a message. Not a trace of violence or intimidation in what she wrote; even so, at the end of thirty or forty simple-looking sentences, we suddenly sit up: she has created a thematic grandeur which, extraordinarily, also trembles with humility.
Futehally's Tara Lane is an excruciatingly beautiful story of a young Muslim girl, of impeccable Bombay aristocracy lineage, discovering lineage, discovering, through a succession of intense experiences, her identity and that of her often harsh external ambience. Tara Lane had only a limited success. It deserved more, but then, Futehally did not care for the international commodity market. The little novel she composed shortly before her death, Reaching Bombay Central, sums up, with amazing dexterity, all that needs to be summed up about the knavery and idiocy of communal relations in the country.
Futehally is gone, but the tradition she set up is unlikely to come to a surcease. A recent little venture, Letters for Paul (Mapin), by Anu Kumar, promises much even as it echoes Futehally's style of strong, silent meanderings. It is a tale of an adolescent schoolgirl, Aditi Chatterji, daughter of a police officer posted in a provincial Indian town. She has a rebellious streak, questioning the mores and manners of elders, much in the manner of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Sallinger's Catcher in the Rye. She indulges in reveries and nurtures a weird imagination. Her little pranks embarrass the authorities of her school; they also symbolize protests against the pretence of conventions the middle-class Indian household is slave to. These feelings are expressed in a style that combines a sardonic sense of humour with rare deftness of language. An acid-throwing incident in the dusty, claustrophobic town leads to events which Anu Kumar lays bare with a sureness of touch, encapsulating both the grit and the decadence of provincial India. Here is a writer of considerable promise, but only if she can rein in her exasperating mannerism of overdoing similes.
Letters to Paul, one is dead certain, will receive negligible notice. It would perhaps have been noticed if the author had manoeuvred to locate her narrative in, say, a New Hampshire or Croydon landscape, and juxtaposed it with some ethnic masala. There is little point in lamenting over what is a harsh reality; perseverers back home have to wait out the globalization frenzy.