Introduction: India – Another Way of Seeing

Ian Jack

This is the second Granta devoted to India. The first was published in 1997 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the country’s independence, though that was really no more than an excuse. To me, as Granta’s then editor, the issue’s real purpose was to try to capture a country that was beginning to change fundamentally, preparing to say goodbye to its old self. There was a gathering sense of expectation. Modernity beckoned. Bill Gates was reported to have said that after the Chinese, South Indians were the smartest people in the world. Every Indian villager, it was also said, knew Gates’s name. In one of that issue’s pieces, in which the writer Trevor Fishlock went looking for any remaining traces of Gandhi’s influence on the country, a marine engineer told him: ‘We are growing. People want to work and learn. We are taxiing on the runway. We will leave America behind. Nothing will stop us becoming the greatest economic power in the world.’

When I first came to India as a reporter in 1976, nobody could have taken such a prediction seriously; it would have been placed in the same box of eccentricities as the claim, sometimes made by the kind of excitable Hindu patriot that the visitor encountered on railway trains, that ancient India – the India of the Mahabharata – had invented the helicopter and discovered the theory of relativity. That was the mythic past. On a train in the seventies, the future looked less glorious. As likely as not, we would be hauled by a steam locomotive; through the dirty carriage window we would see smoke unrolling over fields that were irrigated, planted and harvested by human labour, with no other assistance outside of a camel or a bullock. Rusting buses and swarms of bicycles waited at the level-crossing gates. On cross-country journeys night fell with a completeness not seen in Europe since the nineteenth century; once the last urban street had been left behind, the traveller peered out into an unelectrified gloom alleviated only by oil lamps and cooking fires. The Indian economy – the statistical abstraction that formed the backdrop to these scenes – lay becalmed in what was known as ‘the Hindu rate of growth’, which for thirty years averaged a yearly increase in GDP that kept it only slightly ahead of the rise in population. India began to lag further and further behind its rivals to the east. In 1960, South Korea’s per capita income was about four times bigger than India’s but in 1990 it was twenty times as big.

What kind of literature in English did India produce at this time? It was often printed on rough grey paper bound between fragile covers. At a station bookstall the traveller might find a paperback of a novel by R.K. Narayan or a collection of poems by Tagore. The better bookstores in the big cities would stock Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and perhaps a story by Mulk Raj Anand or the Indian-by-marriage novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. But these writers had small audiences (even Tagore had, beyond Bengal) compared to the writers who lived abroad and became known as interpreters of India. Sometimes these writers were Indian by ancestry or birth – V.S. Naipaul and Ved Mehta; often they were English – Paul Scott, J.G. Farrell; sometimes they were English and dead – E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling. A visitor who wanted to understand the history of India would turn to good books written by English authors such as Gillian Tindall, Geoffrey Moorhouse, John Keay and, later, William Dalrymple. Even the most important national narrative of all, the story of the state’s foundation, had foreigners as its most popular chroniclers. Freedom at Midnight, a racy account of independence and partition by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, respectively French and American, became a must-read paperback for the Indian middle class during the mid 1970s. Nobody in India had thought to write like this, though English was long established as an Indian language and both Indian readers and Indian writers were familiar with its literary forms. The Bengali writer Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay published the first novel written by an Indian in English in 1864. The first English non-fiction by an Indian, in the form of Sake Dean Mahomed’s Travels, appeared even earlier, in 1794. And yet well into the second half of the last century India remained largely content to see itself as others saw it. There was official grumbling about the Western media ‘obsession’ with poverty and squalor – Louis Malle’s documentary TV series, Phantom India, attracted the greatest censure – and many Indian readers of Naipaul angrily contested his bleak analysis of their society. But the outsider version prevailed; its voice was stronger and more fluent than the writing that came out of India, and it was left to film-makers such as Satyajit Ray to illuminate the country’s life from the inside.

In 1980 Anita Desai became the first India-born and India-domiciled writer to have a novel selected for the Booker shortlist, her Clear Light of Day, but the big change came after Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children the following year. The charge could be laid against him that, as a product of an English private school and an ancient English university who had settled in London, he too was an outsider. But he had grown up in Bombay and didn’t approach his subject with a stranger’s eye. A new post-imperial generation recognized themselves in a novel that brilliantly evoked the India in which they’d come of age, and its worldwide success encouraged young Indian writers to see that their country not only offered important things to describe but also that they might be the best people to describe them.

At first, the impulse was almost entirely confined to fiction – the novel was the thing – but by the late 1990s one or two writers were publishing non-fiction that had a decidedly literary ambition. Granta’s India issue of 1997 introduced Arundhati Roy to Western readers with the first published extract from her novel, The God of Small Things, which later won the Booker. But just as importantly it published pieces by Urvashi Butalia and Suketu Mehta, both in their different ways reportorial, that laid the foundations for their fine books on partition and Bombay. In the years since, most forms of narrative non-fiction have found gifted practitioners in India. Pankaj Mishra, Samanth Subramanian, Aman Sethi, Basharat Peer, Ramachandra Guha: these are just a few of the names whose work has punctured the West’s near-monopoly on reportage, biography, popular history, the travel account and the memoir. The Caravan, a Delhi magazine devoted to long-form journalism, provided a platform for these writers after its relaunch in 2010 and deserves credit for persevering with a form that outside America has always had a small audience. As for Arundhati Roy, having published a prizewinning and best-selling novel, she promptly gave up fiction to become a polemical reporter and social activist. It would be wrong to make too much of that – to see her as exemplifying a trend. Nonetheless, it suggests that in India as elsewhere some questions are too urgent to be left to the novelist.

None of this eruption of literary non-fiction was very likely, if you believe in the general idea of a ‘national psyche’ and V.S. Naipaul’s view of a specifically Indian one. In India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul writes that ‘the Indian way of experiencing’ means that ‘the outer world matters only in so far as it affects the inner’. He was criticizing the self-absorption he saw in Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth and other rather worse autobiographies, which made their writers blind to landscape, architecture, other people and the weather. This was a typical Naipaulian generalization (Sam Miller has more to say about it in his piece for this issue) but perhaps it once contained a grain of truth. Even so, it was far from the only handicap. Another was the uncertainty that Indian writers in English felt about their audience – who were their readers, where did they live? To be published in London and New York was thought to be a necessary seal of approval, but how much did the European or North American reader know or care about India? How much contextualizing knowledge could a writer take for granted? ‘One critique of Indian writing in English is that we translate too much,’ wrote Amitava Kumar in The Caravan in May 2014. ‘Not simply that the humble samosa is described as a savoury food-item but that the narrative, like the menu in small Indian restaurants abroad, remains limited to the same familiar items. All too often, our writing is an act of translation on behalf of the West.’

This seems to me much less true than it once was. And if you were to ask what has caused the change, I would have to answer: ‘Mainly money.’ Whatever the other results of India’s economic liberalization, which began in 1991, it has enormously expanded the middle class and its disposable income. People can afford books. Books can offer a deeper understanding of a society in flux, which is trying to make sense of its past and present – deeper, that is, than the passing excitements of the mainstream media. They can also be fun. India has developed a bustling publishing industry, where once a few respectable imprints specialized in educational titles and refined works of socio-economic history. The Indian writer need no longer look over his shoulder at his imagined audience abroad; many if not most of his readers are much closer – are Indian like him and need no telling about samosas.

Publishing is prone to fashion, and an idea has got about that interesting fiction no longer comes out of India but that all its new non-fiction is tremendously good. Like all absolute ideas, this is nonsense. As well as reportage, history and memoir, this issue of Granta has fiction that stands comparison with anything in the past – lively poetry, too, and in the work of Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad a depictive art of memorable originality.

When I was travelling by train through India thirty and more years ago, so much of India’s present life was unimaginable. The change has been swift and is sometimes hard to take in. Patna, the capital of the eastern state of Bihar, for example: it was then a byword for all kinds of corruption and cruelty, usually described with the portmanteau adjective ‘backward’. In 1983, I had my appendix removed there in an emergency operation at a private hospital staffed by Christian nurses. ‘Thank God you weren’t taken to the state hospital,’ said a knowledgeable friend in Delhi. ‘You would never have come out alive.’

Now I’m going to Patna again. Of all the things it needed – decent sanitation, drinkable water, honest policemen – who would have guessed the latest aspect of its public life? To a city where I once bought Treasure Island as the most interesting book in a bookshop, I am returning for the Patna Literary Festival.


Patna Roughcuts