The Mag This Week

It’s Breaking The Bow‘s weekend. Yesterday, Lounge carried a grumpy review of the volume of short stories inspired by the Ramayana and on Sunday, Sanjay Sipahimalani’s review is in the Sunday DNA books page. Neither of them liked it wholeheartedly but have given Breaking the Bow points for trying. If you see the actual paper, you’ll see the intro to Sanjay’s review, which I rather like. For those of you who are not seeing the actual paper, voila:

Snooki = Surpanakha is an equation that is giving me proper giggles. And this is without having ever watched Jersey Shore. I do like the idea of Sita as a Mrs. Smith-esque character. (I confess, I haven’t read the volume myself but it’s on my Himalayan to-read pile.)

Also in today’s Books page, Joanna Lobo reviews The Green Room by Wendell Rodricks. She was not wildly impressed. There’s also a sidebar that gives you the basics about the books that won this year’s The Economist Crossword Book Awards. Best non-fiction went to A Free Man, which is excellent. There were two winners of the best translation award — The Araya Woman by Narayan and 17 by Anita Agnihotri. I haven’t read either, but 17 is translated by Arunava Sinha and he always does a wonderful job. The best popular fiction award went to Ravi Subramaniam’s The Incredible Banker. I’m almost as perplexed by the need to have an award to establish a book is popular as I am by Anuradha Roy’s The Folded Earth being declared more deserving of the best fiction award than, for instance, River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh or The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya or Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. Good for Roy, though.

Finally, I have a little column in there, pegged to the longlisted titles for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The 16 titles in the longlist are here. The unsnipped version of the column is below.

Fiction found its mojo

Almost no one will admit this on record, but more often than not, Indian publishers despair at the submissions they receive and those who regularly read Indian writing in English complain that it’s boring.

There may be much excitement at the idea of India as a new and promising market, but the titles that gladden both readers’ and publishers’ hearts are usually imports. It isn’t just facts like Harry Potter is the mother of bestselling kiddie fiction in India — after all, it’s a global phenomena — but that we haven’t managed to produce follow-ups, like the books by Rick Riordan which are quite obviously the same premise as Harry Potter and yet distinctive. (And often way more fun, if you ask me.) No such examples from this part of the globe. If you’re a fan of fiction, like me, Indian writing in English can often be a crushing experience. Not only because its quality is inconsistent, but because the nonfiction we write is frequently a better read.

When it comes to fiction by Indian authors, there are some standard complaints: the themes feel hackneyed, the styles are unexciting, the language is either bland or overwrought. There must be at least one woman who is beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage. A dominating father is another regular feature as is the dust of poetic melancholia that usually coats large tracts of storytelling. Particularly in the past couple of years, Indian novels have seemed particularly mediocre next to fiction from other parts of the world and the impressive list of nonfiction titles by Indian writers. There was more creativity and literary flair in books that were supposed to be research-driven, even when they tackled dreary subjects.

A few months into 2011, however, it looked like the tide may be changing. Now, ten months into 2012, there’s no doubt about it: Indian writing in English has unslumped. If you thought recent releases like The Illicit Happiness Of Other People and The Wildings were one-offs, the longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature that was announced last week is proof that fiction has regained some serious mojo.

Sixteen books have been nominated and they show how impressive this past year’s crop of fiction has been. I can’t remember the last time I’ve liked approximately 90 per cent of a longlist. From The Wandering Falcon (which has a backstory as fabulous as the printed stuff. Read the beginning of this review by Kamila Shamsie) to the wonderful The Walls of Delhi, the selection has titles that are insightful, sophisticated, challenging and not at all boring. Fittingly for a prize meant for South Asian literature, there’s a neat mix of nationalities in there as well (last year was monotonously Indian).

Some of Pakistani fiction’s brightest stars, like Mohammed Hanif, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Jamil Ahmed have made the cut. If you’re among those who wonders what all the fuss is about when it comes to Pakistani writing in English, read the books by these three authors in the DSC Prize’s longlist. The variety of tones, settings, characters and storytelling styles will make you marvel at these authors’ staggering talent but also make you think long and hard about the country in which their novels are set. The desi diaspora is well-represented through Niven Govinden, Roopa Farooki and Sunetra Gupta. A couple of translations have made the cut; Bangladesh gets a look-in, thanks to Tahmima Anam.

Hearteningly, the Indian authors in the longlist are all worthy nominees who hold their own next to the foreign competition. Myths, madness, opium, cricket — it’s a vibrant, glistening bunch of themes in the Indian novels. They introduce us to characters we haven’t seen too often in Indian fiction: Parsis who love Shanghai more than Mumbai, a journalist who longs for real adventure and gets it, a mother who quicksilvers between sanity and madness, a eunuch opium addict who is as hungry for stories as she is for her next fix. Most of them are books that you’ll be happy to re-read. Even if most of them aren’t necessarily funny, they are that much fun.

The jury panel for the DSC Prize has quite a task ahead of it as the judges whittle the list down to six and finally pick one winner. Chances are one reviewer or the other will go off the rails because almost every longlisted book has its own fan club. For example, if due to some madness Em And The Big Hoom doesn’t make it to the shortlist, I’ll have some angry words for the judges. At present, though, rage is the last thing on my mind. It’s time to celebrate — the storytellers are back on top.

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