Indian Literature in English After Arundhati Roy

Ulka Anjaria in the Boston Review:

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Arundhati Roy

In June of 1997, on the verge of graduating from high school, I received an award for my study of foreign languages, a book wrapped in blue shiny paper. As I opened it, a small clipping from TIME slipped out—an article on an Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, whose novel was taking the literary world by storm. My prize was Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things (1997). I sat down to read it immediately.

On a visit to India the summer before, I had poked around bookshops desperately seeking out new fiction—something other than the requisite thin copy of Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) that seemed to be everywhere, dusty and unthumbed, the few books by Anita Desai and Gita Mehta, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1954), and a graying Sahitya Akademi translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chaturanga (1916). This was 1997 and, unlike today, most of Mumbai’s bookstores were hidden inside luxury hotels, Indian literature meant Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, and the bookshelves dedicated to India offered little more than old Lonely Planet volumes and coffee table books on the lives of the Maharajas. At age eighteen, I found Anand dry and Rushdie pompous. Desai and Mehta felt like they were writing for my parents’ generation. There was even something dull and unfashionable about the packaging of these books, most of which were published not in India but in England. Indian literature wasn’t cool—it was, somehow, embarrassing.

The God of Small Things changed all that. The idea that India could have a contemporary novel of its own, shorn of Anand’s unwieldy idioms or Markandaya’s awkward exoticisms, a novel whose writing style was new and fresh, whose irony and anger were youthful and contemporary, a novel that shouted rather than whispered, a novel by a young woman, was, to my mind, a revelation.

More here.

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