Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bookplanet: Arundhati Roy says she's going to write a novel again

1. Roy returns
Since her Booker win Arundhati Roy has stirred up controversy on a global scale. But will her return to fiction win back her Indian readers?
By Tishani Doshi/Guardian

Bringing up Arundhati Roy in certain Indian circles is a matter that requires great delicacy. The responses evoked are usually extreme: cat claws and meows on the one hand, or unabashed hero-worship on the other.

It wasn't always this way. When Roy won the Booker in 1997 she was the can-do-no-wrong darling of the Indian media. Her beauty, brains and brassiness catapulted her into supersonic stardom, and the entire country, whether or not they'd read The God of Small Things, waited to see what she would come up with next.

But Roy had no immediate plans for further fiction, and turned instead to non-fiction and grassroots activism. In her many speeches and essays she criticised the Indian government, multinational corporations, Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Lebanon, George W. Bush, and anything else that came into her line of fire. She gave away much of her prize money, found herself embroiled in a few court cases and spent one night in jail. She was criticized for being anti-Indian and anti-American, for not doing her homework, and for being generally quixotic and execrable.

Yet after a decade of active campaigning, Roy recently announced that she'll be returning to fiction. Apparently, she's tired of being "imprisoned by facts" and "having to get it right," so she's going back to what fiction writers do best - giving us a piece of the world the way they see it. Love it or lump it, it's up to you.

Since hearing the news, I've been going around with my Arundhati thermometer trying to gauge the general reaction here in India. It's been predictably mixed: fiery giddiness or ice-cold disdain, with a marginal number of standoffish "Let's see what she comes up with this time" comments thrown in for good measure.

Personally, I lean toward the giddy side, simply because I remember being enchanted by The God of Small Things, and struck by the eloquence of The Algebra of Infinite Justice. I'll be very interested to see how the last ten years have shaped Roy's fictional voice. But given that the action in her new book is set in Kashmir, I don't think controversy will be too far away.

I'm not sure why it is that in India we've made it a habit of loving to hate Ms Roy so much. Is it a male or a female issue? Is it because she overstepped the bounds of a fiction-writer? Is it just plain jealousy? What do you think?

2. Subcontinental shift
For many years India's literary culture has been focused on London and New York. But things may be changing
By Kathleen McCaul/Guardian

Kiran Desai's Booker-winning novel The Inheritance of Loss has been a bestseller in India for weeks now. It is displayed proudly in upmarket bookshops. Bootleg copies are brandished by boys, weaving in and out of traffic light fumes. These boys can't read, but they know what everyone wants: "Kiran book".

"The Booker is huge here - India cares for it in a deep, fierce way. It's like Miss Universe. We think it is our own prize because so many Indians have won it and there is a disproportionate amount of interest within the country because of it," explains Jeet Thayil, a poet and novelist who lives in Delhi.

The Inheritance of Loss is largely based in India, where Desai lived until she was 14. She now lives in America, making her the latest in a line of very successful non-resident Indian (NRI, in the customary acronym) writers. Although India basks in the limelight of such NRIs as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, their ability to portray India from abroad has been questioned. Another NRI, Vikram Chandra writes about being hounded by a Delhi English professor for his use of Hindi words. Now Kiran Desai's "Indianess" has been scrutinized by the Indian media.

"There's been a fair bit of chatter about why she italicised Hindi words and didn't wear a sari to the prize-giving, whether she pandered too much to a western audience," admits Tishani Doshi, a writer who is based in the subcontinent. Doshi lives in Madras and her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers will be published by Bloomsbury soon. She feels living in India is essential to her creativity.

"I have more friends in London than here, but the quality of my work is much clearer, much purer in India than in England. What I felt when I came back home was I can be a writer and I didn't know that in London," she said.

Altaf Tyrewalla, whose novella No God in Sight was released last year to critical acclaim, lives in Bombay. He found it impossible to write as an NRI.

"I don't know how, for instance, I could write from the perspective of an imaginary butcher in a chicken shop if I wasn't also suffering the humidity like him, suffering the noise of a ghetto like him, and yet trying, like him, to think amidst this discomfort, this cacophony ... Midway through writing No God In Sight, I went to New York to be with my fiancée (now wife), hoping to continue with the novel there. I assumed I could write anywhere, that I could stretch my imagination wide enough to surmount the distance of thousands of kilometres. I was back in Mumbai in two months. It was a very expensive misadventure."

Nevertheless, many homegrown writers have moved abroad - and Nilanjana Roy, one of India's foremost literary critics, can understand why. "For the Indian writer working in English, going abroad was one way to reach the marketplace, to lessen the very considerable distance between publishers, editors and agents in the west and the writer at 'home'," she says. "Vikram Chandra and Amit Chaudhuri teach at universities abroad; other writers have shifted because they have access to better jobs, more scholarships."

Delhi-based reviewer Hirsh Sawhney agrees, believing these opportunities essential for success. "India continues to produce some of the world's most talented English-language writers but many homegrown novelists only make it big after moving abroad - Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh ... The exception is Arundhati Roy and she hasn't written a novel since bagging the Booker. There aren't as many literary institutions in India so writers aren't challenged to produce better work - aren't nurtured."

But the Booker Prize has affected the future of Indian novelists. Arundhati Roy's Booker prize win in 1997 sparked an interest in Indian writing which has led to many new publishing houses being set up. The fact that this year's Booker prize winner is yet another NRI does not matter to Jeet Thayil.

"There is no difference between non-resident and resident writers now. I see it as one body of work," he claims. "If you are a 21-year-old writer living in some little town in India and you read everything you can get your hands on and really learn your craft you have every chance of being published in New York."

In fact, many NRIs such as Thayil are moving back to India to write. He spent years in America as a journalist and poet but returned home to work on his first novel. "I wouldn't have been able to work full time on a book in America because there's no question of living there without a job," he explains. "You need the health insurance."

Now, working on his book in a wi-fi Delhi cafe, an espresso by his side, Thayil doesn't seem to be missing America much. "Things have changed tremendously in India - when I left in the 1990s there was little possibility of a literary life. There were few publishers and prizes. Now there's a thriving literary scene."

Rana Dasgupta is another writer who signals a reversal of the expatriate template. His father is Indian but he was bought up in Britain and worked for a New York marketing company before moving to Delhi, where he began to write. His novel, Tokyo Cancelled, was published in 2005. "Something of the Indian spirit informs what I do. There are people coming from abroad to Delhi to work in publishing and journalism - it's becoming a cosmopolitan city," he says.

The social side of literature, too, seems to be thriving. Jaipur, the famously pink city in the middle of the Rajasthan desert, held its second literature festival last month. Despite the remote location, prominent writers such as Salman Rushdie, Sukethu Metha and Kiran Desai all made the journey from America to be there. David Godwin, the agent responsible for both Desai and Arundhati Roy, came from London. But he wasn't looking for his next Indian prizewinner and didn't sign any authors.

"Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things was exceptional. All Booker winners are exceptional. You can't judge these things. But there have been amazing changes in publishing and India has a more mature literary culture. There is the beginning of branching out into genres and regions," he said.

Critic Nilanjana Roy also attended the Jaipur festival. "It's always difficult to predict literary success, but I'm greatly interested in the work of Tishani Doshi, Altaf Tyrewala and Siddharth Chowdhury, in Jeet Thayil's forthcoming novel and in Ruchir Joshi's second novel-in-progress," she said. "I like the way that other literary genres have begun to open up - Anushka Ravishankar does excellent children's writing, Kalpana Swaminathan writes detective stories, Samit Basu spins fantasy Indian-style."

No one in India has pinpointed the next homegrown prize-winning writer, but Desai's NRI win seems to confirm, rather than undermine, the place of novelists writing in India now. They appear confident that there are new things to say, that people are interested when they say them, and that they can produce books as good as writers living in the west. In fact, they are beginning to write back to the west: perhaps the next big book to come out of India will have nothing to do with the country. Pankaj Mishra's new book is about China and Rana Dasgupta's second novel, written from Delhi, is set in Bulgaria.

"I have a lot of pressure from my publishers to write about India," he admits, but "it is a colonial hangover in publishing to think that writers in India, Africa and the Caribbean must write about their home cultures while writers from the West could write about anywhere. Mature literary cultures should feel like they can write about the world."


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