Why are so many Indian books about pickles? A tedious brand of Stalinist realism stalks subcontinental writing today. Akash Kapur on why Indian literature remains a genre in search of its own definition

The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature

Edited by Amit Chaudhuri <em>Picador, 653pp, £16.99</

Salman Rushdie, introducing The Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1997), declared Indian writing in English to be the strongest body of literature ever to have emerged from the subcontinent. The statement was vintage Rushdie - controversial, tendentiously self-serving. And much as his seminal novel Midnight's Children (1981) established the parameters of modern Indian literature, so his dubious assertion set the tone for the appraisal of that literature, igniting a fiery debate over the relationship between Indian writing and the Indian nation. The immediate aftermath was a barrage of indignant commentary on the virtues of vernacular literatures, and an often pious denigration of writing in English as alien and inauthentic ("export-quality prose", to cite Ashok Banker's uncharitable assessment of Pankaj Mishra's debut novel, The Romantics). The reaction to this commentary has been marked by an equally sanctimonious championing of hybridity: the self-appointed guardians of liberalism have struck back, making the case for India's long tradition of syncretism between east and west, arguing that English is as Indian as Hindi or Oriya or Tamil (not entirely incorrect, but facile in a country where three-quarters of the population live in the countryside and only 2 per cent speak English).

Amit Chaudhuri, in his introduction to The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, which includes writing in English and seven indigenous languages, says that "this anthology is not a riposte to any other anthology". It is probably wise to skirt the debate: the arguments are old, and the points of contention rather marginal to an understanding of Indian literature today. In many respects, the hand-wringing over authenticity and the tussle between the indigenous and the foreign are simply restatements of long-standing neuroses about the meaning of the nation and national identity. Indian politics, a whirlwind of equivocation between Gandhian atavism and Nehruvian modernism, is engulfed by such anxieties; there exists an excellent body of academic and political writing to turn to (Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India, for example, or Amartya Sen's recent forays into cultural criticism). But why drown literature in these often ponderous - and certainly intractable - arguments? A tedious brand of Stalinist realism stalks subcontinental writing today, reducing the imaginative outpourings of a billion people to their political and nationalist affiliations.

For the modern Indian writer, and particularly the writer of fiction, the problem is at once more urgent and more prosaic: the challenge is not so much to articulate the contours of national identity, but simply to get a job done, to pursue the craft of writing. Writers work within a tradition: T S Eliot portentously declared that poets must be set for comparison "among the dead"; V S Naipaul, tormented by the post-colonial's insecurity of writing for a metropolitan audience, points out that fiction works best "in a confined moral and cultural area, where the rules are generally known". An earlier generation of English-Indian writers dealt with this difficulty - the lack of a common context with their readers - in contradictory ways. Authors such as Rushdie (and, to a lesser extent, Vikram Seth) responded with an audacious ambition, painting tableaux so vast - "huge baggy monsters", in Chaudhuri's characterisation - that they encompassed the very context of modern India. Writers such as R K Narayan took the opposite path, resorting (much like Naipaul in his early fiction) to circumspection, a reliance on narrative and human universals that ignored the problem of context. Both approaches had their shortcomings: Rushdie's national narratives suffered from the occasional overspill, an unbearable loquaciousness in which the din of context muffled the story; Narayan's circumspection at times narrowed into silence, his south Indian portraits so pared down that there remained no life - no society, no politics, no economy - outside the narrative.

These are the pitfalls of writing across cultures, and they continue to trip up today's writers, a generation that has come to be known as midnight's grandchildren. The propensity to say too much or too little - the difficulty in reconciling indigenous reality with its English representation - is evidence of an inability to demarcate the boundaries of Naipaul's "confined moral and cultural area". Worlds collide in English-Indian writing, and the result is a literature that can feel dressed up in borrowed clothes: the easy cadences of south Indian village life are jolted by foreign concepts and sensibilities; the poetry of one language is flattened into the prose of another; and everyday objects are repackaged into totems of cultural significance for western consumption. ("Why are so many of these Indian books about pickles?" a friend once asked me, hitting inadvertently on the exoticising tendencies of Indian novelists.)

Champions of the vernacular overplay their hand when they call this literature "alien" or "un-Indian" (Indian reality is itself, after all, a rather tenuous bargain between worlds). But they would be right to point to a certain awkwardness, a self-estrangement, in a prose still struggling to find its own voice. Indian writing is today a genre in search of its own definition ("a signified that, paradoxically, almost has no presence", as Chaudhuri puts it in his introduction); and it is this lack of a tradition, not a perceived political unfaithfulness, that is the real crisis - or, at any rate, disorientation - for modern Indian writers.

The emerging cottage industry in anthologies is evidence of a burgeoning quest to fill this vacuum. Their growing bulge is probably evidence, too, of the difficulty of the quest: at nearly 700 pages, Chaudhuri's anthology is itself a bit of a "baggy monster", held together only loosely by a three-page "Note on the Selection", a series of shorter prefaces to the individual pieces, and two essays reprinted from the Times Literary Supplement. Yet this sprawl, which contrasts so sharply with Chaudhuri's own meticulously honed fiction, also begins to suggest a way out of the current impasse. In the breadth of this anthology, the warring camps of Indian literature are at last brought face to face. The result is a surprising reconciliation: it turns out that they are not so different after all; that vernacular writing, far from being an unrippled repository of tradition, is buffeted by the same disquietudes as writing in English.

The clash of worlds, and the difficulty with language, is apparent in the works of Urdu writers, who share the dilemma of writing in the imperial - and, post-Partition, the enemy - tongue. It is evident, too, in the section that Chaudhuri devotes to the Bengali renaissance, in the works of such writers as Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Sukumar Ray and Rabindranath Tagore. What is more interesting, however, is the way such themes run through the works of less self-consciously cosmopolitan authors than the Bengalis. The fictional extracts from the Kannada writer U R Anantha Murthy and his fellow south Indian, the Tamil writer C S Lakshmi (who appears under her pen-name of Ambai), are good examples. Both stories are about urban visitors to the countryside. In Murthy's story, a westernised narrator returns to his village, armed with incongruous Marxist ideas about progress and equality; in Ambai's story, a young woman arrives in a village to quiz a baffled older woman about her place in village society. Both stories end in uncertainty; in neither does the meeting of worlds go smoothly.

The doubts show up in the prose, too. Moving without being maudlin, touched by a profound psychological complexity, Murthy's and Ambai's pieces are among the best in the anthology. But Murthy's story stumbles, at times, on an overexplicitness, an insistence on explaining its rural subject matter to a (presumably) urban audience; and Ambai's stumbles on a certain opaqueness, a lack of explanation that makes the story difficult to follow for anyone not familiar with village life. Murthy, like Rushdie, tells too much, and Ambai, like Narayan, tells too little. All four are dealing with a common quandary: the difficulty of imposing narrative unity on a fragmented literary landscape. Indian vernacular literature, much like its English counterpart, is marked by a delicate balance between the modern and the traditional, the foreign and the indigenous, and the rural and the urban - significantly, because the internal gaps are as large as those between India and the west.

Anyone turning to this anthology in search of a tradition is likely to be rather bewildered by the bedlam of languages, themes and genres. But perhaps there is method in this madness. So many of the pieces in this collection suffer the same absence of a tradition that, at some point, it seems churlish to insist on calling it an absence. Murthy clothing rural south India in the uncomfortable garb of Marxism; Premchand, the father of Hindi realism, writing with subdued but evident affection about the Muslim culture and language that so influenced him; A K Ramanujan struggling, in English, to define "an Indian way of thinking" - either none of these works is authentic, or they are all authentic; either none of these authors is Indian, or they are all Indian. There is, after all, a certain consistency here, and it seems the fragmentation of Indian literature has been much exaggerated. Perhaps, the pieces in this anthology suggest when read together, the search for a tradition is the tradition.

This may explain some of the vibrancy of Indian writing today. Tradition gives life to writing; but tradition exaggerated becomes a hindrance, the seed of insularity. James Baldwin, another writer who struggled to reach across worlds, used to say that he was a commuter, not an emigre. Something similar could be said for many of the writers in this anthology, whose precarious position - hovering always between belonging to several places and belonging to none - allows them to reach a wider audience. Western publishers, fat off world rights, already know that English-Indian writers transcend boundaries. Chaudhuri's anthology, by drawing attention to the similarities rather than differences with vernacular literature, may at last awake them to the potential of the forgotten 98 per cent.

Akash Kapur, a contributing editor at Transition, writes for Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street