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

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis