Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

When a journalist came to interview Rana Dasgupta at his house in Delhi, the writer proved a huge disappointment to the hack. Put bluntly, the internationally lauded author of Tokyo Cancelled turned out to be simply too short for his status. Surely an Indian success story ought to be some well-muscled giant to match the world-conquering titans of boardroom, pitch or software lab. After all, even a scribbler who wins acclaim abroad counts as "someone who has struggled physically to get a piece of the market".

From Amit Chaudhuri to Aamer Hussein, Nadeem Aslam to William Dalrymple, writers of varying dimensions met in Delhi last weekend to size up the state of literary culture in India and Britain. Aptly enough, the authors, publishers and journalists gathered for the first Kitab Festival found themselves among the truly pharaonic red-brick blocks of the India Habitat Centre, a sort of mega-Barbican looming over the green lawns and shady avenues of Lodhi in south Delhi. In this city, the cliches and concepts of fast-track globalisation take on almost comically blatant shapes. Worried authors could stroll across the courtyard and carry on fretting about the threat that English-speaking homogenisation poses to local culture and creativity at the All-American Diner, to a soundtrack of Dylan and Elvis. They also serve a lovely cup of spiced masala chai.

The writers at Kitab had passionately mixed feelings about the Indian story now sold around the world: what Dasgupta called "a massive escalation of confidence and ambition,... which percolates into all other areas of life". For Amit Chaudhuri, Indian writers have been co-opted into a simplistic "narrative of success" in which English-language fiction joins movies or software as high-value exports for the global bazaar. To Dasgupta, the role of writers is precisely to resist the consumer-driven hubris of the Indian boom. Instead they should give us "images of a viable future, and ideas of happiness that are frugal rather than enormously exploitative". Were the Delhi glitterati, cavorting at India Fashion Week, listening? Unlikely.

At least one writer - and perhaps the most celebrated of all - has dropped out altogether from the Indian fiction-for-export business. Arundhati Roy was very prominent in the Delhi media last week, although not in a literary frame. As she has done for years, she spoke up in support of the protesting villagers displaced by the huge Narmada Dam project. Their raggle-taggle rebel army is now camped beside the Jantar Mantar observatory in the swanky heart of commercial New Delhi. Roy the social activist has (literally) chosen to stand up against the floods of modernity rather than update her global brand with a sequel to The God of Small Things. Some people here deeply admire her; others can't grasp why she should decline to make another killing on the literary stock exchange.

Behind many of the doubts and fears that make authors reluctant to endorse a crude, uplifting fable about Indian success lies the question of language. To stand a chance of triumph overseas means to write in English: a minority tongue whose social power stirs envy and resentment. Pavan Varma, author of the brilliant polemic Being Indian, spoke of the "debilitating shadow of English that overwhelms a lot of worthwhile stuff that's being written in other languages". As Anglophone writing swells in its fame and reach, so older traditions seem to shrink. Varma revealed that the latest book by a prize-winning writer in Oriya (the language of Orissa) had sold all of 743 copies. English-language culture partners the aspiration to think big and walk tall on a global stage. Dwarfed by the hulking towers and vast ambitions around them, many writers at Kitab craved a change of size, and pace. At least some of India's literary heavyweights feel that it's time to rediscover the good of small things.