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Golden age of Indian writing: How a new generation of writers is making waves in South Asia

Writers are finding inspiration in the furiously evolving societies and encouragement in a buoyant book market, says Andrew Buncombe

Friday 17 July 2009 00:00 BST

There was a time, not so long ago, when a visit to a Delhi bookshop to browse its section of Indian literature would be a somewhat depressing experience. There would a handful of stellar stand-out names, of course; Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and one or two others. But the collection would be a half-hearted affair, seemingly there more out of duty than joy, and usually it would be hidden away at the back of the shop.

"Now, that has all completely changed," laughs V K Karthika, publisher and chief editor of HarperCollins India. "Now those books are at the front of the shop. What's more, they're actually the books you want to read, rather than the books you read because you feel you should."

For more than a decade, a period bookended by Arundhati Roy's Booker prize success in 1997 with The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga's similar achievement last year, India has been enjoying an English language literary boom. A newly buoyant middle-class, better travelled, more curious and with more disposable income, has been devouring books like never before. Almost every year now it appears that there is a new trend – pulp fiction one year, chick-lit "sari fiction" the next – as Indian publishers find new ways to tap into the market and reach out to more readers.

But more lately, this growth is spilling out across the hot and angry borders of the sub-continent. New writers from Bangladesh are finding appreciative international audiences, while the frisson surrounding the new literary scene in Pakistan that has produced a handful of exiting new authors, matches the buzz that India first experienced a decade ago.

In India, the growth seems more obviously apparent in the sheer variety of genres that now fill the shelves. There is more fiction, non-fiction and travel writing than ever before; between them, the major publishers now annually produce around 600 new titles each year. But within these broad headings there is huge diversity that would not have been imaginable a few years ago. Today's India is producing crime novels, comic-strip books, and memoirs such as Maximum City, Suketu Mehta's seminal account of Mumbai. There are books set around the campus's of the country's famed technology institutes, and there are books about young Indian women smoking, drinking and falling in love with hapless, inappropriate men.

"I am not sure that publishers are just looking for young writers – after all, everyone is young at some point," says Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, a journalist and writer of an originally anonymous Sex and the City-style blog whose first novel, You Are Here, was published last year. "But publishers seem to want new things. Ever since I can remember they have been looking for new things. So there are many new genres."

One change that the market has noticed is that while the expanded literary market place may have been created by economic liberalism and a more globalised India, many among the new stable of Indian writers are not looking beyond their own shores. Indeed, many of the novels and non-fiction works now being produced might be a struggle for international readers to relate to.

Industry experts point out that previously, with the exception of writers such as Shobha De and Khushwant Singh, Indian writers looking to make a literary career would have to aim for international success. That, however, is no longer the case. With the domestic Indian market now sufficiently strong, new writers can concentrate on what they want to write about rather than what they think they must write about.

"I think it is a very healthy sign that many new writers are satisfied to write for local audiences and don't try to cater to foreign tastes," says Mumbai-based Amit Varma, another journalist-turned -author whose first novel, My Friend, Sancho was nominated for last year's Man Asian Literary Prize. "This is exactly as it should be, and reflects a new self-confidence in our writers. In any case, a story well told is a story well told, and knows no boundaries. The best new writing might well consist of local stories, but it travels well, as all good writing does."

As to how it is to be a writer today in India, he adds: "There are few better places to be a writer than in the subcontinent. The 21st century co-exists with the 19th here, and tradition clashes with modernity all the time, around us and in the choices that we make. It's a time of great change and conflict, and this is fascinating for any writer to document. There is no shortage of compelling human stories around us to inspire us."

And of course, amid this broadening pool of work, the already established writers are producing new, convincing work. Amitav Ghosh's dense, erudite Sea of Poppies, the first part of what will be a trilogy, was last year nominated for the Booker that Adiga eventually won. Also last year, Rushdie produced The Enchantress of Florence. Meanwhile, just weeks ago, Vikram Seth announced that he was working on a sequel to his post-Independence epic, A Suitable Boy. The follow-up, due to be completed by 2011, is to be titled A Suitable Girl and will be set in contemporary India. "There are many, many changes in Indian society but many things remain the same," he recently told The Independent. "The greatest pleasure will be to get back in touch with the characters and find out what has happened to them."

Yet for all the creativity taking place in India, it may be that the hottest "new thing" in South Asia is currently beyond its borders. Ravi Singh, publisher of Penguin India, says the buzz in Pakistan and even Bangladesh, where Tahmima Anam's debut, A Golden Age, had success in last year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize, was especially exciting. "In that sense it is a golden age for the subcontinent," says Singh. "In India, things are expanding because there is so much more of a market."

In Pakistan in particular, he adds, the last couple of years have seen an explosion of new talent, seemingly emerging after years of military rule and yet writing against the backdrop of the persistent threat from militancy. Among the writers who have drawn international acclaim are Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin. Moni Mohsin found success in both Pakistan and India with her comic The Diary of a Social Butterfly.

"We've had very good writers in Pakistan for some years, but there is greater interest now," Mueenuddin, whose well-received collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was published this year, said in a recent interview with Reuters. "Pakistan's in the news a lot, so people are curious. I'm sure there are some great writers in Latvia, but who's heard of them?"

East for the eyes... Ten great books to come from the Indian subcontinent

The Algebra of Infinite Justice By Arundhati Roy

Of course, The God of Small Things is Roy's famed masterpiece, but this collection of campaigning journalism is marvellous – powerful and compassionate.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes By Mohammed Hanif

A dry, droll and insightful look into the Pakistani establishment, the world of the military and the demise of the dictator Zia ul-Haq.

Curfewed Night By Basharat Peer

An elegant if sad memoir about Kashmir and the horror and violence that have befallen the once-peaceful valley and its people.

The Hungry Tide By Amitav Ghosh

A hugely descriptive narrative set in the water-filled Sundarbans delta, with the ever-present threat from maneaters never far away. A remarkably researched work.

Neither Night nor Day

A rare insight into many different worlds of Pakistan in this collection of women's short stories edited by Rakhshanda Jalil.

India after Gandhi Ramachandra Guha

This is the seminal history of India's past 60 years and provides the vital background for the changes currently transforming parts of Indian society.

The Inheritance of Loss By Kiran Desai

A powerfully descriptive novel using landscape as a major character – in this case, the hills of Darjeeling and the battle for a Gorkha homeland.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist By Mohsin Hamid

A Pakistani man lets his heart pour out to an American visitor in a café, in a telling insight into the psychosis of a moderate Muslim in the post-9/11 world.

The White Tiger By Aravind Adiga

A gripping account of the "dark" side of India, the poor, impoverished people who live outside of the bubble of the newly wealthy urban middle class.

Palpasa Café By Narayan Wagle

A clever and original novel set amid the death and fear of the Maoist guerrilla war in Nepal that lasted for more than 10 years.

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