I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard/participated in discussions about the sad lack of solid, no-frills writing about contemporary life in India – the lack of stories about the experiences and concerns of a readily identifiable generation of people, told without faux-exoticisation, without pandering to a western market. But some things are always worth hearing again, so here’s a fine article by Jaideep Varma in today’s Times of India: "Why the Indian English Publishing Scene is Worse than Bollywood".
Most of Varma’s points are good ones (and as a debutant novelist with a low-profile publisher, he certainly has reason to be upset about the lack of attention given by media to the Small Books) but I have to wonder where he got the idea (expressed in the last para of the piece) that Indian literary blogs have a reputation for being progressive alternatives to the mainstream. This is certainly true of lit-blogs internationally (my first-choice literary news sources today are blogs like Maud Newton, The Elegant Variation and The Reading Experience over even The New Yorker and The Guardian). But the only Indian literary blogs worth the name that I know of are Kitabkhana and The Middle Stage, both of which have not been updated too frequently in recent months (and maybe a couple of other link-oriented ones like Prufrock’s Page). And it’s worth remembering that the authors of these sites, Hurree Babu and Chandrahas Choudhury, also review extensively in the mainstream. In fact Ravi Singh, the Penguin India publisher, recently told me that while he enjoyed reading some lit-blogs, he felt that we all often seemed to be saying the same things – perhaps because we are the same small group of reviewers who write for the mainstream as well. So it’s unfair to first put literary blogs on a pedestal that they haven’t staked any claim to, and then diss them for not providing enough of an alternative to mainstream media. The Indian litblogosphere hasn’t reached such lofty heights yet.
BTW, Hurree Babu and Chandrahas are friends of mine and I think they’ll agree that the literary community is an incestuous little hellhole. But given that we are regularly bombarded with new titles from the big publishers (some of which, Jaideep, are genuinely good books); given that we have very limited review space in mainstream media and limited time to blog about new titles; that we can only read so many books in a week, and that this number includes older books read for pleasure rather than for work: given all this, we’re doing the best we can. Yes, it is a pity that smaller titles get lost in what must, to the outsider, seem like a dreadful publisher-media-blogger nexus – but realistically that scenario won’t change until newspapers decide that they can dedicate more than one page a week to books. Maybe that will open the floodgates and you’ll then see many more dedicated reviewers of the quality of Nilanjana, Chandrahas and Uma – both in MSM and in the blogosphere.
Anyway, the above discussion is my cue to put up a couple of related mini-reviews. Varma’s own recently published Local was an attempt to fill this very large gap in Indian writing in English (or IWE – yes I know, I dislike that term as much as you do!). It’s the story of Akash, a copywriter in an ad agency in Mumbai who hits on the idea of spending his nights entirely on Western Line trains – this being cheaper than renting an apartment and not as inconvenient as you might think, assuming you can cope with shady characters and irregular sleep patterns (trains must be switched in the middle of the night: walking on the overbridge connecting the platforms, Akash has “the tangible sense of moving from yesterday to tomorrow”). Local is a provocative account of life in a bustling metropolis and of the madness of the advertising industry. It’s occasionally uneven longer than it should have been and needs better editing, but it’s very readable on the whole.
And another such book I see a lot of promise in is Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut, which I’m halfway through. It’s about the lives of a disparate group of people in Patna’s Kadam Kuan and while the narrative structure has elements resembling magic realism, the writing has a pulse and rhythm very suited to the book’s setting.
P.S. Not directly related, but also read Nilanjana’s latest Speaking Volumes: "Dial B for Bestseller". What she says at the end - “better editors please” - might seem obvious but it’s extremely important, both in terms of editors willing to approve manuscripts that don’t fit in the time-tested categories and in terms of better sub-editing on those manuscripts (tighter editing would have made Local a better book, for instance).
P.P.S. And oh, don’t get me started on book titles: the depressing stock of words like “spice”, “cinnamon”, “frangipani” and many others that are invariably used by publishers to accentuate a book’s exoticism – even when, as Varma points out, the actual writing eschews exotica.
P.P.S. If I've overlooked any good Indian lit-blogs, a thousand apologies. Send me the link.