Skip to main content

Forster to Naipaul to Vishal Bhardwaj … the living bridge of UK-India literary links is unparalleled

By January 30, 2019No Comments

Source : TOI Blog

Literature plays a special role in the life of a diplomat. When preparing to live overseas – in a place you might never have visited – losing oneself in a novel set in that country is always the best preparation. Reading remains the best way to understand a country’s rich background, its future challenges – and often its relationship with the UK.

The problem with India is the daunting breadth and depth of literature available. Whether it be the proliferation of Indian-heritage authors in the UK, translated works of Indian greats, or the eloquent evocations of both nationalities journeying across borders, the living bridge of UK-India literary links is unparalleled. From EM Forster to Amit Chaudhuri, numerous great authors have written stories of leaving and returning. Accounts like these help us make sense of new places and issues; to demystify them; to make the unfamiliar familiar.

Writers of Indian origin have a huge influence in the UK literature sector: there have been no fewer than five Booker Prize winners of Indian descent (from VS Naipaul’s In a Free State in 1971 to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger in 2008). Writers of Indian origin also play a leading role in UK literary and academic life – Chaudhuri, for example, is currently Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia.



British authors are well loved in India too, as any trip to Daryaganj Sunday book market in Old Delhi will confirm. Whilst it may not be standard practice in the UK to sell books by the kilogram, many of the authors and titles laid out across the pavements and stacked high on trestle tables are often the same ones that grace bookshelves in homes, schools and libraries across the UK. In the other direction, i’m delighted to see more great works from India translated into English – HarperCollins’s new Perennial collection of stories (all translated from Indian languages) is a great example of new storytelling.

The dialogue between our literary histories is extremely important. Far more than just a creative tool, great literature educates and informs; creates opportunity; provides insight; and drives innovation. It also has the power to bring different disciplines together: the JCB Prize for Literature is an excellent example of industry recognising the value of the arts, supporting greater visibility for modern Indian writing across different languages.

Above all, literature creates a shared community and shared experience. Take the powerful adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies recast in India in recent years: We That Are Young, British Indian Preti Taneja’s retelling of King Lear set in modern India; or Vishal Bhardwaj’s films adapting Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello.

This dialogue happens on an interpersonal level too. Last year an organisation in the Outer Hebrides worked with the Apeejay Literary Festival in Kolkata and the Edinburgh International Book Festival on a writers’ exchange project based on the life and work of Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India (born in Stornoway, died in Calcutta). Scottish writers carried out a week long residency in Kolkata and collaborated with Indian counterparts.

The depth of this cultural connection is unsurprising. UK publishing is a cornerstone of our creative industries. Nearly 200 million books were sold in the UK last year and the industry is worth £5.7 billion. And whilst the UK remains the largest exporter of physical books in the world, the UK Publishers Association noted last year that “India has to have the most exciting publishing industry in the world”.

According to a 2015 Nielsen Report, India is the second largest English language print book market in the world, with over 9,000 publishers producing 90,000 books annually. According to some estimates, an incredible 94% of global content passes through India at some publishing stage.

Without doubt, literature is one of the mainstays of the ‘Living Bridge’ between India and UK – a term first used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to capture the unique exchange of people, culture and ideas between our two countries. The strong UK delegation at this year’s Jaipur literature festival was a great example of that – with household names like Jeffrey Archer playing a central role – but our shared affection for literature, and shared reference points, has also helped to create the living bridge which is so strongly maintained today. Long may it continue.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.