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Why we should never give up our quest to find (or write) the Great Indian Novel

By August 27, 2018No Comments

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The term is a contentious one for many good reasons, but it opens up discussions about what we should demand from publishers and from works of fiction.

To resurrect the not-quite-dead debate around “The Great Indian Novel” is to invite a monsoon-like deluge of conflicting opinions, from readers to publishing gatekeepers, around the definition and significance of each word in that phrase.

Yet, every few years, there is a slowly gathering literary congestus of blurbs and reviews with generously scattered flurries of this term. In 2018, a fine, oblique drizzle seems to have begun with synonymous superlatives.

As usual, there are two marked features of such invocations. First, the term appears mostly in reference to novels by male writers. The year 2017 saw three Indian novels by women writers that were acclaimed nationally and internationally: Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You; Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young; and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.Yet, only that last novel drew direct references to The Great Indian Novel, or TGIN. This year, 2018, has been one of slim pickings so far for the novel. Reviewers seem to be pointing toward Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone, and, due to the Netflix adaptation, resurrecting Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games from 2006. Which brings us to the second feature – there is still no consensus about what this contentious term actually means.

Why we need to talk about it

The American equivalent of the term, The Great American Novel (TGAN), was coined about 150 years ago in an essay for The Nation by novelist John William DeForest. The most recent public debate occurred when the LA Times ran a TGAN series with recommendations from their critics-at-large. Most notably, author Laila Lalami questioned the meaning of every word in the phrase and Marlon James dismissed the exercise as pointless and potentially harmful. There have been several such arguments for and against TGAN and the term is often used pejoratively or satirically.

That said, one reason the West can now afford to turn away from their longtime TGAN debates is that, compared to India, their literary and alt-literary environment is thriving somewhat better. Also, especially in the UK and the US, literary discussions have moved on to other pressing topics like women’s writing and diversity across sociocultural groups, especially minority voices. Of course, these have come to the forefront simply because earlier TGAN debates were as bias-ridden and white male-centric as other canonical ones, therefore failing in what Viet Thanh Nguyen recently called “narrative plenitude”.

In India, where literacy rates are still lower than desired and school syllabi across the country still lack substantial literary fare, it may seem anachronous to ask for such discussions. It would also be difficult to argue that any single novel can fully represent the universal Indian experience – India is many different things to each of us. However, a wider, public discussion in the TGIN frame can enable us to explore more critically, as a society, what we need from enduring works of creative writing. Like all human creations – film, music, art, architecture, science, technology – the fictional works of our times are sociocultural, historical, and political artifacts reflecting our experiences, desires, conflicts, and potential.

As our world takes rapid, unforeseen, complicated turns, this kind of ongoing scrutiny, especially across diverse communities, not just publishing gatekeepers, is crucial to fight off sociocultural inertia and stagnation.

Where India differs

All of the pros and cons of The Great American Novel could easily apply to the Indian context, with three added convolutions.

First, we have vast literatures in multiple languages and spanning several centuries. Does it even make sense to assess a regional language novel – which has its own literary tradition separate from the Western-influenced one of English novels – with the same benchmarks, standards, and parameters?

Second, given the grave consequences that are often faced by writers for exploring certain socio-political truths in India, some have taken to self-censorship. Publishing gatekeepers, especially the influential ones, seem to be mostly apathetic and worryingly silent about this. A candidate for TGIN may well be sitting unpublished or, worse, unfinished in a writer’s locked desk.

Third, it is a commonly-known fact within the mainstream Indian publishing ecosystem that editors are not able to commission or publish novels their sales teams do not green-light. The justifications are endless: the Indian literary market is too fragmented by language and genre; readers prefer commercial fiction or celeb-lit or nonfiction; the industry is too incestuous, leading to favouritism; gender/class/caste/religion biases are deeply-entrenched even if unconscious; and so on.

To an extent, some or all of this happens in other countries too. In India, however, this has stifled groundbreaking innovation and creativity in fiction even more because of the longtime hegemony of a handful of large publishing houses and the insufficient number of innovative, risk-taking independent presses. Consider, for example, how both the fiction works on the 2018 Shakti First Book Prize shortlist were first published outside India by independent presses (and went on to win awards): We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (published by Galley Beggar Press, UK; winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize) and Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (published by Restless Books, US; winner of the Restless Books Prize).

The Great Indian Novel (in English)

Despite, and perhaps because of, the above roadblocks, perhaps it is easier to focus this debate on The Great Indian Novel in English, including, of course, translations of novels from other languages. After all, English is also an Indian language, to which our many other languages have contributed generously.

As for the usual argument about it being the colonialist language of the oppressors, we should ask ourselves, “which language has not been the oppressor’s tongue,” as Sujata Bhatt once wrote in her poem, “A Different History.

Further, as Agha Shahid Ali once said:

“I think, we in the subcontinent, have been granted a rather unique opportunity: contribute to the English language in ways that the British, the Americans, the Australians, also the Canadians, cannot. We can do things with the syntax that will bring the language alive in rich and strange ways …”

— Arvind Mehrotra’s introduction in ‘The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets’

This is far from a new debate. Salman Rushdie wrote in the introduction of his prose anthology Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing: 1947-1997that Indian prose in English was “stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India”. Amit Chaudhuri responded by editing another prose anthology, The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, where he selected and defended works in other regional languages as well as English. VS Naipaul, who recently passed away, said and wrote many characteristically colourful things about Indian writing in English and other languages.

What is “great”?

But what exactly constitutes “great”? With all its synonymous glories, it is a frustratingly generic and subjective descriptor. To steer the dialogue into fertile territories, we need a suitable benchmark for TGINE: a novel that could work best as a widely-agreed upon measure of quality and an appropriate standard to compare against until a new novel proves worthy enough to take its place or we have to recalibrate to a different benchmark.

For many (English) readers of my generation and older, the big novel that first spoke to and for us was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. To date, it embodies the many layers, colours, flavours, textures, voices, desires, aspirations, joys, struggles, successes, losses, and failures of India and being Indian at a certain time like no other. Balancing nuanced plot and prose with compelling substance and style, it set a very high bar. There have been many exceptional Indian novels before and since but, arguably, none has been as audacious and brilliant in portraying the country’s geo-political troubles, sociocultural fabric, and collective conscience.

Still, it is a novel by a male writer with an elite Cambridge pedigree. Let us consider it then only as a benchmark, not an absolute target. Novels less grand in scope than Rushdie’s can and should earn the TGINE label. In her essay collection, No Time to Spare, Ursula K Le Guin, wrote about TGAN: “…its special quality is to outlast the moment and carry immediacy, impact, meaning, undiminished or even increasing with time, to ages and people entirely different from those the novelist wrote for.” Smaller-canvas novels, especially by writers from marginalised communities, can also embody this special quality.

Special quality

But how is this “special quality” achieved? How do we know it when we come across it? Here are some proposed parameters – not definitive or exhaustive – with which we might examine potential candidates:

  • Does the novel capture relevant historical, sociocultural, and geopolitical contexts through a multi-dimensional narrative? Because India is too maddeningly diverse for anything less.
  • Does the novel pay as much attention to the nuances, subtleties, and complexities of language, tempo, and narrative style as to the story, characters, settings, and themes? Because our rich multilingual heritage is alive with entire histories and ways of being that must carry over well into Indian English too (and, indeed, go beyond carrying over if we pay heed to Agha Shahid Ali).
  • Does the novel innovate with form, literary devices, or structure? Because we have so many literary traditions to draw from that TGINE should aim to be its own unique creature rather than fit conventional or Western models.
  • Does the novel demand a deeper level of reader engagement, immersion, and reflection? Which is not to say that escapism and entertainment are to be avoided — thinking and enjoying are not mutually exclusive activities.
  • Does the novel avoid giving pat answers? The goal being, as Chekhov famously wrote, to frame issues, problems, or questions as accurately as possible rather than try to resolve them neatly; to bring new clarity that is both unsettling and enlightening.

Demanding greatness

Unlike historical records and journalistic reportage, novels are immersive, distilled accounts of the power of our interior selves to imagine, create, connect, provoke, arouse, and inspire us to our possibilities, accomplishments, and failures.

So every generation – maybe even every decade – deserves their own TGINE, one that speaks to their time and experiences, helps them make sense of their past and present, illuminates their future, and becomes their abiding legacy to future generations.

The novel has long proved itself capable of innovative reincarnations even with other modes of storytelling and forms of distraction. Publishing gatekeepers (including reviewers) will always be eager to shower their curated favourites with superlatives. However, all of us who love novels can be literary rainmakers and influence which publishing winds get to prevail.

Let’s be more actively discerning and publicly demanding about the novels held up as “great” representations of our complex times, our deepest experiences, and our intimate selves. Let’s encourage more independent presses to take the risks that big publishing houses shy away from. Let’s challenge book reviewers and award juries to be neutral, fair, and honest. Let’s organise literary events within our own communities to celebrate the best. And let’s aim to write the next TGINE as if it is our highest imaginative act of vision, faith, and desire for generations to come.

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