Cramming a definition from a textbook of which you don't understand half the terms is one thing, and coming up with your own definition is another.
The objective here is to come up with some criteria, or a set of rules with minimal haziness, to judge what is IWE and what is not. This definitiveness is needed to avoid applying this term haphazardly and inconsistently to all and sundry. More important is the need to bring some structure and organization to the study of this emerging corpus of writing.
The set of words Indian Writing in English
sounds innocent enough; at least you don't have to try to explain words like antidisestablishmentarianism. Ignoring the preposition "in" (which even Google ignores while searching), you have three words left: Indian, writing, and English.
Let's read them right to left (rather an Arabic than an English way to go about it). (All right, let me confess right at the outset, before it becomes obvious, that I am partial to parentheses. I can't indulge in them while writing fiction, being the equivalent of the archaic "asides" in plays, but I do mean to indulge myself on this blog. Parentheses help you in making smart alec comments.)1. English
- This should be simple and self-explanatory. Any writing originally in English automatically qualifies to become a superset for IWE (confession #2: I am an engineer by background, so mathematical terms tend to creep into my writing surreptitiously.)
- Translations from any other language into English do not count, unless the translation is also done by the original author himself (I am not going to beat myself into a frenzy replacing every "him" with a "her" in order to sound politically correct. When I say "him" it means "him", "her" and even "it" if you please.)
That means, bilingual writers like Kamala Das or Kiran Nagarkar belong to IWE. At least that part of their oeuvre written in or translated to English belongs to IWE, while someone like Premchand whose works have been translated to English will not, because he wrote only in Hindi. (Nothing disparaging against regional languages is to be inferred from this. IWE versus IW in the vernacular will be discussed later.)2. Writing
- The primary rule is that literature is the sole constituent of IWE. So this excludes technical or scientific writing, or news reporting and journalisting writing, or management, spiritual and chicken-soup inspirational writing. IWE then consists of all writings in prose (plays included) or verse, particularly those of an imaginative character.
What about non-fiction, like half the works of V. S. Naipaul, or the socio-political essays of Arundhati Roy? There is subjectivity in play here, and a stand needs to be taken.
Leeway is given to writers who write in both fiction and non-fiction forms, and if they are known primarily as writers, and not through any other profession. So V. S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy (treading a fine line, writing only essays after The God of Small Things
, but well, a Booker winner is a Booker winner) come under IWE, but Amartya Sen, renowned as an economist, will not qualify for IWE via The Argumentative Indian
(unless he writes a novel or a book of poetry!). Neither does Sunil Gavaskar for his Sunny Days
. 3. Indian
The most subjective of the three. What does Indian in IWE stand for? Does it refer to a person from India (akin to a Frenchman, or an Englishman) who writes in English, or does it refer to the cultural aspect of India (Indian writing, akin to French cuisine, or the British stiff upper lip) in the sense that IWE is writing about India? Is this ambiguity purposeful or unintentional? Or is this an exercise in hair-splitting?
Whether by design or by accident, the ambiguity turns out to be useful because we will rely on both the possible interpretations to formulate our rule.
OK, this is going to break open a 5-litre jerrycan of worms. How do you define an Indian writer?
The answer is straightforward if the writer is an Indian by birth, and is/was an Indian citizen based in India. Unfortunately, perhaps less than half of IWE writers can be classified as easily as say, R. K. Narayan or Mulk Raj Anand. Many of the well-known IWE writers are based abroad, mainly in USA, UK or Canada.
There could be any number of permutations: whether a writer is holding an Indian citizenship, or has relinquished it; whether he is an Indian by origin, but not by birth; by birth and not by origin (?); Indian family but living abroad for generations; parents of mixed nationalities, ad nauseum. Tracking and classifying writers based on these myriad factors would be on the same scale of cleaning the Augean stables.
So instead of trying to unravel the nuances of NRI-ship, we adopt a simple and easily deterministic approach: that of race. This approach could be on the verge of political incorrectness, but there is some factor that links Rabindranath Tagore, Salman Rushdie and Nissim Ezekiel (as disparate a group as can be) but excludes Rudyard Kipling (in spite of the Indian setting of his works). And that distinguishing factor is what we use to determine whether a writer is Indian or not. For this reason, we will not call William Dalrymple's White Mughals
or E. M. Forster's A Passage to India
as part of IWE.
In the odd case where the writer's parentage is of mixed nationalities, the subject of that writer's works will decide the issue of Indian-ness. For instance, if a particular writer is a second- or third-generation American-Indian, and yet writes about his feeling of being caught in a cross-cultural divide, of living as an outsider, then that writer belongs to IWE. If, otherwise, his writing has nothing to do with India, then he does not belong to IWE.
The cultural aspect is relatively easy to judge. Almost all India-based writers' theme is India. Also of those who are based abroad and whose Indian origin is not that apparent. If it were not, they would not qualify to be called IWE writers in the first place. I cannot think of anyone based in India whose subject is never India. Writers like Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh are at ease in international settings, but they also have many works with a purely Indian setting.
It isn't unheard of, for an IWE writer to claim he does not want to be pigeonholed in a category called IWE. He belongs to the globalized world, he says; judging him as part of IWE smacks of provincialism. If a writer is truly global, then he doesn't have to depend on an Indian theme to set him apart from other writers. To extract your themes from India, and depend on your view of Indian-ness to set you apart from other writers, and then claim you are not part of IWE is hypocritical. As far as we are concerned, we don't give two hoots whether a writer wishes to be included in IWE or not, as long as he meets our criteria.4. Circle of fame
Yes, there is a fourth point to consider too, possibly trivial, but it needs to be stated. We have formulated rules for language, literature, nationality and culture. Suppose a writer qualifies in all of them, does he then automatically become a part of IWE? What if nobody has heard of him?
Obviously, all men are not equal. All writers, even less so. To quote the immortal Bard, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Appending to it, "some have greatness withheld from them, while some achieve it posthumously."
One definition for literature is that it should be permanent; it should stand the test of time. The writer himself may fade away, but he should live through his works. Few writers achieve that kind of immortality, and if that criterion is strictly applied to IWE, hardly a handful would qualify.
The extent of fame, again, is a subjective issue. It is perhaps unfair to apply the condition of international fame for IWE. National fame should suffice. The writer and his work should have a reasonable number of references in newspapers and magazines (usually showing up on Google). Writers like Arun Joshi or Rama Mehta, who were active before the age of book promos, but won major literary awards like the Sahitya Akademi, and are critically mentioned, definitely merit inclusion in IWE. Of course the conditions are loaded in favour of the current crop of writers in this age of publicity and information. Equally meritorious writers of earlier years run the risk of getting excluded simply due to lack of information, but the only option is to live with it.
Self- or vanity-published unknown writers will not be considered. Fame is not always a manifestation of talent; examples abound of unworthy writers becoming world famous while great writers are swallowed by obscurity. Yet, in the overall scheme of things, it is reasonable to expect a talented writer to be recognized by and by. As for those untalented hacks who have greatness thrust upon them... well, nobody said we live in a fair world.
In the proverbial nutshell:IWE consists of the works of those writers who create literature in English, and who are Indian enough, and famous enough.
Next post on whether IWE makes sense, and after that, tracing the history and chronology of IWE.