Indian Writing in English

A discussion of Indian Writing in English (IWE) in all its aspects, with a view to creating some structure and organization in this body of writing.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Who's the most authentic of them all? - II

It's perfectly all right to write about people who are not the norm in the society they are placed. One of the thumbrules of good fiction writing is to make interesting things happen to interesting people. Usually, in the effort to make a character interesting, he also becomes unusual (though the real skill of the writer comes out when he makes the usual interesting).

But, but...

With the growing body of IWE writers, one would naturally expect that the subject of writing follows a normal scattered distribution. If some writers are not comfortable using typical characters and settings and rely on the uncommon, then there should be some who should be comfortable. But in actuality, statistics appear to be skewed in favour of the uncommon.
What I mean is that most books by IWE writers are about people who might be interesting as individuals, but do not strike the reader as being typical of a class of people. The character is not representative.

Or at best, he or she may be representative of a niche class. Say, books about bored or repressed housewives: about an individual who can be seen as a symbol for group of people in similar conditions. But there would be few novels dealing with, say, the masses below the poverty line. If at all, the protagonist would be looking at the situation from the outside in. A story seen and told by a person belonging to that strata, facing the problems and concerns that people in that strata face, would be a rarity (I would be glad if someone apprised me of exceptions to this).

Even more so in modern times. Earlier, a Mulk Raj Anand could write a Coolie, or an Untouchable (though there are criticisms that even they weren't truly authentic). These days, hardly anyone even attempts--either due to the lack of a market, or because IWE writers are not capable of writing from such a character's viewpoint.

It is this point which lends maximum credence to M. Prabha's thesis of IWE being the waffle of the toffs. A major reason behind this (as has been discussed before) is that English is not the lingua franca of the country; it is not the language of the masses. This automatically implies their exclusion from IWE, or the absence of authentic IWE writing about the hoi polloi from within.

Another aspect of authenticity to be considered is the bone of contention between the native and the NRI IWE writers. When the NRI tries to be authentic by typifying his Indian setting, he is accused of exoticising. (Vikram Chandra has devoted an essay to this debate.) Writers from both sides need to have a balanced perspective. If a writer describes a cuckoo singing, or the process of making dal, it doesn't necessarily mean he is exoticising. He could honestly be laying out an Indian scene.

At the same time, when Indian keywords like mangoes, curries, tamarind, sarees, and so on populate the titles themselves, the charge of exoticising doesn't sound baseless.
As is the practice, we will not conclude without reaching a conclusion. The question we were grappling with: is Indian Writing in English authentic?

One of our conclusions was authenticity does not depend on numbers. Say, I am an abstruse poet and you are a ragpicker. My problem is not finding the right level of symbolism to portray in my blank verses, and your problem is not finding enough glass bottles in the grabage given the prevalence of plastic these days. I have a problem in my life and so do you. Mine is as real as yours. (Seriousness? Ah, that's another matter. Perhaps the soldier on the Kashmir border has more serious problems than the ragpicker's or the poet's.)

Now if I am the only poet, and there are a ninety-nine other ragpickers, does it make my problem less authentic and the ragpicker's, more? My reality and authenticity is as real and authentic as yours.

Are numbers to be simply ignored, then? Not quite. Consider another analogy. There's a big box. It is divided into two sections, one of them ten times as large as the other. Both the sections are filled with multi-coloured balls. The IWE writer delves into the smaller section and picks out ball after ball, examining and describing each in detail, reching deeper and deeper. The contents of the small section become well known to all.

The big section, ten times bigger, lies untouched and unknown... The IWE writer doesn't reach into it.

The full answer: the IWE writer is authentic in a limited setting.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the most authentic of them all?

Authenticity, we have seen, is the first weapon that comes to hand when one body of writers attacks another. Whether it is regional writers vituperating IWE writers, or native IWE writers criticising the NRI ones, the frontal line of attack is on their authenticity.

It's time to take the bull by the horns. What exactly is this authenticity which results in such a hullabaloo?

Authenticity is about reality; at the same time it is not about realism carried to extremities, describing each and every minute detail as it exists. Reproduction of life exactly as it exists is not art: photography cannot replace painting, nor can a tape recorder replace a singer.

We say a work of fiction is authentic when we feel that what it portrays is likely to have occurred in a certain setting in a certain period. It need not have actually happened as it is described word to word, but there is nothing in the book that precludes the chances of it ever happening. In fiction, the writer tries to portray only the most interesting and eventful things, and characters speak dialogues rich in meaning which bring out their characters and personalities. Certainly, real life will never be that interesting at a stretch.

Authenticity then, lies in the typicality of characters and their lives. How likely is such a fictional character's existence? And if he does, how likely is it that he will talk in such and such a manner, think such and such thoughts and do such and such deeds?

Authenticity is about generalizing and typifying people in a unique way (sounds self-contradictory but therein lies the skill of the writer. Without the uniqueness, we get stereotypes.).

It takes all kinds of people to make the world. A writer can always retort that maybe his character is not all that typical, but what is the guarantee that there is no such person in some corner of the world whose behaviour would be similar to that particular character? Possible, but then that writer gets a low score in authenticity.

If we use the typicality of a work as the measure of its authenticity, then we better know how to measure that typicality. Is it in numbers? If Author A writes about a poet, and Author B writes about a peasant, by dint of sheer numbers Author B always scores over Author A in authenticity (assuming that in India, the number of peasants of the kind as described by Author B will always be much greater than the number of poets of the kind described by Author A).

The question that arises is whether we are caught in a class equation. Are books with intellectual or billionaire protagonists always less authentic than books with the farmer protagonist? Do we give our approval only to socialist fiction that deal with class and society as a whole and not individuals? That is dangerous, and our answer ought to be no.

The core of fiction has to be individualistic. There's nothing unauthentic about having neurotic lonely women protagonists (think Anita Desai) or intellects philosophising in English, Sanskrit and French with equal ease (think Raja Rao) as long as the rest of such character's behaviour falls in line with the personality sketched out for them. The demerit lies in the fact that such a character is atypical; the reader has nothing to judge the character by; everything the author writes about the character has to be accepted by the reader as being typical of that particular character.

For such characters, their problems and concerns are intensely personal. It hardly touches even the fictional world outside the character, leave alone the reader's world.

To be continued...

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The native verus the NRI writer

Seen against the body of regional writers, we considered the body of IWE writers as a unified whole. Peering closer into the latter, we find there exists the boundary between the native writer (meaning IWE writer based in India) and the NRI one (meaning the Non-Resident Indian IWE writer). The divide is yet another facet of the all-pervading issue of authenticity.

What the regional writer wields as a weapon against IWE as a whole, the native IWE writer wields against the NRI. The thrust of his argument is how can someone not living in India write and present authentic stories about India. To the native writer, the NRI writer is as good as a foreigner. He is not aware of the ground-level problems to the extent a person living in that society is. All he gets is information filtered through the media, and he has to make his assumptions and judgments based on that.

The second point of accusation against the NRI writer is that he presents a deliberately erroneous picture of India. He exoticises. Not having a feel for existing realities because of distance is one thing, but creating and contorting a stereotypical "reality" is another. This he does by focussing by and large to the picture of India that already exists in the western mind: progressing from snake-charmers and elephants, to rajahs and maharajahs, arranged marriages, gender oppression, exploitative and casteist society, spices, saris and so on. He panders to the West, and is hence, a sell-out.

He wants to have the best of both worlds: live in the comfort of the West, and present himself as a portrayer of India (that's the only thing he is allowed to portray). When someone has the best of both worlds, there must be something unethical involved.

Notice the strong parallels between the regional v/s the IWE and the native v/s the NRI cases. Just like the regional writer, the native IWE writer considers himself to be on relatively higher moral ground vis-a-vis his proximity to authentic India. He stands in long queues, is compelled to pay bribes to find his way through government offices, knows the inside-out of political developments, and thus knows India first-hand unlike the NRI.

Rebuttals by the NRI writers flow in from various fronts. Looking in from the outside enables them to take in the big picture of India. This, they say, is not possible for someone living in the midst of it all. You have to be at a certain distance to make out what is happening in the overall scheme of things, and they are better equipped than the native writer to do this.

He is not a sell-out. He is based abroad (mainly UK, US or Canada) mainly due to business reasons. The bigtime publishers, the markets, the readership, literary agents are there. Publishing is an organized profession there, unlike in India, where things are haphazard. The native writer is against the NRI precisely because he does not enjoy these advantages. In other words, he is plain jealous of the NRI's success.

So the responses also, are almost on the same track as that of IWE writers to the regional writers. Even the commenators. Rushdie's dismissal of Indian vernacular writing finds an echo in Dalrymple's assessment that the future of IWE lies in the hands of the NRI writer.
Our conclusions?

Again, we have a mixture of truths and untruths. There are few places purely black or white; the world is all the shades of grey. The NRI writer cannot be called a fraud simply because he has a New York or a London or a Montreal address. There is some validity to their claim of an outsider looking in. A writer should be judged by his book, not by his address. If he is not authentic, if he doesn't have a true picture of India in his mind, it will show on the pages of his book. And if he is, that will show too.

On the other hand, the accusation of exoticising India also holds true--for some writers. I am instantly on my guard when I come across titles containing masala, tamarinds, chilis, memsahibs, arranged marriages, cuckoos and saris. It is like putting baseball or stars and stripes in the title to indicate this is a book about USA. In most such cases, you get the feeling of mediocre writers trying to cash in on the publishing fad of exotic India, making hay while the sun shines, so to speak.

For a writer serious about his claim to fame and wealth, it makes good sense to be based in the West; the route to being published there is easier, or at least, more organized. A book well-received in the US or UK, is almost certain to do well in India, but the vice versa is not true.
A true writer will sound true no matter where he is based. Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri or Vikram Seth are never blamed of exoticising because they don't. Lesser writers do. While every NRI writer cannot be a fake, neither is it true that none of them are. But it takes an exceptional writer to be based abroad and yet sound true. The onus of proving their authenticity seems to lie with the NRI rather than the native writer as if by virtue of being native, he is automatically authentic.

Back again to the minefield of authenticity. Next time, we will gingerly step into that minefield.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Regional literature versus IWE

In the last couple of posts, we saw authenticity (call it realism or genuineness if you will) as a millstone that IWE has to carry around its neck wherever it goes. We also touched upon a few topics with authenticity at the heart of the issue : regional or vernacular writing v/s IWE (the topic of the current discussion), Indian IWE v/s NRI IWE writer, and what is authenticity actually.

It looks like there has to be a "versus" in the relationship between regional writing and IWE. Using an innocent conjunction like "and" would probably give an incorrect picture. To reiterate our conclusions from previous discussions, the English language enjoys (or suffers) a different status with respect to India's regional languages. And that different status is primarily due to the none-too-flattering inter-related tags of colonialism and elitism.

This otherness of English creates a state of friction instead of cohesion in the body of Indian writing as a whole. We are compelled to say "Indian Writing in English", but we sound ridiculous saying "Indian Writing in Hindi or Bengali". The status of these regional languages as Indian is unquestionable, while that of English continues to be questioned (mostly in nationalist rhetoric. Practically, English seems to be entrenched firmly in India for a long, long time to come.)

Officially, India has twenty-odd recognized national languages which more or less map to individual states (whether dividing the nation into states on a linguistic basis was a sound idea is an argument that has kept many a people awake all night). There are around 2000 dialects, so talking about literatures in terms of dialects is absurd. Regional literature thus refers to writing in those twenty-odd national languages.

From the perspective of regional writers, their writing is rooted to Indian realities, and hence much more authentic when compared to IWE. Their problems are essentially Indian, the settings Indian, and their characters talk in the same language as they would if they were real. Their works (many serialized through periodicials) are immediately accessible and open to appraisal by readers who can judge its authenticity at once (and thus decide a writer's success).

This claim of regional writers is irrefutable. IWE, as we saw, is twice-born fiction, while vernacular writing is once-born. There's not much an IWE writer can do setting things right here because this weakness is inherent in IWE; it's bigger than an individual writer.

The other charge of regional writers against IWE is that the big money and publicity accompanying English writing is strangling regional writing. Glamour and limelight is the lot of the IWE writer (underservedly), while obscurity (except within a state) and almost no money to speak of is the fate of the regional writer. (If writing is an art and has nothing to do with material success, then regional writers have nothing to complain of on this count!)

This again is a charge IWE writers can't do much about (apart from refusing his share of fame, which doesn't really help anyone). Publicity and big money come to an IWE writer only if he is backed by a reputed publishing house in the US/UK. Those IWE writers depending on only an Indian readership hardly earn anything as the English readership in India is minuscule (a sale of 5000 copies implies a bestseller). The big numbers (and money) come from a worldwide readership.

For the regional writers, their readership starts and ends with the people who speak that particular language: geographically limited to one or a few states of India at the most. There are simply are not enough numbers that can bring about big money-publicity-glamour et al.

IWE writers bristle at the accusation that they are not authentic enough, but the range of Indian subjects they can portray realistically is limited. Some IWE writers like Rushdie dismiss vernacular literature as having little value and widen the chasm between the two bodies.

As both the charges--lack of authenticity and profusion of wealth and fame in IWE--don't have a feasible solution (at least I can't think of any... unless India becomes an English-speaking country, or regional languages gain a worldwide readership), the chasm is likely to remain. It is unlikely that both IWE and regional literature will be clubbed in a seamless category of Indian literature. IWE will continue to be looked upon as a bastard child of Indian literature (regional literature being the legitimate offspring), a wealthy, pompous and snobbish bastard at that.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Dream within a dream - II

Carrying on with the discussion on whether IWE makes sense.

The English language in India carries with it a connotation of elitism, as opposed to native languages which are seen as being down to earth, belonging to the people proper. Or as opposed to French literature in France, or English in America, which are the native languages in those nations. Perhaps French spoken in the Czar's court in Russia, or the use of Italian in operas in Germany in the past had a similar tag of elitism that English has in India today.

The English-speaking population in India has grown since, say, the era of Independence, and it is certainly not as exclusivist today as it was then. But the English language has a terribly long way to go before it reaches the acceptance-level of another British legacy: cricket. Seen objectively, both English and cricket are imports of the Raj. Then why should one have a colonial taint attached to it (indeed many movements in India have viewed the continued use of English post-Independence as a continuation of mental slavery), while the other has practically replaced the national game of hockey, is baffling. (And one would think that the knowledge of English has done more for India than the pursuit of cricket.)

No IWE writer can ever dream of approaching Sachin Tendulkar's iconic status. But then writing could hardly have the mass appeal that cricket has. And writing in English, impossible. The point to note is that Sachin's cricketing genius makes him a national hero, but an IWE writer, however great he is, will carry an elitist tag with him, maybe even one of pandering to foreign tastes.

The vernacular writer thus, considers himself, closer to reality and hence more authentic than the IWE writer. (IWE versus the vernacular writer will be a separate topic for discussion later.) The IWE writer based in India considers himself more authentic than the NRI IWE writer. (India-based versus NRI IWE writers is another topic too!)

According to an extreme criticism of IWE in Waffle of the Toffs (the title says it all, a rough and alliterative translation of which reads: the pointless prattle of pretentious people), only those belonging to the poorer strata of society are fit to write the real stuff (what is real for whom is--you guessed it--another topic). In India, an IWE writer is almost certain not to belong to that strata, and as a corollary, no one in that strata will write in English. So whatever is a genuine subject for literature, can never get written in English in India. That's the extreme stand.

Fictive writing, as everybody knows, is not real. The tacit understanding between a writer and a reader is that the writer has created a dream, and the reader lives that dream as if it were real, though knowing fully well that it is not. (We don't really believe Amitabh Bachchan beating up a dozen armed baddies, do we?) This agreement is termed the "willing suspension of disbelief". The writer's part of the contract is that he will make the dream as real as he possibly can.

And when the IWE writer's Indian characters all talk and think in English, he is asking the reader for another indulgence, for a higher degree of suspension of disbelief. The reader needs to accept that not only are the characters and their story real, but also their language. That's why IWE is also called twice-born fiction, or a dream within a dream (some also call it the waffle of the toffs).

So where does all this discussion lead? The question we started with still hangs fire. Does IWE make sense?

Such a subjective question merits a subjective conclusion too; a simple true/false answer is incomplete. It is true that IWE suffers from handicaps that other literatures don't. The IWE writer has to labour under additional constraints, work doubly hard or take recourse to literary sleight of hand in order to maintain an air of authenticity. A few modern writers like Rushdie recognize that traditionally realistic IWE is not possible, and hence instead of creating a semblance of reality, deliberately make their fiction as fantastic as possible (so that the reader is compelled to follow only the rules the writer lays down).

One cannot deny that IWE has an extra layer of artificiality built within it. This is not due to the inadequacies of IWE writers, but a congenital weakness. The reader of fiction is fully aware that he is sharing a dream, living within a bubble, while he is reading a novel. Does it then matter, whether that bubble is inside another bubble?

If a reader is strict about having only one bubbly layer between him and the world, then IWE does not make sense to him. If another reader considers a two-layered bubble as good as a single-layered one, then IWE makes sense to him. Ultimately, it is upto the reader to decide whether he wants to carry on with his dream, or burst the bubble. He could dismiss fiction in any genre or form as unreal if he were that strict... and find pleasure in reading only newspapers.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

IWE: Dream within a dream?

Does IWE make sense? Why this doubt that questions the very foundation of the whole edifice? Nobody asks such a question of British or American literature, or for that matter even Tamil literature. Then why single out IWE?

One fault line runs through the foundation of IWE, but is absent among other literatures. (Perhaps it exists in other colonial literatures, especially of the sub-continent. I don't know the situation in Africa.)

The fault line's name is authenticity. The starting point of most critics of IWE is its authenticity. Authenticity of a work, as I understand, is its closeness to reality, or its truthfulness in the represenation of a ground reality. Usually, such fidelity is expected only from realistic literary fiction (other genre fiction such as sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, etc. do not make claims about realism). As there is hardly any genre fiction in IWE, the question of IWE's authenticity is legitimate.

There are mainly two lines of questioning:

  • How representative are the writers and their subjects?
  • How representative is English as the medium of writing?

Writers and subjects:
The major accusation against writers of IWE is that they are elitist. They are said to live in ivory towers cut-off from ground realities, and what is worse, they don't really care about being cut-off. The only reality they know is that which exists in their high circles, but which constitutes at best a minuscule fraction of the populace.

As a result, even when they do write about issues that affect the masses, it is already a second-hand experience to them (filtered through the glasses of the media or elsewhere), and percolates to the reader at third-hand.

Even a renowned writer like Mulk Raj Anand whose novels deal with social issues of caste inequality and untouchability is not writing about what he has gone through or seen, but what he thinks must have been happening in a strata of society isolated from his own.

The (modern) writers don't care, the accusations continue, because they are busy exoticising their subject to appeal to a Western readership (only a large Western readership can translate into large sales).

If not exoticising, if a writer is honest about writing what he can relate to, then he ends up writing about characters whose individual concerns can only belong to an exclusive society. A possible example could be Anita Desai.

An IWE writer writes from the outside trying to look in; seldom does he write from the inside trying to reach out.

English as medium:
The English-speaking fraction of the population is a pretty small number (I will desist from providing statistical sounding figures like 2.45%). English readership consequently, would be a fraction of that pretty small number, and English writers a fraction of that fraction. So if we are talking of the representativeness of IWE in India, it must be clear where we stand. Forget writing, even reading or speaking English in India puts one in an elite club.

A charge of elitism can be argued against, but what is undeniable is that the moment you put an English-speaking character on a page, you are asking the reader for a lot. It is a daunting task to make such a character believable. A writer is faced with limited choices:

  1. For the utmost seriousness and authenticity, use characters who are fluent in English. That means, you are bound to give up on any kind of representativeness.
  2. Try to be more inclusive of the other strata of society by using characters who are not fluent in English. But you cannot show characters talking in the vernacular in an English novel (not for pages, surely). So you perhaps differentiate by showing the difference in fluency, but using broken English for long usually results in caricature and loses seriousness.
  3. Not much choice is left. If you want both representativeness and seriousness, then you will have to rely on narrative description for characterization. More of telling, than showing. That's one reason you will find most IWE writers making abundant use of description, but miserly in using dialogue (unless it is the "non-representative" novel).

To be continued...

Monday, October 24, 2005

What is IWE

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.

  • The writer as an Indian:
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 writing as Indian:
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.