Art of Living
When Arundhati Roy published The God Of Small Things (GOST) in 1997, it was not just an award-winning book which notched huge sales as well. It signified a bold turn away from the concerns of Indian-english writers and took it away into untrodden areas and bold themes.
Not that GOST was the first book in english that talked of forbidden love. The book brought in a new vocabulary, a new tone, a new apathy that showed the existing writers that there are other stories to be looked at. Till that time what was the dominating concern of the Indian writer in English? It was utterly middle class, dwelt mostly on morals, they were mostly pat morality plays, they gave a rap on the knuckle if someone had sex, their women became pregnant just by reading m&b. The stories were all located in the living rooms of the brahamanical class, and not very surprisingly there was some link with the American world because that was always the destination of the uppity Indian middle class. In most such stories, either a son or daughter or a relative was based in the dreamy landscapes of the us. So nostalgia and tears were constantly dripping all over the pages, brahmanical morality pervaded the plot, the ‘other’ India did not exist, the big marriage ceremony was the be-all and end-all of Indian life, the airport and Californian streets were ever present and in general life was hunky-dory. Indian immigrant literature which flowered in the 80s and 90s also reflected similar concerns so it was a comfortable coexistence.
Till Roy demolished the stereotypes and set new standards in story telling, (in English writing) peeped into forgotten India and made innovative use of English language and wasn’t scared of brining in vernacular usages without any footnotes. It was a thumping of the nose at the establishment and a warning note to contemporary morality play writers.
More than ten years since then what has happened? Has the roy effect caught on, or was it just a chimera ? Has the roy-effect been pasted on the Indian literary template? Since 1997 India got two more booker prizes (kiran desai and aravind adiga) and jhumpa lahiri has established herself among the foremost writers of fiction in the us. Tarun j. Tejpal two novels (The Alchemy Of Desire and the latest story of my assassins) have also taken the Indian English novel out of middle class living rooms. He has also been scathing in the way real Indian stories never got to see the light of day.
Not that all of them have paid obeisance to roy but they have all looked at the darker side of India and taken on stories which did not fall into the ken of established Indian-English writing, though regional writing, closer to the soil, was full of such vibrant stories.
Let us to dwell on Adiga and Tejpal,
as representatives of the turn-of-the- century or post-gost writing. Though their styles of writing differ, both of them have located their novel in the Indian under-belly. Looking at the struggle of the classes of people whom English novel here only used as props.
Adiga’s epistolary novel The White Tiger, was a breakthrough in many ways. Written in basic Indian prose, because the protagonist is a driver (a lower-class protagonist could have been heresy in a modern English novel, a decade back). The novel is formed of letters he writes to the visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jinbao. The first letter from the desk of The White Tiger, itself sets the tenor of the book. “Neither you nor I speak but there are some things that can be said only in English.”
This first line is in a way a swipe at the Indian fascination of English and also at the concerns of English writers. Then the aspirational Indian villager, Balram Halwai, based in Bangalore goes on to dwell about the Bharat from where he comes though these were things not always said in ‘English’. “One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing,” Balram’s letter to the Jintao says.
This was true not just about prime ministers statements but what was written in English novels as well. You could turn it all upside down and then the truth would emerge. Through such letters of disarming truth, one sided letters that provoked no replies either from the chinese PM or anyone else, the real Indian story is laid out by Adiga. White tiger was the true upside down story of India waiting to be told. That it was told in the form of letters to the chinese premier has irony and humour in it. That is what made it such a big hit and one of the most-selling English novels in India after Arundhati Roy.
Tejpals assassins following close on the heels of his successful alchemy of desire, is the gripping back story of five assassins who were part of the plot to kill off the narrator, which seems to be a shadow of the author himself. The story of the assassins is the story of the ‘Other India’ itself. Tejpal’s assassins carves out the story of the Indian hinterland, the quagmire which the Indian middle class tries to forget and dismiss but keep coming back to them in one form or another. The violence, the filth the pathos, the despair, the struggle and the unending sorrow of that India hits you stark in the face. “when tope first put his knife into Bhupinder’s flesh and in one swift stroke drew an artful cummberbund across his belly, a profound sense of power and ecstasy filled his being.” this is how Tejpal draws us into the life of one of the assassins. Unapologetically violent and bloody, the book jolts us from our complacency and the cocoon of ahimsa which we all occupy. Adiga, Roy and Tejpal (ART) and the likes lead the way in the Indian English fiction’s thrust into global arena.
By Binoo K John