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"Indian writers are exploring a range of literary genres"

Translated Wednesday 21 March 2007, by Helen Robertshaw

Literature. Beyond the stereotypes, a new vision of India is being offered to readers by a new wave of authors. Interview with Dominique Vitalyos, literary consultant at the ‘Salon du livre’ book fair in Paris.

The Salon du Livre offers us the opportunity to come into contact with foreign literatures, sometimes from neighbouring countries, often from far away countries. With its aura of exoticism, India today is intimately associated with all the stereotypes surrounding this country, stereotypes and myths which recent cultural representations have failed to dispel. Has replacing the austerity of Satyajit Ray with Bollywood kitsch really brought about a deeper understanding of Indian film in France? Does Indian literature run the risk of encouraging similar misunderstandings? After the generation of Indian independence and their children, a new wave of writers, tackling many different issues and expressing themselves in a variety of languages, has emerged from a continent where literature participates in modernity. Literary consultant at the Salon du Livre and translator, Dominique Vitalyos, who divides her time between France and Kerala, shares some of her discoveries with us.

HUMA: How has Indian literature changed in recent years?

D V: Indian literature has a very long and rich history. It has really come a long way, partly due to the influence of writers who live abroad, like Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. Through writers such as these, the voice of India has reached an international audience. But prior to and after the influence of these authors, Indian writers living in India itself, have produced original and influential works, whose subject matter has developed over time. Before independence, they wrote a lot, in Indian languages or in English, about social, rural and contextual problems. With independence, writers began to lay claim to History via the writing of fiction. The issue of constructing a national history, free from colonial structures, respecting a certain secularism which was needed to maintain peace between religious groups and safeguard national unity, was pursued by writers and is reflected in novels and fictional works even today. The first novel I came across which was clearly concerned with such issues is Looking Through Glass, by the historian Mukul Kesavan (1), published in 1995. It can be read quite legitimately as an enjoyable adventure novel, but the underlying question asked by the author is whether the partition in 1947 of India and Pakistan could have been avoided if the congress had behaved differently towards the Muslims. The hero of the novel falls into a river, goes back in time, wakes up in 1942 amongst the Muslim population, in Lucknow. He relives the years before partition, whilst still having access to his memories of what actually ‘will’ happen, and therefore witnesses all the mistakes as they are made, and their consequences. From then on, there has been a surge of novels incorporating a historical and political dimension and this trend continues even today. In India, they very much espouse the notion of “public intellectual”, and the press, which is very diverse and of a very high quality, is enriched by contributions from writers and artists. More recently, the idea of social liberation from the burden of tradition has risen to the fore.

HUMA: In particular, we’re seeing many accounts of people’s lives, focused very much around one character, or couple.

D V. Women writers in particular are producing works which recount their struggle, their liberation as individuals. For women in India, this is obviously still more of a long-term goal than a reality today. These are admirable accounts, written by literary pioneers. But it is women in the cities who are at the centre of such change. In her latest book, The Indians, portrait of a people (2), Sudhir Kakar emphasises, although I would be inclined to qualify her statements somewhat, the burden which weighs down upon middle-class women in the cities, who are positioned both within and outside the social realm, and yet remain the driving force of the entire familial and social system.

HUMA :There is a critical dimension to some novels.

D V. It has to be said that India has lived through many traumatic events. Besides partition, there was the state of emergency decreed by Indira Gandhi during the revolt by the Sikhs of the Pundjab, which profoundly affected Indians, and led to the reevaluation of the great founding figures of India. There is a critical dimension, but also a satirical one, for instance in the novel by Shashi Tharoor (3) which plays upon the distance between the Mahabharata, the great national epic tale, and the mediocrity of the present.

HUMA: But these themes have also been explored in a more integrative way, for instance in Kali Katha, by Alka Saraogi (4).

D V. Where we also find a real portrait of a city. This novel is extremely interesting in its simultaneous exploration of the individual, familial, historic and social levels. But we could also mention The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, by Ruchir Joshi (5). The action of this novel is projected into 2 030 – needless to say that the situation hasn’t changed – and we go back to the generation of Indian independence. India is engaged in a war on a global scale. The ageing narrator has a daughter who is a fighter pilot in the Indian army. She is posted to a space station, and she retraces her memories and our era, whilst remaining preoccupied by the concerns of her time. In a highly sophisticated, fragmented account, the author explores our anxieties in a visionary move, where they are projected into the future.

HUMA: Until quite recently, Indian novels were often structured in quite a conventional and traditional way. This seems to be changing.

D V.
Contemporary Indian writers are exploiting the novel’s potential and exploring all its different forms. They are experimenting with genres such as the historical novel, the detective novel and science fiction. They are playing with different linguistic codes and employing strategies inherited from the modernist tradition. The first “complete” Indian detective novel has just come out, written by a woman, a surgeon called Kalpana Swaminathan (6) whose style is traditional and very beautiful. A “graphic novel” by Sarnath Banerjee (7) has also just been published. The story is set in Calcutta under British colonial rule, with striking, brief historical scenes. It’s a cartoon which is very fragmented in terms of time and space, very bold and unselfconscious, with a very international feel.

HUMA: How do writers deal with linguistic issues?

D V. Despite the difficulties inherent in any selection, the delegation reflects the linguistic diversity of India. This diversity is real and alive, with many writers choosing to write in their own language, but for editorial reasons it is easier to publish one’s work in English which remains the official language in India. Indian literature reflects the precarious status of Indian languages, given the dominance of English, the language of economic success. For instance, in the State of Kerala, where I live, some parents send their children to schools where all the lessons are in English, and these children then become unable to read or write in their mother tongue, Malayalam. On the other hand, if authors chose not to limit the use of their own languages to emotional and intimate discourses, to discussions of their roots and specific identity, but instead used their mother tongue to talk about more global issues, this would open up the expressive range and potential of such a language. Some young writers are doing this already. What’s more, in Bengal and in Kerala, many books get published. These states, where much emphasis has been placed upon education and reading have the highest rates of literacy in the country, and they are also ahead of the game in terms of publishing, but not necessarily that of literary publications. We can expect then the emergence of many interesting texts that will require translation.

(1) Chatto and Windus 1995 (French edition: Éditions Philippe Picquier, Poche, 2004).
(2) Penguin Books India March 2007 (French edition: Éditions du Seuil, 2007).
(3) The Great Indian Novel, Arcade 1991 (French edition: Le Grand roman indien, Éditions du Seuil, points, 2002).
(4) Kali Katha: Via Bypass 2002 (French edition: Éditions Gallimard, 2002).
(5) Flamingo 2002 (French edition: Éditions Fayard, 2006).
(6) French edition: Saveurs assassines. Éditions du Cherche-Midi, 2007.
(7) French edition: Calcutta. Éd. Denoël, 2007.

Interview conducted by Alain Nicolas


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