below: Javed Akhtar and Anita Nair during their joint interview by Pablo Mukherjee in the English PEN Literary Cafe
A passage to India through books
The “India Through Fresh Eyes” program organized by the British Council at last week’s London Book Fair (LBF) was billed as the largest festival of Indian literature ever held outside the sub-continent. The program introduced audiences to a wide range of authors and genres, and to the vibrancy of Indian writing.
More than 50 writers, representing 15 of India’s 23 official languages, came to London for the program consisting of more than 40 events. The program encompassed ten seminars and a number of other events at the LBF, several related happenings in London, and events in nine British cities.
The LBF’s Group Exhibition Director Alistair Burtenshaw [pictured] said, “The variety of Indian authors attending the fair is a testament to the strength and depth of Indian writing today, and it is great pleasure to be able to offer so many fine authors a showcase for their work.”
Sujata Sen [pictured below], director of British Council East India, said the program came at a time when “Indian writing is coveted, read and followed internationally. There is a wide range of exciting Indian writing which is still not accessible to the international market and readers outside India.”
Each year the fair chooses a different region or country as its market focus (last year it chose the Arab world), and “India Through Fresh Eyes” was part of this year’s India Market Focus. The market focus attracted 90 Indian exhibitors, 69 of them in the five Indian pavilions and another 21 dotted around the fair.
In answer to the question “why India, and why now?” Burtenshaw pointed to a constellation of factors. India is the world’s 12th largest economy, with “incredible GDP growth,” has a large and growing population and is the world’s third-largest producer of English-language titles at some 15,000 a year. The Indian book market is worth around 625 million pounds, growing at 10 per cent a year, and India is the 18th largest market for British book exports. India’s publishing outsourcing is of major importance and is expected to reach $1.46 billion by 2010.
In Britain, the term Indian literature has become virtually synonymous with novels written in English that have leapt to international fame. They include winners of the Man Booker, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize. Last year the prize was won by Aravind Adigar for his novel “White Tiger”. In 2006 it went to Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss”.
But “India Through Fresh Eyes” showed that there is far more to contemporary Indian literature than such internationally successful English-language novels. The participating writers had produced ground-breaking work in many languages and in genres from fiction, poetry, plays and film scripts to non-fiction and journalism.
A star of the festival was the veteran Bengali novelist Sankar (Mani Sankar Mukherji) whose 1962 novel “Chowringhee”, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, has just been published in Britain by Atlantic Books.
On the Saturday before the fair opened, the London-based Guardian newspaper chose “Chowringhee” as its book of the week and published a rave review by Sri Lankan-born novelist Romesh Gunesekera. A leading Indian publishing executive, V. K. Karthika of HarperCollins India, commented: “It’s a joy seeing the success of this book in English, in a country other than the one in which it was written.”
The presence of the Economist and novelist Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, at the fair created a stir. Sen gave the keynote speech at the prestigious Chairman’s Breakfast on the fair’s first day. Later that morning he was interviewed by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband [pictured].
Some of the writers at the festival were long-established cultural personalities, among them scriptwriter, lyricist, poet and activist Javed Akhtar; playwrights Girish Karnad and Satish Alekar; novelist, poet and academic U. R. Ananthamurthy; poet, critic, translator and editor K. Satchidanandan; fiction writer and banker Bolwar Mahamad Kunhi, and the prolific novelist and short story writer in Gujarati, Varsha Adalja [pictured].
The author and poet Vikram Seth, who wrote the acclaimed novel “A Suitable Boy” and has lived in England for many years, was author of the day on LBF’s second day. Among the younger generation of fiction writers at the festival were popular novelist and columnist Anita Nair; London-based novelist Jaishree Misra; novelist and journalist Indrajit Hazra; Amruta Patil, author of the graphic novel “Kari”; and Anuja Chauhan [pictured], the advertising executive who wrote the best selling chick-lit novel “The Zoya Factor”.
The poets participating in the festival included the Tamil Muslim Salma (pseudonym of Rajathi Samsudeen), London-born Daljit Nagra, and Jeet Thayil. The seminar on the literature of ideas featured four leading Indian non-fiction writers who write in English: Ramachandra Guha, Suketu Mehta, Nandan Nilekani and Pavan K Varma.
Nilekani, the software entrepreneur who wrote “Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century”, said there is now a lot more non-fiction writing about India because “India is at a very exciting time”. At the same time, he added, India faces many challenges for which “there is no road map anywhere in the world”, and such writing articulates different possibilities.
The festival organizers made efforts to include writers from far-flung parts of India; they included the Indian-Nepali poet, editor and translator Jiwan Namdung from Darjeeling, and poet and short story writer Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih from Shilling, capital of Meghalaya in the far north east, and poet scholar and novelist Temsula Ao.
From Kashmir, which he dubbed “the mother of all conflicts”, came the author, editor and translator Shafi Shauq, who declared that literature thrives on conflict. He was imprisoned for five years for being branded a Naxalite, and was then persecuted by fundamentalist militiamen.
The chair of the seminar on the literature of conflict in which Shauq spoke was the ponytailed English-language journalist, publisher and novelist Tarun J. Tejpal. In 2006, London’s Observer Sunday newspaper named him as one of the 20 people who constitute India’s new elite and described him as “pioneer of a brand of sting journalism which has transformed Indian media” through his weekly news magazine Tehelka.
The festival featured much discussion of how India is portrayed by writers who live inside and outside the country, and of questions of identity and authenticity, and language and translation.
The best-selling English-language writer and former banker Chetan Bhagat [pictured], author of the blockbusters “Five Point Someone”, “One Night @ the call center” and “The 3 Mistakes of My Life”, attacked the impact of the Man Booker prize.>
Bhagat claimed “we have destroyed our literature” by chasing after the Booker in the last 25 years. Books written with an eye to the prize are “almost designer books written to impress British juries; you feel like puking when you read them sometimes.” He said that books should be about “making a heart to heart connection”, adding that at present there is “too much analysis, too little heart.”
Saudi Gazette 27 April 2009