AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 272

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Session 272: Indian-English Fiction, 2000-2010: Major themes and trends

Organizer: Rituparna Roy, Independent Scholar, Netherlands

The first decade of the new millennium has been an exciting time for Indian-English fiction, the novel in particular. While the established greats (Rushdie/Ghosh/Seth) have continued to write, as have many writers of the post-Rushdie generation (Tharoor/Chaudhuri/Chatterjee), fresh talents from the 1990s (Chandra/Lahiri/Desai) have also consolidated their literary reputations during this decade, along with completely new voices (Basu/Dasgupta/Jha, to name a few) who offer new dimensions to the Indian novel in English. The panel, chaired by Prof. Bill Ashcroft, will try to present a cross-section of this very interesting mix of old and new Indian-English novelists and uncover some of the major fictional themes and trends of this decade. Prof. Chew’s paper will focus on Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, and examine such themes and issues as migrancy, identity, language, and the representation of history in Ghosh, with reference to the works of earlier writers like Rao, Anand, Desai, among others. Prof. Sen will discuss Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss as new parables of the nation. Prof. Dhar will speak on Chetan Bhagat, and show how it is the modes and methods of commercial ‘inspi-lit’ (motivational/inspirational literature) that can explain the phenomenal success of Bhagat’s novels. Dr. Roy will discuss Kunal Basu’s The Miniaturist as a contemporary novel, arguing that though it is set in Mughal India, it explores questions that have resonance even today – namely, the relationship between art and the artist, and the extent to which it is defined by success and power.

Indian Literature 70 Years On: with particular reference to Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies
Shirley Chew, University of Leeds, Singapore

Reflecting on the constraints he experienced growing up in Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul remarks: To this there had to be added … the special incompleteness of the Indian child, grandson of immigrants, whose past suddenly broke off, suddenly fell away into the chasm between the Antilles and India. (The Enigma of Arrival, 141). Behind Naipaul’s ‘panic’ as he speaks of his migrant history is the taboo of kala pani. This burden of his migrant history weighs heavily on Naipaul’s psyche in his many works. To turn to Amitav Ghosh and other diasporic writers of the present decade is to come upon a far more invigorating and positive response to migrancy. Ghosh has written in praise of some of the Indian diaspora’s ‘finest writers’, such as Naipaul, Rushdie and A.K. Ramanujan in ‘The Diaspora in Indian Culture’ (Public Culture, 2:1 (Fall 1989) 73-78), and can himself be counted one of its members given his impressive oeuvre to date. Taking Sea of Poppies (2008) as my touchstone, my paper sets out to explore, within the conference’s overarching theme of ’70 years of Asian Studies’, some of the new energies, concerns, and directions to have emerged in 21st-century Indian literature and which have come from diasporic Indian writers. In particular, the paper will focus on issues of identity, language, representation of history in Sea of Poppies, while making succinct comparisons with the work of his antecedents, such as Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, and contemporaries, such as Vikram Seth and Rana Dasgupta.

Parables of the Nation: Shalimar the Clown and The Inheritance of Loss
Krishna Sen, Independent Scholar, India

Kashmir and Kalimpong, the best known and perhaps the least known tropes for the postcolonial nation and its fragments, signal, in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (2005) and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), yet another phase of what in Indian writing in English may be called ‘the novel of the nation.’ From the 1940s to the 1960s one had, not just the eye-witness partition fiction but the many explorations of the re-configured paradigms of caste, class and community that mark the work of the generation of Anand, Narayan and Markandaya. Again, the political crises of the economically assailed 1980s, along with Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial emergency measures provoked meditations on the existential viability of the non-Westphalian, plural and hybrid nation-space that is post-independence India in novels like Midnight’s Children, The Shadow Lines, Clear Light of Day or English, August. Shalimar and Loss are widely regarded as post-9/11 stories in their concern with terrorism spawned by the clash of cultures, yet, to an Indian reader, they are more significant as vivid projections of pressing daily issues – terrorism most certainly, but also the pressures of a nation growing to maturity in a globalized world. Through magic realism and social realism, anger and angst, Shalimar and Loss gesture towards yet another phase of the national narrative in two apparently widely different, and yet in many ways remarkably similar parables of the nation. Along the way they illustrate the role of fiction in articulating and augmenting the national narrative

Inspiring India: The Fiction of Chetan Bhagat and the Discourse of Motivation
Subir Dhar, Independent Scholar, India

It is certainly not surprising that the unprecedented success in India of the novels of Chetan Bhagat did not occur within the first few decades of the nation’s independence, but a good two generations down, precisely at a time when the country is on the verge of developing into an economic superpower. Bought (and presumably read) by hundreds of thousands of young, English-language knowing Indians of both sexes, Bhagat’s volumes evidently conform and cater to the tastes, concerns, interests and inclinations of a large section of India’s present day upwardly-mobile bourgeois class. It has been argued that factors such as the price of the books (equivalent or less than the cost of a cinema ticket or a restaurant meal for one) and the impact of globalization/glocalization have contributed to the reception of this writer’s popular fiction. Yet even though it is possible to attribute alterations in public taste to contingents in the socioeconomic milieu, changes in social response are often stimulated by textual practices and operations. It will be the argument of this paper, therefore, that form no less than ideology contribute to the popularity of the fiction of Chetan Bhagat in India today. And while Bhagat himself claimed that as a novelist he wished to blend a message with entertainment, this essay will try to show how it is the modes and methods of commercial ‘inspi-lit’ (motivational/inspirational literature) that can explain both the success of Bhagat’s novels and account for the ideological thrust of this kind of fiction.

Of Art and the Artist: Kunal Basu’s The Miniaturist as a contemporary novel set in Mughal times
Rituparna Roy, Independent Scholar, Netherlands

Set in the sixteenth century, Kunal Basu’s The Miniaturist (2003) tells the story of the miniature painter Kamal-al-Din Bihzad, son of Abdus Samad Shirzi, master artist in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The historical Bihzad, showed exceptional artistic talent as a boy and was expected to succeed his father, but he rebelled and then dropped out of sight – lost to history. In this novel, Basu thus weaves a tale from what was essentially a footnote in history. Basu, one of the most talented Indian-English historical novelists to emerge in the first decade of this century (The Opium Clerk; Racists), evokes Mughal India with rare imaginative conviction and beauty in The Miniaturist. But the novel is a contemporary one, because what it primarily explores has deep relevance even today – namely, the relationship between art and the artist, and the extent to which it is defined by love, success and power. In the novel, guided by his step-mother Zuleikha’s warning, that he should not “become what you are not”, Bihzad (unlike his father) refuses to being reduced to just a commissioned artist. This eventually leads to his exile from Agra and thereafter, he lives a tumultuous life full of suffering and hardship. But it is through this depiction of Bihzad’s struggle to find himself and his own artistic vision that Basu celebrates the autonomy of art – suggesting, that this is the path that all true artists must traverse. My paper will try to establish this underlying contemporaneity of the novel.