Which authors should high school students read from contemporary Indian-English literature? An interview with professor and author Tabish Khair on his research into the literature of South Asia.
– Indian-English writers are doing very different things now. It is much more mixed now than it has been. And there are more and more people writing in English in India, though it remains an urban language. You have fantasy literature, pulp fiction, various kinds of genre fiction, speculative fiction, magical realism and you have new versions of post-realist-realism, says Tabish Khair.
Today Indian and other South Asian writers are a very variated group. People like Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Arvind Adiga, Manju Kapur, Kiran Desai and Vikram Chandra mix genres and themes in a complex local and global perspective. But also Manu Joseph, Neel Mukherjee, Samit Basu and Rana Dasgupta are, according to professor Tabish Khair, writing in exciting ways, though many of the writers live only part-time in India/Pakistan or actually have been born elsewhere, such as Hanif Kureishi or the poet Daljit Nagra.
The History Behind
One cannot really talk of South Asian English literature without talking of other Indian language literatures, some with very long histories, much longer than that of English-language writing in the region. But even when talking of Indian-English literature, says professor Tabish Khair, we now have a fairly long history where it largely moved from kinds of social realism into domestic realism and further on to magical realism, before it found itself in the contemporary divergent currents.
– Basically, from the 1930s onwards, one can find the first international generation of Indian-English writers, like R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Attia Hosain and Mulk Raj Anand. These are writers who often wrote about small towns and even villages. They also had a recent family background from small towns or villages even though they were all highly educated people who lived in cities, says Tabish Khair.
– Their novels tended to focus on social and political issues, though one cannot generalize too much, Khair states. One of Mulk Raj Anand’s best-known novels is called Untouchable, and it is a story of an untouchable (dalit). Similarly, up to the 1940s, India saw itself mostly as a country of villages. As an example, Mahatma Gandhi used to say about India, “This is a country of 300,000 villages.” The act of writing about villages and towns in English led to some interesting stylistic experiments within a largely realist idiom – because, of course, most people in villages and small towns do not speak English.
– From the 1950s onwards, the next generation contained people like Anita Desai and Shashi Deshpande. They often wrote a kind of literature that could be described as domestic fiction. However, they used the domestic space as a house to look out of. The domestic situates their narrative, but they were always looking out of the windows and the doors. Whether their narrative took place in Mumbai or in a small town, one could see that urban spaces are entering South Asian fiction in a more hegemonic way, says Tabish Khair.
The Rushdie Generation
After this generation came the Rushdie generation, dominated by the explosion of magical realism. These writers also brought metropolitan spaces into Indian-English literature for good. Besides Salman Rushdie, we find writers like Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Upamanyu Chatterjee. India’s concept of itself had also changed. India had stopped seeing itself as a country of villages. It had instead become a country of cities. Big metropolises as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai. The idea of India as being a place of villages and the rural countryside disappeared when India became a place of gigantic megacities. As a consequence, English had become the language of the metropolis.
– Rushdie is an extreme example of this. With Rushdie we witness a kind of liberation of the metropolis as the place of hybridity. The problem of writing in English about people who do not talk only English also led to another set of experiments, this time within a largely magical realist paradigm. Some of it has continued even until today, but some of it has also led to a return to realism that is informed by magic realism and postmodernism. In my own writing or in what Neel Mukherjee does, whose stories are very often based in big cities, you can encounter this. However, what you meet in the current generations is more complex and varied, for it is hard to pinpoint a dominant style now, says Tabish Khair.
In the last 10-20 years, science fiction, fantasy fiction and speculative fiction have, for example, been very successful genres. Speculative fiction can come in two kinds, according to Khair.
– On the one hand, there is a kind of quasi-historical fantasy novels which can, for example, be based on the Indian myths and epics. Along with that you have a literary speculative fiction which does something similar, but approaches these very epics or myths at a slight slant. For instance, you can have a novel based on the Ramayana which is not that much about Rama, the god, as about his treatment of his wife Sita. These authors can come up with a feminist agenda or a political critique of totalitarianism, tells Tabish Khair.
The English Language
A significant part of professor Tabish Khair’s research also consists in an inquiry into how the choice of English affects what Indian authors write. Keeping in mind that these are writers who very often write about Indians, who do not speak English all the time and sometimes do not speak English at all.
– How do you go about that? How do you narrate someone who doesn’t really speak English? How do you create that kind of atmosphere using a language that is both spoken and not spoken by Indians? My initial research was basically around what are the devices that you adapt to narrate that kind of India? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How does it shape your creativity? asks Tabish Khair.
However, Tabish Khair has experienced that his research is often controversial because India is divided into two camps when it comes to English as a language of creativity. Hindu Nationalists are in opposition to the spread of the English language in present-day India. Yet English is increasingly becoming a language also for the lower-middle-classes, also through pulp literature.
The State of English
This ‘language-war’ between supporters and opponents of the English language is also reflected in the present-day literature of India, and it is an important theme alongside multiculturalism, globalism, identity politics and social issues.
– There are people who feel, “Oh, English is a foreign language.” Even the vice president of India has said that English is the biggest disease that the British have left behind in India. That’s just a few weeks ago. Then you have the other camp that feels, “Oh no, English is our language, and we have the right to write and think in it. Why should you discuss the fact I’m writing in English? says Tabish Khair.
In the opinion of Tabish Khair, both these positions are limited. On the one hand, English is an Indian language, and it has been in India for three centuries.
– Lots of Indians grow up speaking English. English is a link language much more than any other language, perhaps even more than Hindi for the middle classes, Tabish claims. About 50, 60 million Indians speak English as a first language, and are a part of a much larger reading middle-class. There might be more people in England, but not all of them would be middle-class reading people. In that sense India is a very good market, which explains why all major Anglophone publishers are there in India. On the other hand, it is also true that when you write in English about India, you are faced with a problem because English has a different history, politically and linguistically, and that should not be ignored, says Tabish Khair.
Literature for High Schools
Are there any contemporary Indian-English authors who could be used in the English teaching in Danish high schools?
Tabish Khair thinks and then laughs. Yes, Indian-English literature has never been more relevant. Both his mind and his bookshelves are bursting with interesting Indian-English book titles. He picks up a selected group of important titles which he thinks Danish high school students or the Danish reading audience should get to know better:
English, August by Upamanya Chatterjee (1988)
Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel English, August is a post-Rushdie novel from 1988. It is not too long for high school students, but a little overlooked in the West because of Rushdie’s literary omnipresence and its very local context. This novel is easier to read than, for example, Midnight’s Children. Moreover, the novel reflects how English has become a part of Indian culture, and it gives the students an idea of how Indian society is structured.
– The only problem with this novel is that it needs a good teacher, because it uses prejudices freely. There are prejudices against the poor, against the tribals, against women. In essence, this is a story of a big city guy, August, short for Augustya, from a very educated background who gets through the Civil Service exams which are the most prestigious exams in India. As a junior officer, August is posted only in the small towns, alien to his lifestyle, where he is bored to death. He has nothing to do except getting drunk, smoke hash, jerk off and fantasize about women, says Tabish Khair.
English, August uses the English language in a less demonstrative way than Rushdie because it depicts middle-class people from India in an Indian context. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English is more like what middle-class Indians from an Anglophone background actually would speak to each other.
– It that sense, English, August is much closer to ‘authentic’ Indian English. While Rushdie’s English is a flamboyant construct, says Tabish Khair.
Home by Manju Kapoor (2006)
Manju Kapoor is sometimes described as the “Jane Austen” of India. In 2006 she published Home where she deals with the contemporary Indian sense of homeliness and domesticity. The novel could be used as an introduction to the domestic fiction of weddings and deaths, how arranged marriages and secret love affairs occur simultaneously.
– Manju Kapur is easy to read, but she is not superficial in her engagement with largely domestic fields of experience. She belongs to a sub-genre of South Asian English fiction that can be called domestic realism, says Tabish Khair.
Manju Kapoor largely depicts a Delhi middle-class setting in a Delhi middle-class English language and narrates characteristic domestic problems and challenges.
Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta (2005)
Rana Dasgupta is from an Indian family, but he grew up and was educated in England. However, he has recently moved back to India. In Tabish Khair’s view, Rana Dasgupta’s first novel from 2005, which is called Tokyo Cancelled, could be very useful in high school teaching.
– The reason why I’m recommending it is that primarily, it is written almost as a series of stories. It is about a group of passengers who are stuck on a flight going to Tokyo. They tell each other stories, and these stories are about them themselves. You can work on aspects of multiculturalism and globalization, but also other things, says Tabish Khair.
Serious Men by Manu Joseph (2010)
Serious Men by Manu Joseph is from 2010, and it could also be a relevant novel to teach. It is about a young boy growing up in a contemporary Indian society, and in that sense it is also partly a novel about contemporary caste differences.
– The story is about a clever young boy and a scientist. It narrates how caste still plays a role in science in India, but with a funny take on it, in a very Indian context as it contains a number of separate narratives united within a frame, says Tabish Khair.
A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee (2017)
Neel Mukherjee is mostly famous for his novel The Lives of Others (2014), but as Tabish Khair has experienced, you will have to read the entire book and that might mean too many pages for school students. Instead he recommends his last book, A State of Freedom from 2017, which consists of four overlapping and interconnected novellas.
– A State of Freedom is set very much in recent India with elements of caste and class interlinked. It begins as a disturbing tale. An Indian man, who has lived in the US for twenty years, hires a taxi to drive with his six-year-old son from the Taj Mahal, and from there on it develops, says Tabish Khair.
Turbulence by Samit Basu (2012)
If you want to teach contemporary Indian-English science fiction literature, one could venture into Samit Basu’s novel Turbulence from 2012. Moreover, he has a very interesting website the students could investigate.
– This novel, Turbulence, is essentially a take on the Superman myth. All the main characters are superheroes, and it is a kind of funny take on superheroes. Samit Basu is an intelligent writer, so even though he writes to entertain, you can see that he is aware of what he is doing. It is very entertaining, especially in a youth-culture context. Also the characters have superpowers which could be interpreted as a comment on contemporary Indian society, says Tabish Khair.
Salt and Safron by Kamila Shamsie (2000)
Kamila Shamsie is from Pakistan, but she has grown up in England. She is famous for such works as Salt and Saffron (2000) and Burnt Shadows (2009).
– Shamsie has been writing widely on different issues, though largely her focus is on the Muslim experience in a Western context, in contemporary society as well as in the past. She provides an intelligent and readable engagement with the usual issues in this topical area, and she is particularly accessible to high school readers, says Tabish Khair.
Just Another Jihadi Jane by Tabish Khair (2016)
– Allow me also to recommend one of my own novels: Just Another Jihadi Jane from 2016. This novel is already being taught in England and America. In some ways, it is the simplest of my novels, but it is also the most directly relevant for high school readers, as it has young protagonists, says Tabish Khair.
The novel is a kind of a thriller and about two young girls from a Muslim background, who have grown up in England, who are British even in the way they speak English. For a different set of reasons, they end up getting attracted to Islamism. They are from different families: one of them is from a working-class family, and very religious. The other one is from a professional, middle-class family but her parents have divorced. They are recruited online and end up going into Syria and Iraq to fight the Jihad. What happens next is best left to the reader to discover.
In the opinion of Tabish Khair, the best thing to do if you want to teach contemporary Indian-English poetry is to look in the anthology: The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets from 2008. Here one can also find a comprehensive introduction to the poets. Yet Tabish Khair would like to recommend his favorite Indian-English poet:
– Arun Kolatkar was an outstanding Indian-English poet. He is dead, so I guess I should not mention him here, but still. His best-known collection is called Jejuri. It is a great book if you want to have just one poetry book. It is about two Bombay people going to a small town, but much more than that.
– It is a slim book, and the poetry is quite simple, but it is very effective. It is a kind of late modernist poetry, as he uses modernist tricks, but he uses them without too much fuss and it is effective because of the way he captures the atmosphere of a small town. I have never seen it done better in poetry. He is known in Indian poetry circles, but he should be read more widely abroad too, tells Tabish Khair.
About Tabish Khair
Tabish Khair (b. 1966) is an Indian-English writer living in Denmark, Aarhus. Originally, he moved away from his hometown Gaya to Delhi when he was 25 because he started writing for The Times of India and wrote a couple of pieces that made religious fundamentalists from his local Muslim community very mad at him. His father said, “Why don’t you leave the town for a few months?” So he left the town and then The Times of India in Delhi offered him a job. “I never went back, I went back for visits but never went back for good,” Khair tells. He has now been living mostly in Denmark for 22 years and works as a professor of English at Aarhus University.
Among Tabish Khair’s most famous literary works are The Bus Stopped (2004), The Thing About Thugs (2010), How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2012), Just Another Jihadi Jane (2016) and Night of Happiness (2018). He has been shortlisted for a number of prizes, including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Man Asian Literary Prize. His poem Birds of North Europe won the First Prize in the Sixth The Poetry Society (India) Competition held in 1995.
This interview was originally published in Anglo Files November 2018 #190