Friday, July 30, 2010

The Beautiful Literature of the Indian Subcontinent, Part I

In one of my recent posts, I mentioned my opinion that the best literature in the English language today comes out of the Indian subcontinent. Now I want to introduce you to some (just some for now, and maybe more later, because there are just so many of them) of my favorite authors who are Indian or Pakistani by origin. They live all over the world and create literature of unimaginable beauty and power. When I had to complete a Minor in English literature as part of my PhD program, I, of course, chose the literature of the subcontinent. Formerly, Great Britain had to rely on the colonies for its riches, its food, its clothes, its very subsistence and its economic hegemony. Today, the English-speaking world has to rely on the former colonies to provide it with culture and literature.  
1. The amazing Bapsi Sidhwa was probably one of the first writers from India that I ever read. Cracking India: A Novel is a very powerful story of the Partition of India that took place after the Independence in 1947. The story is narrated by a Parsee girl Lenny in a way that is both touching and profound. Lenny is probably one of the most memorable characters of young girls that one encounters in literature. And I say this as somebody who sepecializes in the female Bildungsroman and has read many novels narrated by a similar narrative voice.

The movie Earth by Deepa Mehta is based on this book, and both the movie and the book are definitely worthy of attention.

If you are interested in the Partition and want to learn more about it, I definitely recommend this book.

2. Rohinton Mistry is a writer I love passionately. He was born in Mumbai but now lives in Toronto (a fellow Canadian, no less!). His A Fine Balance (Oprah's Book Club) is a book a reread on a regular basis even though it is over 600 pages long. It is so beautifully written and the characters are so endearing that even if you never considered travelling to India, after this book, you absolutely will. If you are put off by this book being part of Oprah's Book Club, don't be. This writer is simply fantastic.

Even now as I'm writing this post, I have to fight off the temptation to leave it and go read Rohinton Mistry yet again. :-)

3 Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-Bengali author who, in my opinion, writes in the most lyrical voice of all the writers I have mentioned so far. I absolutely love his Sea of Poppies,set in 1838 against the backdrop of the Opium Wars, and his equally great The Shadow Lines that takes place in the 60ies and deals with issues of national and cultural identity.

Amitav Ghosh seems to be able to write pretty much in any genre he approaches with equal success. Be it a Bildungsroman, a historic novel, an epic, he always creates works of literature that capture your imagination for years to come.

4. Of course, I know that the Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, and not in the Indian Subcontinent. I also know that he is rumored to be a very condescending, mean individual and a total male chauvinist. However, nobody writes about the post-colonial experience better than this writer. He is a descendant of Indian immigrants to Trinidad, and that's why I feel he belongs on this list.

When I first read Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas and his biographical The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel, I could not believe that this writer from Trinidad described my Ukrainian post-colonial experiences so well. It was from Naipaul that I learned how post-colonial experience transcends ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic borders.

Unlike so many of the contemporary writers who simply butcher the English language with no compunction, Naipaul cultivates an inimitable style that is incredibly beautiful. If you are looking to improve your writing style in English, look no further than this great writer.

(To be continued. . . I'm only just getting started here, my friends.)


doufem said...

i strongly object to placing a house for mr. biswas on that list. you're erasing the caribbean literary tradition (which can more than give india a run for its money) because you're reducing naipaul to his "origins." as an undergrad (american-born, of afro- & indo-caribbean descent) studying english - anglophone caribbean literature, in particular - i think it'd be ridiculous to attribute jamaica kincaid's writing to the african continent, for example, or richard fung's filmmaking to china. essentialism at its worst.

Clarissa said...

Oh, get off it! The only essentialist here is you because for some reason it's hard for yout o imagine that a writer could be placed on many lists simultaneously. Naipaul wrote about India a lot. He also wrote about England, Africa and Trinidad. Reducing him to the label of "Caribbean" is silly. he is a great writer and can be many things at a time.

doufem said...

maryse condé is a guadeloupean who writes about africa occasionally. does that make her literature "african"? seriously.

Clarissa said...

The purpose of these posts is not to categorize anybody or put them on lists, which is a silly enterprise per se. My goal is to acquaint people with great literature, and I'd say I'm succeeding.

An author who spent as much time as Naipaul investigating his origins and trying to figure out what they mean, deserves to be introduced to readers who want to now about the subcontinent.

I honestly fail to see what annoys you so much. If you like Naipaul, you should be glad that more people want to claim his as his own than less. Are you equally upset that I said he transmits my Ukrainian post-colonial experience better than anybody else?

doufem said...

"...a writer [can] be placed on many lists simultaneously."
"The purpose of these posts is not to categorize anybody or put them on lists, which is a silly enterprise per se."
lol okay, whatever.

you still haven't answered my question; if you were to bless your readership with exposure to literature of the african continent, might maryse condé make that list? or, is there something particular about naipaul? that's what i want to know.

and, no, i never even suggested i was annoyed by his work speaking to you... i'm multiracial and about 5 generations removed from india via the west indies, making my experience about as different from indian-americans as it is from yours. but, the namesake spoke to me...

you could put a travel narrative on that list if you really want to highlight naipaul's exploration of his origins on the subcontinent...i was just unsettled that you reduced the indo-trinidadian experience detailed in mr. biswas, which is different in its proximity to other diasporic peoples (for example), to the subcontinent...not a big deal. just curious.