Reading New India : Interview with Emma Dawson Varughese

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Emma Dawson Varughese’s Reading in India is a one-of-its-kind book on Indian English Writing. She is an independent scholar, who works around language, culture and literature, and looks into ‘World Englishes’. Her first project was ‘Beyond the Post-Colonial’, an interdisciplinary study challenging the orthodoxy of post-colonial literary theory. Her interest in Indian writing in English is a long-standing one. In her new book Reading New India (2013) which is a cultural studies enquiry into post-millennial Indian Writing in English, she largely approaches the topic with an emphasis on the sort of writing that’s being sold and read, irrespective of the reputation among the literary elite. This work brings together Indian Englishes, the changing socio-culture dynamics and the role of literature in English post-2000. 

 

  • What set off your interest in Indian Writing in English?

My life experiences and my academic pursuits have always been around language, culture and literature (or the Arts more broadly). I have written on this trio variously, that is within cultural studies, linguistics (stylistics) as well as within education and policy. My interest in Indian writing in English is an long-standing one but post-millennial India has brought this trio together in ways that I had not previously had the chance to consider – Indian Englishes, changing socio-culture dynamics and the role of (and production of) literature in English post 2000. This is how Reading New India (2013) came about really; a cultural studies enquiry into this particular scene. 

  • How did you go about powering this interest to the point of a project on post-millennial Indian fiction in English?

I could see from spending time in India, in particular in leaving and returning to more and more change that the fiction I was buying was somewhat in sync with these changes. This is a major benefit of having prolonged stays in and out of various places; I have a similar (yet somewhat diluted) relationship with The Gulf. It was as I left Mumbai in 2009, I knew that a book was needed to capture this growing body of new writing in English from India.  I also knew that it needed to be a book which was settled as much as possible in India whilst remaining accessible for readers outside of that market in order to learn of new trends in post-millennial writing. Reading New India (2013) is published with Bloomsbury which has offices in the UK and India and this arrangement has always been important to me as the book deals with many authors known within India but not necessarily known outside of India. Reading New India (2013) challenges the idea that Indian literature is only that which is known within the US, UK (or Australia), I think that it is time and more, that awareness of this body of new writing is cultivated as widely as possible.

  • How much have you tapped the current research in the field? I am talking about this in the context of India and outside, both

I haven’t yet come across a study that focuses uniquely on post-millennial fiction in English from India, although I have come across works that focus on the Indian novel in English more broadly. Indian Writing in English – Past and Present(2004), Indian English Literature: Marginalized Voices (2003), Indian English Literature 1980-2000 (2004), Studies in Contemporary Indian-English Short Story (1991), Critical Essays on Indian Writing in English (2005), Postmodern Indian English Literature (2006), A History of Indian Literature in English (2003) and I often turn to cite Khair’s Babu Fictions(2001), as well as some of his other works. Some of the publications noted here do survey the short story and some poetry in English from India which is refreshing to see. Surveys and ‘history of’ volumes are useful in drawing together the literature but what is essential, are books which look at contemporary literature in English from India employing different (and new) theoretical paradigms.

  • What was your method and your criterion in identifying the authors?

This part of the Reading New India project was almost empirical. I bought a lot of writing in English and as I did so, I organised it in such as way on my bookshelves that ‘groupings’ started to appear. Some of these groupings were through genre and some by theme, moreover, these groupings also dovetailed with preoccupations of India post millennium. The book moves from Urban scapes, Young India (including the topics of call centres and also sexuality), Crime writing and graphic novels to Chick Lit and fiction I have termed ‘Crick Lit’ and ‘Bharati Fantasy’. It became clear that certain motifs of post-millennial India featured in this collection of new writing, most notably in young India and the urban. Alongside these themes, new genres and forms of expression have emerged post millennium, such as graphic novels, crime fiction and a growing body of narratives which draw on Hindu epics and mythology such as Amish’s Shiva Trilogy, Ashwin Sanghi’s works, Pattanaik and also Menon’s Vedic Trilogy – I have discussed some of the works in Reading New India (2013) in relation to issues of ‘reception’ in a chapter section entitled: ‘Bharati fantasy or historical fiction?’   

  • You have largely approached the topic with a delightful emphasis on the sort of writing that’s being sold and read irrespective of the reputation among the literary elite rather than what’s considered good writing. Why is that?

Because isn’t it time for a change in that respect? And surely, if masses of people are spending their money and time on a particular novel, isn’t it worth investigating why that is the case? Given too, that Reading New India (2013) is a cultural studies rather than a pure literary studies investigation into new writing, the consumers, the markets and the backdrop of post-millennial India are essential to such an enquiry.

  • How influential is changing India on fiction? Do you think it’s well documented at all? Or was it only touched upon unlike world literature in moments of crisis?

Reading New India (2013) certainly suggests that ‘changing India’ as you describe it, is influential on fiction in English from India. In terms of production alone, post-millennial India has seen a rise in publishing houses, printing and production options, technology, skilled workforce and of course, marketing. In terms of market, ‘changing India’ has, and continues to create markets of new readers, ‘old’ readers with more disposable income and multifarious outlets of book selling and buying. Since 2000, the opportunities for book purchasing has increased (and changed) immensely, physical book stores, independents as well as chain bookstores in malls and the like, as well as possibilities of buying through online retailers which deliver the books to your door without postage charges. The book catalogues on infibeam and Flipkart are substantial and in addition, book publishers websites have grown and developed extensively, in particular since the mid-2000s, online opportunities for browsing, purchasing and reviewing have grown exponentially.  We take all this for granted nowadays but if we compare the book buying trends 15 years back, we really are able to take stock of the impact of some of these developments.

  • How much does politics affect Indian Fiction in English? 

I suppose politics affects everything in a sense but I think it would be wrong to say that there has been a real surge of Indian politico-narratives post millennium in the sense that we might say there has been a surge in Chick Lit or romance novels. There have been some novels that obviously connect with politics demonstrably such as Chauhan’s Battle For Bittora (2010) but there are also a significant number of narratives which deal with ‘political issues’ such as corruption in society, nationalism, religion, violence and environment, these include: The Man With Enormous Wings (2010), The Harappa Files (2011), Through The Forest Darkly (2010), The Sound of Water (2008), Jimmy The Terrorist (2010), Revolution Highway (2010), Lost and Found (2010), Kashmir Pending (2007).   

  • Could you talk a bit about your concluded projects and forthcoming ones too?

Before I embarked on Reading New India (2013), I completed and published an international, fieldwork-based literary/cultural studies enquiry into the post-millennial literary scene in English in Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and India (Beyond The Postcolonial, Palgrave, 2012). This publication took many years to complete given that my fieldwork covered Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda and Kenya in Africa alone. In this project I was driven by the idea of ‘literature as data’. The fieldwork involved sourcing new writing in the form of short stories in English(es) and many of these were published in a series of anthologies of new writing. The title story of the Ugandan collection is entitled ‘Butterfly Dreams’ and this story made the shortlist of the Caine Prize in 2011. As a global cultural studies scholar, I’m always interested in the conversations between literary works (and their production) and society, most specifically contemporary society and where the role of Englishes is at play, Beyond The Postcolonial really engaged with this agenda and used empirical methods and grounded theory to explore this literary scene.

Reading New India (2013) was launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2013 and although I’m still busy with follow-up work and conversations around this project, I am now engaged in new activity. I’m currently writing on graphic novels in English(es) from India, grown from the chapter on graphic novels (GN) in Reading New India (2013). I’m interested in the idea of the ‘perceived’ marginal form of the GN which in turn, recounts ‘marginal’ experiences. The use of the term ‘marginal’ here is used to represent various experiences and various semantics, as these ‘marginal’ experiences encompass subjects such as child abuse, terrorism and untouchability. I’m also writing on science and faith in post-millennial Indian fiction in English from India, using cultural studies approaches to analyse works such as The Krishna Key (2012) and Bali and the Ocean of Milk (2011), here I am interested in ‘the popular and the peripheral’ in this contemporary Indian literary production.       

  • What stage or phase do you observe in Indian Fiction in English? Is this an upward trend or a decline?

I think that certainly post-2000 the publishing of Indian fiction in English is enjoying an upward trend but I wonder as to how that might be maintained. Anything that continues to grow exponentially risks saturation, stagnation or general overload, but this is a risk, not a given. Such environments can also lead to increased creativity, licence to experiment and can foster non-conformity. When the scene is buoyant and sales are up, publishers can sometimes be more inclined to take on a manuscript that would be otherwise perceived as ‘risky’ that is, in more difficult or austere times.    

  • Do you think literary writing will survive in India? What is the future?

It will survive in India as it will survive anywhere else, given the chance. As humanity’s life experience changes at pace, it is impossible to know what, how or even, if we will be reading in the future. But we can look at history. From which we see that somehow, the literary (or the Arts more broadly) have made it until now and moreover, that they have constituted a core element of life and the recording of the experience of life. I’m always taken when I hear about the latest sighting of a planet, an orbiting moon or a newly discovered universe. The description of this newly acquired information is rarely conveyed in purely scientific terms but rather the beauty of the new object, its aesthetic, is often revealed through the most literary of language. As Carl Sagan (1994) writes:

‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. […] on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. […] Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.’ (from Pale Blue Dot)   

In this sense, for me at least, literary writing is part of knowing and exploring the human condition and I am reminded of how we might lose this ability to know and explore when I think of Bhattacharya’s Babughater Kumari Maachh  (which I know only in translation by Meenakshi Mukherjee). Aparash Nandy, devoid of book, dictionaries and religious texts, forced to write day after day (of nothing), laments how man cannot survive unless he can relate himself to someone else. Literary writing, if nothing else, offers us this I believe, so yes, it should survive.

  • What directions will fiction take now, as you see it? Is long or short fiction the strength here?

I suppose that I’m more interested in tracking and charting than prophesising. Naturally, I’m interested to see which directions fiction will take and I do recognise that currently long fiction dominates the literary scene in English in within India, although Anjum Hasan’s collection of short fiction Difficult Pleasures (2012) does buck that trend. It would be good to see short fiction being encouraged more, possibly through creative writing programmes, publisher calls, literary prizes or other ventures grown from the Indian context. It would be especially nice to see the same happen for the graphic novel scene. The urban seems to lend itself to the production of short fiction, that is, collections of short stories such as Window-seat (2009), Crowded Rooms (2010), Bangalore Calling (2011) and some stories in Eunuch Park (2009), all of these being single-authored collections. It is however, the Penguin First Proof editions or The HarperCollins Book of New Indian Fiction (2005) that come to mind when we speak of short fiction. A flick through First Proof however, reveals names of authors who have gone to be published as novelists, very few of these have gone to be known for their short fiction – FP1: Anuradha Roy, FP2: Chandrahas Choudhury, FP5: Vamsee Juluri as examples – Prem Nath and Temsula Ao as obvious exceptions. 

There is a risk that short story is not the only avatar of what might be considered ‘short fiction’. Omair Ahmad’s the storyteller’s tale (2008) works fantastically well as a novella, Sawian’s Shadow Men (2010)is another recent novella that comes to mind and interestingly, some of the publications in the more ‘popular’ Metro Reads present more as novellas. It is often the parameters of publishing and literary awards which dictate the trends and therefore, changing or usurping these boundaries might produce more variety in both form and genre!   

  • Have you read translated fiction from Indian languages at all? What do you think about the translations that happen in India?

I have recently read, and enjoyed, Translation and Postcolonialities (Orient BlackSwan, 2013) which explores, amongst other lines of enquiry, the postcolonial as monolingual and translation as inherently, multilingual. I do read fiction in translation from within India although most of my reading is of fiction in English, given my research interests. I recently picked up By The Tungabhadra (2010) originally published as Tungabhadrar Teere in the mid-sixties, and what I found striking when I picked up this book is that the translator is an ‘Internet professional by day and a translator of classic and contemporary fiction by late night’ (2010). This was an interesting find for me given that through my research of Indian fiction in English I have not been able to ignore the fact that the authors are rarely ‘authors by day’ but rather surgeons, IT professionals and engineers. Given my interest in the contemporary and the popular, I have also enjoyed reading Sikandar: 10 players, 68 days (2011) and I’m a fan of Blaft, particularly The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction (2008).

 

A global cultural studies scholar, E. Dawson Varughese is the author of Beyond The Postcolonial (2012) and Reading New India (2013). See her work at: www.beyondthepostcolonial.com       

 An edited version of this interview appeared on the Hindu Literary Review of November 2013.

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