O

ne of the things I am most intrigued by when listening to my parents’ stories of “back home” is the colorful characters that seemed to be around every street corner. Though I have fond Canadian memories of hot chocolate after tobogganing or trick-or-treating with my brother, I regret having never in my life met someone named Roshan Pillow-wallah (named for her habit of beating pillows on her front porch) or Rozy Pudding (famous for her trifle).

My imagination has always been filled with characters like this, who drifted on the periphery of my parents’ conversations. Over breakfast I would hear about the street vendor named Tutty-Pie (because all his wares were “tutty-pie shillings,” his heavily-accented way of saying “35 shillings”); at tea I was regaled with tales about CMJ, my dad’s boarding school friend who only ever ate Chapati-Margarine-Jam. Their stories of Dar-es-Salaam seemed so intimate and yet so foreign at the same time. It was as if I was joining a dinner party conversation halfway through—I could recognize the characters and the places, but had completely missed the back story.

That all changed when my father gave me a copy of M.G. Vassanji’s short stories, entitled Uhuru Street. Set around the main street in Dar-es-Salaam, Vassanji told the stories I had only heard snatches of my whole life. Reading about the terrifying discipline of English teacher Mr. Stuart’s classroom and the buzz of Princess Margaret’s visit to the sleepy African town, I felt as though my parents’ lives had suddenly been laid open before me. Here was the whole story of my parents’ youth: the happy times they talked about and the hard times they didn’t. Apparently Vassanji’s writing struck a chord with other Canadians too: he went on to win Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize twice.

Reading about the terrifying discipline of English teacher Mr. Stuart’s classroom and the buzz of Princess Margaret’s visit to the sleepy African town, I felt as though my parents’ lives had suddenly been laid open before me.

Vassanji’s Uhuru Street was published in 1991; little did I know that a few years down the road, there would be a boom in stories just like those my parents told. In 1997 Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her novel, The God of Small Things, and the popularity of South Asian literature was off to a running start. In the years that followed Jhumpa Lahiri won the O. Henry Award for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies; Monica Ali was short-listed for the Booker for her novel Brick Lane and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was made ubiquitous with Oprah’s golden touch. The trend seems to be going strong nine years on with the release of The Namesake, a movie adaptation of Lahiri’s second book, and Kiran Desai’s recent win of the Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss.

“I was talking to a really wonderful author from Nigeria who was trying to get her book published, and her agent told her, ‘It’s really going to be hard because … the ethnicity of the moment is Indian,’” says Desai. “And I thought, ‘That’s horrible!’ But I realize that it’s the best time to be an Indian author in America.”

The “overnight popularity” of South Asian literature was actually a long time coming. A cache of exceptional South Asian writers was slowly creeping into recognition in the late 80s and early 90s. The film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient had won nine Oscars, writers like Kiran’s mother Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie were the talk of Booker circles, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni had tackled the behemoth of Indian stereotypes in her collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage. But Roy’s novel arrived at a time when Westerners were starved for something more than the meat-and-potatoes culture they had been fed for years; it was the catalyst for a sea change in the Western literary scene.

“Interest in multicultural literature was rising with the success of Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich and others,” notes Amardeep Singh, assistant professor of English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “It wasn’t just South Asian literature—readers were hungry for Latin American literature, Native American literature, multicultural literature in general.”

The “overnight popularity” of South Asian literature was actually a long time coming.

Singh also notes that second- and third-generation desis were coming of age and demanding books that they could relate to. “The children of South Asian immigrants were buying a disproportionate number of books about their parents’ homelands, causing demand in the publishing market,” says Singh. They were also supporting those fledgling writers trying to make a voice for themselves: “Some of us were rushing out to the bookstore and buying the latest South Asian title out of a certain sense of loyalty.”

Just as there were South Asians like me hungry for tales of “back home,” there were Indians in India looking to have their stories told. An emerging middle class in Indian cities suddenly had more money to spend on books.

“In India, a whole new culture was developing—young people were trying out different restaurants, seeing movies, going to big bookshops,” says Desai. “They were going to readings and discussing books over samosas and wine—Indian writing became part of a cultural shift.”

In the years between Roy’s win and today, South Asian lit has become a full-blown genre in Western publishing, with second- and third-generation South Asians adding to and evolving the body of work.

At the same time, writers of the post-Independence generation were developing a style all their own. “Earlier, English was the language of public discourse, of higher education,” literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee noted in the Indian newsmagazine The Week. “It is only for a section of those born in the 1950s and after that English is a first language, sometimes their only language. They display a careless intimacy with English, which enables them to play with it.”

In the years between Roy’s win and today, South Asian lit has become a full-blown genre in Western publishing, with second- and third-generation South Asians adding to and evolving the body of work. Diaspora writers like Lahiri, Ali and others write not only of the desi experience, but of the desi experience in the Western world. Their tales of the immigrant experience make their writing relatable to readers of all cultures. Of course, as with every big trend, the good spurs on the mediocre: for every well-written portrait of the desi experience, there are 10 other books with mangoes and saris on the covers. As Desai puts it, “When there is a focus on one culture, it tends to encourage writing for the broader market, and a version of India is created on demand, in a way. When you’re not the ethnicity of the moment, you have a lot of freedom and you have less demands, you can write more honest books.”

Jane Lawson, a senior editor at Doubleday Publishing, concurs. She told Indian Life & Style that “the small-town novel with the greedy buffalo and the lazy sons and the duplicitous in-laws, etc. … paints a small picture with traditional themes; these sorts of novels often don’t resonate beyond themselves … That sort of exoticism is not appealing any more.”

“It’s such a huge community, and all the Indian writers know each other,” says Kiran Desai. “We call each other all the time and have meals together, and there’s a constant keeping in touch with the entire diaspora of Indian authors in many countries.”

Those propelling desi literature forward discuss the experience of life as a South Asian, not just life in South Asia. Their books explore broader themes that impact the world as a whole. Pankaj Mishra makes this clear in his review of The Inheritance of Loss in The New York Times: “Desai’s extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980s, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel.”

So while the glossy paperbacks about arranged marriages will no doubt continue to flood the Western market, there is a budding generation of South Asian writers from both the West and India who are furthering the genre. Not only are those writing in the West experiencing international acclaim for their work, there are exceptional writers in the Subcontinent who are finally enjoying national success. “There has been a literary renaissance in India,” says Singh. “The country’s internal market for literature has been gaining momentum for the past 50 years, and though it is still small compared to Western markets, it is growing. There are a lot of great writers who are writing for an Indian readership. Money from publication in Western markets is nice, but it is not the be-all and end-all.”

It seems that South Asian writers have even formed a makeshift club. “It’s such a huge community, and all the Indian writers know each other,” says Kiran Desai. “We call each other all the time and have meals together and there’s a constant keeping in touch with the entire diaspora of Indian authors in many countries. And there’s a feeling, of yes, even though you know you’re sitting by yourself in your room—writing is essentially a lonely profession—I think there is a feeling of being supported.”

So while desi literature will continue to evolve with the lives of its writers, one thing is for sure: it is here to stay. The “ethnicity of the moment” will no doubt change, but writers will continue to craft stories about the South Asian experience and the indelible marks their ethnicity leaves on their lives. And who knows? Perhaps those hallmarks of my parents’ dinner conversations, Rozy Pudding and Roshan Pillow-wallah, will put their own stories to paper.n

Roxanna Kassam Kara lives in Toronto, where she has put several children of librarians through school with her tireless contributions in overdue fines. Additional reporting by Nakasha Ahmad.
Published on December 4, 2006.
Photography: Vikram Tank for Nirali Magazine.
Comments are closed.
  1. December 8, 2006, 6:43 pm Shameem

    There are so many wonderful authors by Indian writers these days. The big names we have all heard of – Mistry, Vassanji, Roy and others, but there are so many new up and coming writers from India and all over the world that share an Indian connection in their writing. For the last 3 years I have been reading nothing but Indian authors and my lsit is never ending! My most recent favorite was Mistress by Anita Nair; it is a novel that shows how writers can evoke the richness and fullness of Indian culture while having thoroughly modern characters.

    While ethnicity is not a defining feature, it does touch our lives in many ways and it is nice to find books that speak to an important part of who we are and where we come from.

  2. December 8, 2006, 6:46 pm Shameem

    oops – had a couple mistakes in my post. These letters are so small!!

  3. April 4, 2007, 9:31 pm Buria q

    Thought I really love some of these authors and and am very glad for their success, the white-centric, flavor-of-the-month attitude in the literary world troubles me. I was bothered by Desai’s comment in this piece, and the lack of critical analysis of this phenomenon in general.

  4. April 4, 2007, 9:34 pm Buria q

    Please delete my former post, I reread the article and it does address this issue. My apologies.