Publisher, author, and founder of Aleph Book Company David Davidar’s latest anthology is A Case of Indian Marvels: Dazzling Stories from the Country’s Finest New Writers – featuring 40 millennial and Generation Z writers. In an interview with Scroll.in, Davidar answered questions about the future of short fiction in India, a growing appetite for fiction in translation, writing and publishing trends that excite him, and how the current generation of writers makes him hopeful about a resurgence of fiction in the English language.
How did A Case of Indian Marvels come into being? Apart from being age 40 and under, what were you looking for while compiling your list of forty authors?
The idea to put together an anthology on these lines had been brewing for a while. A few years ago, I edited a selection of the best short fiction ever created by writers from India, entitled A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, and that was received well. At the time the book was published, I wondered what the future held for the short story in India – that was the seed, so to say, from which this anthology germinated.
I decided that I would use 2020 as a cut-off year to do a round-up of what the newest generations of writers were writing – the older members of the millennial generation were about to turn 40 and the oldest members of Generation Z were into their 20s, so it seemed as good a time as any to do a reckoning of what they were up to. Several of them had already begun making their mark with debut books so I figured there would be enough material to choose from.
Naturally, age wasn’t the only criterion that was in play. Literary excellence was the first qualification for inclusion in the book – all these stories are superb.
In what ways is the short fiction written by Millennial and Gen Z writers different from that of their predecessors?
In our country, many observers of the literary scene wouldn’t have any difficulty in accepting that the period between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, a span of approximately 20 years, represented the golden age of modern Indian literature, especially in English.
Salman Rushdie – I was deeply saddened and furious by the despicable attack on him in New York which took place just as this interview was being conducted – opened the gates to a flood of extraordinary works of fiction when he published his peerless novel, Midnight’s Children. Other remarkable books from this time include The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, to name just a few of the works by Indian writers from here and the diaspora that will stand the test of time.
This was also the period in which outstanding books of short fiction were published by the likes of Ruskin Bond, OV Vijayan, Mahashweta Devi, Ambai, and Nirmal Verma. I published most of these greats at one time or the other so I was able to observe their genius up close – and that was one of the reasons why I was curious about what their successors would come up with.
As it turned out, A Case of Indian Marvels was a wonderful voyage of discovery. I was aware of and admired the work of approximately half the writers who made the final cut – extremely talented storytellers like Kanishk Tharoor (the only writer represented in both anthologies), Madhuri Vijay, Prayaag Akbar, Meena Kandasamy, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Avinuo Kire, Karan Madhok, Krithika Pandey, Neel Patel, and Aravind Jayan, among others, who had either published well-regarded books or won major literary awards but the rest came to my attention only because of recommendations from various litterateurs, and some excellent detective work by my editorial colleagues (several of whom are millennials or belong to Generation Z) who waded through many literary journals (online and print) to find some gems that made it to the longlist.
I then whittled the longlist down to the 40 stories that made it to the anthology – these were then revised or edited for publication. How do the stories by these writers measure up to those by their predecessors? Pretty well, I’d say. Allowing for the fact that most of these writers are in the early stages of their careers, I’d say there is some amazing talent on display. The future of Indian literature is in very good hands.
What are the writing trends among the current generations that really excites you as a publisher? Any trends started by this new crop of writers that makes you hopeful about future short fiction?
I was interested to see that there was a significant percentage of dystopian fiction to be had. I wonder if this had to do with the sensibility of the writers concerned or the tenor of our times! Many of these stories were a courageous take on the dark age we are passing through – where decency, intelligence, liberal values, and a passel of freedoms are in short supply or are gravely threatened.
I think it’s important for our best writers to be political in some way, especially in a dysfunctional society like our own, despite the very real risks they face, as evidenced by the brutal assault on Rushdie most recently but also the killings of MM Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh and others. If novelists, along with historians, journalists, sociologists and writers of narratives of serious enquiry and exposition, don’t speak truth to power, or reflect the ugliness of the society they are part of, the ranks of those who oppose autocrats, bullies, thugs, and threats to freedom will be thinned out.
To return to the stories in this anthology, besides those that had a political flavour, there were exquisite tales grounded in mythology, stories that celebrated sexuality, LGBTQ themes and so on – the most interesting thing about these writers was that they were unafraid to take risks with their writing and ranged far and wide in their choice of subjects. I believe we will see spectacular work from them and others like them in the years to come – not just short fiction but novels as well.
And yet short fiction in English by Indian writers is hard to come by. Do you think that is set to change soon?
Short fiction has never been as popular as the novel form and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. Short stories don’t sell as well as novels and the reason for this is a complete mystery to me despite decades in the game. As a result, there aren’t many writers who specialise in short fiction – what you usually have in the oeuvre of major writers is a bunch of novels along with a couple of story collections.
Translations are becoming increasingly popular with both readers and publishers. A Case of Indian Marvels also features short stories in translation. Would you agree that the genre is flourishing in regional languages too?
I’m delighted by the burgeoning interest in translations by readers, publishers, and the executors of literary prizes, but it’s nowhere near enough. We need generous funding by corporates with cultural leanings to support Indian literature created in languages other than English as also translation projects that will make work in these languages available to readers in English and languages other than those in which the work was originally created.
We need funds from big industry because it’s futile to expect state organisations to deliver – they are usually politically compromised, underfunded, or bureaucratic. Publishers do not have the funds to mount any sort of sustained, large-scale effort to popularise translations so unless we have far reaching corporate initiatives to support and market translations all we are going to see are slow, incremental gains being made – this will continue to be a major source of frustration for everyone who wants to see great Indian literature created in all our major languages popularised in the way that it should be.
The Greatest Short Stories Ever Told series continues to be a great success in short fiction in translation. Why did you decide to start this series?
It all started with The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told by the brilliant and indefatigable translator, Arunava Sinha. When that proved a success, we commissioned the late great translator Muhammad Umar Memon to put together The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told for us which also did phenomenally well.
After that it didn’t take a great deal of thought to commission anthologies of short fiction in translation from all the major Indian languages. We will have about ten such books by the end of this
year and about 14 or so when we are done. Amazingly, every one of these books has done well out of the gate and they continue to backlist well.
Aleph Book Company has completed ten years in the publishing business. In what fundamental ways has Indian publishing changed in this short period of time?
Indian publishing hasn’t changed much in the time we have been around and I don’t expect it to change in fundamental ways for the foreseeable future. The coming of e-books and Amazon changed the way books were bought and read and digital and online marketing is well-nigh indispensable today, but in terms of the kinds of books that are being published – besides the growth of commercial fiction and commercial and life-style oriented non-fiction, both of which have been around for decades now – I can’t say there has been any perceptible change.
In your view, how have readers and their reading habits changed over the years? What kinds of books/writings suddenly seem to be hot favourites?
The four subject areas in which there seems to be sustained interest are self-help books, mythological fiction, general commercial fiction, and ambitious non-fiction books. Literary fiction has been in decline for some time now and I have no real idea as to when an interest in it will revive.
We might need to have a slew of monstrously brilliant novels published in quick succession to reverse the lack of interest of readers in hyped books of indifferent quality by modestly talented writers – we all wait in hope for that to happen.
Is Indian fiction in English truly in danger? What is your opinion?
I think it is for the reasons I have outlined above. But the talent and ambition of the writers represented in A Case of Indian Marvels makes me optimistic that a resurgence is fairly imminent.
Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of the Books & Idea section of Scroll.in.