For a while now, publishers have expressed concerns about Indian fiction in the English language dying a slow death. Fewer novels are being published, and sales figures are precarious. There just doesn’t seem to be enough readers who might be interested in what the young and hot-blooded writers are writing in India today.
This is a bit of a paradox since well-established older writers like Amitav Ghosh or Jerry Pinto continue to be favourites and books, by literary greats such as Rabindranath Tagore or Sadat Hasan Manto continue to dominate backlists. However, publishers are witnessing a growing interest in Indian nonfiction – especially political biographies, spirituality and well-being, and alternative histories among other.
Interestingly, there has also been a surge of fiction in translation – translators are doing a wonderful job of scouring regional literature to bring to the English reader the best of classical and contemporary writings from the languages of India. Apart from an ever-expanding readership, big literary awards in India have also realised the potential of translated fiction – for instance, the longlist for the 2022 JCB Prize for Literature is dominated by translations.
Publishers are pointing out how more and more young writers are taking to translation and the reasons why these stories appeal to an English-speaking, urban readership. Clearly, the readers are hungry for good stories and they are reading in English – so what explains the sudden waning of interest in Indian fiction in English?
In a country with an overwhelming population of nearly 1.4 billion people, 140 million people claim English as their second language – that’s only 1% of the country’s population. In all fairness, it’s not a small number and makes for a formidable readership if I were to consider that each of these 140 million people is also a book buyer. As if these numbers are not mindboggling enough, this English-speaking, English-reading population is concentrated in the top 1% of India’s rich. But are they spending on books, especially those by Indian writers? That’s an answer we are yet to find.
A case for Indian fiction in English
In a recent interview to Scroll, editor David Davidar (and publisher at Aleph Book Company) of A Case of Indian Marvels: Dazzling Stories from the Country’s Finest New Writers said that the quality of writing in India continues to flourish and young writers (age 40 and under) make him hopeful about the future of Indian fiction. In some ways, A Case of Indian Marvels is an attempt to put sceptics to rest and assure the readers that there are plenty of writers (and translators) in the current generation to satiate their hunger for ‘good’ writing.
Simply put, A Case of Indian Marvels is a noble pursuit to bring together young Indian writers in one lengthy anthology for the reader to sample. The Aleph Book Company has turned anthologies into their forte and the roaring success of the Greatest Stories Ever Told series (short fiction in translation from various Indian languages) is a testament to it.
Apart from Aleph, other publishers have also published anthologies of poetry, writings adhering to certain themes, and the like. However, this could be the first-of-its-kind anthology focusing on the brand new crop of young writers – A Case of Indian Marvels is a labour of love and conviction, as is evident by the sheer versatility of writings that the book has to offer.
Almost none of these stories have been specially commissioned for the anthology. Rather, they represent what has been published already, and in that sense, more than an anthology of short fiction, A Case of Indian Marvels can be thought of as a guidebook for the writers you should keep an eye out for – writing styles, themes and narrative forms, the time and space in which the writer is located – and the kind of fiction that might appeal to your reading sensibilities. The short bio of each writer and translator at the end is a wise addition – it helps the reader understand the circumstances in which a writer might be writing and what might have contributed to their understanding of India (and the world) at large.
In a divergence from the writers we have read so far, it was interesting to see so many young writers who have studied creative writing in order to write fiction. Along with this, one notices a surge of writers from minority backgrounds, writers who have won major international awards, and a few who have already published their first novels or are in the process of publishing one.
This is obviously a dynamic crowd and it’s buzzing with expectations and energy – I am especially impressed by the rigour with which the writers have been identified. There are a few names whom readers might already be familiar with, but a welcoming space has also been created for lesser-known writers, including those from the regional languages.
A spread of India’s finest new writers
It makes no sense to judge the merits of an anthology based on individual contributions, and I will not attempt it either. As is the case with any anthology, A Case of Indian Marvels does hit a few bumps on the road – not every story will hit the right chord with every reader, and some stories might fall completely flat. But more importantly, you might just read a story that will knock you off your feet and have you rushing to your nearest bookstore in hopes of finding more from the writer.
While I was reading the anthology, I made note of what these young writers are writing about – apart from giving me an insight on the trends that have captured creative imagination, it also gave me a preliminary understanding of the issues that concern the new generation of Indians. Mental health, dynamics of caste-class-language, love and betrayal, loss of language and heritage, climate and nature, rank high on this list. The stories are sharp and searing – there’s a certain endearment in these writings despite an undercurrent of cynicism. The writers are writing with a sense of urgency and they are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s “The Adivasi Will Not Dance” and Madhuri Vijay’s “Lorry Raja” exert a centripetal force and pull the stories from the margins right into the centre of the reader’s consciousness. Bhavika Govil’s “Eggs Keep Falling from the Fourth Floor” is a marvellous portrait of a deeply disturbed brain that forces the reader to confront the stigmas attached to mental health in our society. Shawn Fernandes (“The Smear Papers”) and Shamik Ghosh (“After Half-Time”, translated from the Bengali by Subha Prasad Sanyal) show superb penchant for satire and dark comedy.
Love and heartbreak are uniquely human emotions, the eccentricities of which shine brightly in “Gul” by Shreya Ila Anasuya and “The Issue” by Tanuj Solanki. “The Octopus: A Fable” by Tushar Jain and “Crippled World” by Vempalle Shareef (translated from the Telugu by NS Murty and RS Krishna Moorthy) prove that young writers are unafraid to experiment with genres – fables, dystopia, coming-of-age – nothing is off-limits for them.
My personal favourites, Lakshmikanth K Ayyagari’s “The Accounts Officer’s Wife” and Kanishk Tharoor’s “Swimmer Among the Stars”, have just the right amount of drama, confusion, and comedy that make them an instant hit for leisurely reading – I would have loved to stay with the stories and their characters for a full-length novel.
There’s a lavish spread on offer and it must not be missed out on. Davidar has certainly brought together the ‘finest’ of new writers and translators for the readers to savour. Come for reading a selection of 40 exciting stories and leave with the generous assurance that Indian fiction in English (including translation) is in good hands.
A Case of Indian Marvels: Dazzling Stories from the Country’s Finest New Writers, edited by David Davidar, Aleph Book Company.