For many readers, one of the delights of reading fiction is to explore worlds that are out of reach. From Baldwin’s Paris and Hilary Mantel’s England to LM Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island and Ferrante’s Naples, literary travels generally require no visas. In Indian fiction, too, there is no dearth of writers recreating real-life spaces in their work; Amitav Ghosh’s Kolkata, RK Narayan’s fictionalised South Indian town of Malgudi (quite possibly based on Mysore or Bangalore), Ruskin Bond’s Dehradun, Bama’s Tamil Nadu, and Manto’s Mumbai are just a few examples. And now, a digital project is locating and compiling an archive of these spaces.
The Cities in Fiction project was started by researcher Divya Ravindranath and writer, editor, and translator Apoorva Saini to build a database of real-world cities in fiction. It has been put together to provide writers, readers, researchers, academics, and many others with a handy public archive of information – and to see how South Asia is constructed in the fictive imagination. At present, the list primarily covers India, but Ravindranath said that suggestions have been pouring in from all over South Asia since the project’s website went live. Readers can now contribute directly to the archive as well.
Saini and Ravindranath decided to build the archive primarily to see how South Asia is portrayed in Indian English fiction, and as a tool for instructors across disciplines to use in the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, it’s also to record how descriptions of cities can be tools of remembrance, tracking records of populations, politics, economy, urban planning, ecology, conflicts and decay, and how people are affected by these. The list, thus, aims to help modern-day students understand the emotional landscape offered by cities: to give them an insight into the unfamiliar parts and pasts of familiar cities.
Scroll caught up with Saini and Ravindranath and found out what they had to say about the project. Excerpts from the conversation:
Tell us about the project. What got you started on it?
Divya Ravindranath (DR): I am a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlement in Bangalore, which has an Urban Fellows programme that includes a project on something related to urban landscapes. I work with informal labour, gender and urban health, and I am deeply passionate about fiction – I read a lot. I’m particularly interested in fiction as a pedagogical tool. If you use only data in classes, you lose the affective side of communicating what something means to people. But if you use fiction, you can bring that affect to class, make it more empathetic, more real for students. For example – can we use short stories to illustrate class and gender in urban healthcare? If we look at cities in fiction – how can we use them to teach in the classroom?
I also think that cities in fiction can become about archiving a particular moment in time. For example, Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale shows so much about Mumbai in the ’90s – housing, real estate, what it was like to be a female journalist at that time. The context carries the flavour and sound of the moment in history.
Around 2022, I started creating an Excel sheet of urban spaces in Indian English fiction – by which I meant both writing in English or English translations about cities in India. The author could be based anywhere – in other countries too – but there had to be descriptions of cities in India. It was at first for my own reference, then for friends’. They loved it – so I posted it on Twitter. The response was great – people started giving recommendations and the archive started growing. Apoorva, who was a fellow, was interested.
Apoorva Saini (AS): My background is in literature and the literary arts. I studied at Delhi University and Ambedkar University Delhi. I joined the fellowship to gain more clarity in terms of my research interests. I knew I wanted to write about cities and so when I came across Divya’s project during the fellowship, I decided to take part.
You said that you started with Indian fiction, and cities in India. Given that we live in a post-Partition State, and that many works of fiction deal with places outside our present-day international borders and are still about “India” (for example, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim), how are you defining “India” for the scope of the project?
DR: These are actually questions that are still up for discussion. For example, what do you do with unnamed or fictionalised cities that are clearly based on real places but never explicitly said, such as Mumbai in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance? Do we use old names or new names? Lots of places are either not clearly marked as regions or had flexible boundaries at some point, since understanding of regions and spaces tend to be very time specific.
AS: We have, in general, included places around the currently defined borders of India. People live outside such borders all the time.
How have you defined “Indian” writing in the context of this project?
AS: We don’t have any definitions about the identity of authors, nor is that a criterion of inclusion or exclusion in our list. All books of fiction are welcome as long as the story is set in or is about a location in India or South Asia.
How did you build your methodology?
DR: I started with my personal library, which already had a lot of Indian English fiction and translations. When I first put the list out in 2022, many others also contributed online.
AS: I went to the library, bookstores, on Amazon, and so on. It’s a large pool – and exactly what we need is hard to find in archives even if books are catalogued by places. There were also some good practices that we needed to keep in mind in making the list as a syllabus, the most important one being to be as diverse as possible in its contents with regard to with caste, class and other identities. We were especially mindful about the linguistic landscape of India.One cannot imagine the diversity of the country without considering the complex linguistic imagination and reality, with hundreds of mother tongues and thousands of linguistic affiliations.
DR: A decent list had been compiled by earlier this year, so we started working on the website. We did not think it would get this much attention! There’s a lot to do – we need to clean up the database and do some cross-checks.
How do you think the list can help readers, writers, scholars and teachers?
AS: When a student comes to a classroom from their sociopolitical reality, storytelling is an effective tool to get them to empathise with other’s experiences. While working on the project, we asked ourselves – what are other people who are building curriculums and teaching fiction in classrooms doing with this tool?
Earlier, you would not have any direct encounters with interdisciplinarian pedagogy involving fiction outside literature classes. These classes have their own networks and histories of teaching, but if you happen to be outside that – you must start from scratch. So if someone doesn’t teach literature and is not a reader – how is fiction available to them as a pedagogical tool, especially to teach about urban spaces? So we thought it needed a public archive.
Do you intend the archive to continue to grow? How?
DR: We are also asking this question! We started it out of interest and never expected it to become this big. Hopefully, between us, we will update the list and people will contribute. The hope is that the list keeps growing – I mean, there could be hundreds and thousands of books on it! And this is not even including regional languages, which have very different logics of publishing and are different in how they are categorised. They also often mention places that never find a place in fiction in English, which tends to be clustered around big cities.
Another issue is with short stories, which are very useful for teaching. They are not like novels – you cannot find them easily because they are usually in collections or magazines, And it’s not a paid project even for us.
But we hope to put together a searchable list of themes to accompany the archive, such as gender, healthcare, housing, and so on – after seeing which common themes we can pull out. We’re still thinking out loud about what more can we do to keep it interactive and engaging – many websites are born but many also die, and we don’t want this to die. That’s why we want to reach out to other people who’d be interested in using this as a pedagogical tool in their classes. What other places can we capture in it?