On the day of my last Class 12 board exam a long time ago, one of my fellow boarders at the Delhi Public School hostel stopped by my room to vent at his less than satisfactory performance in the exams. He held a copy of the CBSE English textbook. “I won’t have to study this rubbish again," he snapped, adding a couple of coarse oaths for good measure.

In his mind, the fact that he had been forced as a science student to study literature is what had robbed him of his (frankly unrealistic) chance to do well in science and maths, and admission into a decent engineering college.

That attitude still persists among many Indians. But literature in the English language has in the last few years in India also developed an aura of desirability, associated now with the possibility of fame, the imprimatur of intellectual gravitas, and a certain degree of cool. It is often seen as a symbol of a new, aspirational global India, and like all future-oriented narratives it flattens out the past into a simple and inaccurate arc.

As a student in Mumbai in the early 1990s, I was privileged to experience a moment in the complex genealogy of that history. Unlike Delhi’s so-called jholawala ethos, Mumbai had a reputation as a dhanda city, indifferent to intellectual concerns. But woven with its commercial energies was a remarkably vibrant literary culture, a kind of subterfuge cosmopolitan public sphere involving the English departments of colleges, literary editors (yes, newspapers had arts pages then), writers, and cultural officers at the foreign consulates of the city.

With the clarity of hindsight, two things stand out about this culture.

First, that it was truly catholic in spirit, in its refusal to discriminate between poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and criticism, and between English and other literary traditions, Indian or otherwise. It was built in no mean measure by the poets of the city, including Eunice de Souza and Arun Kolatkar,who held a salon every week at the Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda. Its inclusive spirit enabled a wide range of conversations, from the problems of literary translation to the suitability of critical idioms for studying popular culture, from indigenous traditions of feminist criticism to the ideas of the Frankfurt School.

At talks, readings, and workshops, I first encountered the thought of Gramsci, the pioneering work of Susie Tharu and Lalita K, and the astonishing poetry of Gieve Patel and Jeet Thayil, the latter a mythic absent presence whose words floated around the city. Second, this literary culture was almost entirely removed from the concerns of profit. Lectures and symposia were organised for no reward other than interest and, at most, a modest honoraria for guests. Speakers gave their time generously to students and others, never once charging a penny.

Access and aspiration

Tempting as it is to romanticise one’s own past, I do not necessarily see the present as an afterthought to a lost paradise. The transformation of the world of English language writing in India has resulted in a huge audience for books of all kinds, with better economic prospects not just for writers but also for editors, illustrators, and agents. This expansion of the market for books and the inevitable incorporation of Indian publishing houses into global conglomerates has led to a democratisation of access and aspiration. This sentiment is perfectly summed up in a statement by an entrepreneur, Rashmi Bansal, “I’m on top of the bestseller list, same as Amitav Ghosh." No longer are Indian writers at the mercy of British agents and publishers, though these are still hankered after.

This transformation has been part of a drastic change in the political economy of the culture industries in India, also mirrored, for instance, in the consumerist obsessions and slick production values of Bollywood films. But the expanding province of English language writing in India also seems to be marked by deep contradictions.

Democratisation of access has led, paradoxically, to a narrowing of sentiment and voice. No doubt, the large number of Indians writing on any number of topics has resulted in some very fine works, for example, in the genres of the graphic novel, urban cultural history, and travel fiction – the work of Sarnath Banerjee, Sidharth Bhatia, and Rahul Bhattacharya comes to mind here. But the majority of published work falls into the category of the mediocre middle: a morass of tepid humor about the banalities of corporate life, motivational screeds, and unimaginative accounts about, well, just existing as an Indian of one kind or another.

Simple language, simplistic stories

On the one hand, the culture is shot through with an anti-intellectualism, reflected in the idea that people should write on history or politics in simple language, like a Bollywood film whose plot can be ascertained at any point in its trajectory. On the other hand, pundits also yearn to be treated as genuine scholars or intellectuals. Though Mumbai in the 1990s was no utopia of free speech, a cravenly culture of self-censorship among publishing houses today has led to a further shrinking of the space of political critique. In this conflicted culture, Bansal’s statement, like the action of Bollywood heroes who gleefully humiliate Westerners in their European backyards, appears as a sign of insecurity rather than confidence.

Yet, if that moment of the literary world of early 1990s Mumbai appears impossibly distant in some respects, it still seems curiously proximate in others. Interestingly, in India as in the US, a seeming exhaustion within the world of print is accompanied by a blossoming of literary talent in other creative arenas. The rich talent of the writer and lyricist Varun Grover and the luminously reticent cinematic language of the film The Lunchbox are cases in point.

Within the great churn of the formulaic, there exist pockets of real autonomy. The compositional richness of film and non-film music (a far cry from the treble-heavy horrors of the Ram Teri Ganga Maili soundtrack that tormented everyone on my schoolbus) and the efflorescence of the Indian online media space point to a cross-fertilisation of different currents of creative expression. It may be naïve to hope that these insurgent literary energies can replace or entirely resist the gravitational pull of the literary festival-industrial complex. But perhaps in some partly antagonistic, partly collaborative relationship to capital, a metaphorical city of my Mumbai of the 1990s can take root again somewhere.