Ian Jack, the former editor of the magazine, returns to guest-edit this issue, which includes pieces by journalists Sam Miller, Samanth Subramanian, Aman Sethi and Raghu Karnad, as well as novelists Tishani Doshi, Neel Mukherjee and Deepti Kapoor. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, Jack spoke to Scroll about the apparent boom in long-form journalism, the obsession with fiction writing in the 1980s and what constitutes Indian writing in English.
What made you decide to do a Granta issue on India? And why now at this moment in time?
That’s a good question to which I don’t have an easy answer because I did a Granta on India in 1997, and Sigrid Rausing, the publisher and editor, suggested that I do it again. So the question she asked me is "is it worth doing India?" and I said it’s always worth doing an issue in India because there’s so much happening in terms of writing. Also, and I mention this in the introduction, is that in 1997 it was really difficult to find non-fiction written by Indians in English. It was quite hard to find and that’s the big change since then. It’s quite plentiful now.
The thing is that people are always looking for an excuse to give Granta a name and an excuse to fill it with interesting things. So I guess India was a fairly obvious course to take. Granta had done Pakistan a few years ago so the question this time was would it just be India? Or would it be India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh? There were two views about this but it was decided just to confine it to India.
A hallmark of this Granta issue is that there’s a lot of narrative non-fiction in it. What in India has changed that this tradition of narrative non-fiction has flowered?
There’s no one answer to this. I think a lot of it has to do with money. This is a much more prosperous middle-class now than it was even 16-17 years ago. In that space of time, there has grown a flourishing publishing industry in Delhi. I mean, there always has been one of course, of one kind or another, but there wasn’t any publishing industry interested in what you may call fashionable literary forms. I think the number of Indian writers who have been influenced by Columbia Journalism School: I think that’s a factor.
You could also this question the other way around: why is it that India has been so insufficiently described by the people who live here, in forms that are familiar to the rest of the world, like biography, narrative history and popular history? I don’t know the answer to that question but it certainly hasn’t been as well described as other places.
The long-form journalism phrase is a thing more talked about than practiced. I come across it a lot in India as if it grows on trees but it doesn’t. There’s The Caravan magazine and IQ [Indian Quarterly] but there aren’t dozens and dozens of Indian writers who do it. So I guess money, an educated, inquisitive middle-class readership is one reason [why narrative non-fiction has flowered]. And the reason it keeps attracting foreign writers is because it’s endlessly interesting.
When I lived here in the 1980s, I was interested in many 19th century Indian phenomena, like railways and shipping. What I found was that Oxford University Press would publish reworked PhDs. So one was seeing all these interesting stories through a theoretical prism, which made them frustrating books to read. So there was an intellectually curious middle-class and enquiring minds did exist back then. But people generally weren’t interested in their surroundings as they are now, and that has grown enormously.
And why have people become more interested in their surroundings now? Or, to flip it around, what about the surroundings has changed to make people more interested in them?
I don’t have an answer to this but I’ll speculate: Europe and America, especially Europe, always become interested in things when they begin to slowly disappear. India, for a long time it seemed, would always be the same. It would always be 1956 in India and then suddenly, it wasn’t 1956. You’ll meet people who are quite sentimental about the Ambassador car, about the steam locomotive or about a certain kind of food.
So suddenly, people became interested, and here I’m speculating madly, that when things begin to change, people became interested in the thing that’s just changing and slowly fading away. So people here have become interested in a kind of Western way in their surroundings which wasn’t true before, or wasn’t true to the same extent as before. And, as I said, a lot of that has to do with the awareness that things are changing. It [India] does have an intellectually curious and inquisitive middle-class that it didn’t have before.
When you first came to India in 1976, was there a particular obsession with fiction and poetry within the writing community?
When I first came here, I came as a journalist so I didn’t really meet writers. But just from the evidence of bookshops, there were few writers of any kind in English living here so I don’t know. But certainly after Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and after Vikram Seth, writing fiction was thought to be the thing to do. It’s an interesting thing that the novel and its little child, the short story, is the thing that’s only recently begun to change almost anywhere in the world, not just India.
A bit of a discursive point here: Granta, in the 1980s, was one of those important publications that changed the view of what literature could be. It could include the memoir, it could include the travel account and it might include narrative history. These things might also be literature as well as the poem, the essay, the short story and the novel.
So the idea of what literature or good writing was expanded at the time. But in India, I would say that it was still the novel above all things. I remember that, in 1997, after we published Arundhati Roy, I would get quite bulky typescripts from things like PO Box 437 near Bhagalpur and these kinds of rural addresses. So when people have models, they tend to emulate them and they look up to these things.
What constitutes Indian writing in English? I ask because, in this issue, there’s a piece by Katherine Boo, an American journalist, who writes about a slum in Bombay but it never feels like it’s an American who has written it.
I suppose that I think of Indian writing in English as written by a person living in India who is “Indian”. But I don’t have any kind of view of it as a form or a style or a voice that’s all that different from writers in Europe or America.
There’s also a question of audience here which is quite tangled and I’m not sure about it but the thing was always: who are you writing for? Now, the Indian writer in English, rightly or wrongly, felt that his ambition could only be served if he had a publisher in New York and London. If he published in India, it wasn’t enough. I think that’s still slightly true and that’s also pointless, because there’s a growing audience here that likes books.
I don’t know this but I imagine that you could earn something of a living writing for an Indian audience in English. That kind of imprimatur of the West, of New York or London, still does exist to some extent. Although that’s disappearing.
I remember seeing Amit Chaudhuri in London years ago and he was very resistant to, in some way, suggest to the reader what Chowringhee was. I wasn’t insistent that he say, “Chowringhee comma a principal street in Calcutta comma” but in some way make it known to the world what Chowringhee was. His argument was, “I read Yeats in school and nobody told me what Dublin was. I had to find out.” And I respect that.
There’s a lot of things that the Western world wouldn’t understand unless they knew a lot of Hindi so it’s slowly ceased to matter. So, in that sense, although the search for the dignity and respect of an American publisher is still there, the question of how you write has become easier “to answer”.
Aayush Soni is an independent journalist in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @aayushsoni.
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