India Through The Ink….

It cannot be easy to write about a country or a people, not your own. It becomes even more challenging if you have not lived in the country you are writing about or not interacted with the indigenous population of the same country. Even when you belong to the country, it is becomes difficult to capture the all encompassing details of the land and its people; therefore for someone not belonging to the same land, it remains an arduous and difficult task. And should that country be India, with it melting pot culture, checkered history going back to 7000 BCE and more than 100 languages, this task becomes infinitely more complex, difficult and challenging! And yet, authors, scholars and travelers around the world insist on writing about this country.

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If they have the brilliance of a William Dalrymple then, they settle down in the country and write prodigiously about it. Scholars like John Keay and the late AL Basham study the country for years before penning something so profound as India – A History and Michel Palin treks all over Himalayas before writing a book with the same name! I may not always agree with what they put forth, but I do respect the amount of love, patience and sheer effort into putting together, factually and not fictionally, that is not intrinsically their own. And this is key to the appreciation of these works; these authors do not have the luxury of editing something that they do not understand or cannot explain, into a “creative license”. The nature of their genres makes this impossible and hence my love and respect for these authors increase manifolds, especially for those writing non fiction, even if some of them, get the picture completely wrong!

Fiction however is whole different story; for years, now, India and her people have continued to fire the imagination of the world and especially the West. We have had many authors writing about India for a while, but with the British Colonial empire, India literally exploded into English literature like never before. Rudyard Kipling with all his love-hate for the the country, gave the world Jungle Book and Kim, both novels rooted in every essence to what this country is and stood for. EM Forster brought forth the racial divide, and the mounting tensions in the early 20th century India, in his polemic A Passage to India and Paul Scott captured the pain and the violence that tore apart a nation in the wake of partition of India, in his seminal, A Jewel in the Crown. And then, there stands, my personal favorite and the one author who despite her hereditary, truly was an Indian at heart, for she wrote of this land and her people, like she was one and her books resonate with the very feel and smell of India, as the country comes alive and grabs the reader – the inimitable Ms. MM Kaye. Not all her predecessors or even successors could write like Ms. Kaye wrote nor feel the power of her love, that made her stories authentic and Indian in spirit. But most of these authors belonged to an era where the understanding of the world and all her people was still limited; race and color still made a difference and there was significant paucity of information, which makes one more tolerant on the misses or the misinterpretation, and in case of Mr. Kipling, appreciate the story, without delving too much; not quite easy, but can be done!

This fascination with India in fiction, seems to found new resurgence in the 21st century and suddenly, I am astounded by the number of books based on India, has Indian protagonist or has roots in some way or form to this country. I was presently surprised by East of the Sun by Julia Gregson , tracing the lives of three young memsahibs to India as they set out as part of the “Fishing Fleet” to find suitable husbands. While historically, the book did not always jive, it did capture the society and morals of 1920s India beautifully, but the number of Indians were limited in this novel and I am not sure how the author would have fared with India and Indians as the main theme instead of a backdrop! Let me illustrate my point –  Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, despite their astounding commercial success, left me cold in so many ways! And herein lies my irritation with modern authors; in these days of easy travel and access to all kinds of information, to constantly cater and pander to what is obvious crass commercialization of the traditional stereotypes of India is just astoundingly disappointing, if not downright infuriating! The first one has Spirituality and Tigers and a peace loving protagonist (gosh! what surprise!) and the second one goes to the other extreme of spirituality and slums and poverty! I am not even getting into books like The Art of Inheriting Secrets, by Barbra O’ Neil that has a Indian woman following her Aristocratic English noblewoman lover to England and then marrying an Indian man in a remote English countryside in 1940s England. In a country where woman are struggling to get their basic rights of education and independence established in 2019, that flight of fancy in 1940s is really taking the “poetic license” to fantasy. I am not denying the existence of strong women in 1940s, several existed including my grandmothers, nor am I denying the existence of homosexuality or marrying a man to keep up appearances, but all of that together in that time and age; that is way far out even for the West, but for the East, that is an impossibility of infinite proportions! Then of course we have the male modern Indian protagonist, who of course has curly hair, as Indian men never have straight hair and his brown ageless skin…what?? Also conveniently, the protagonist sprouts Rabindranath Tagore and his most cliche poems at the drop of a hat, because, of course our author never bothered to find a poet beyond the only one known in outside of India or even his other famous poems, besides the first one that comes up in Google. And just to add more spice, (of course its India so it has to have spice!) we have Indian restaurant and India food popping up every two pages! What really gets me is that even established and justly popular authors like Lucinda Riley fall into this trap of taking on a shallow understanding and wrapping up the story in all the trappings of exotic India. So in her, The Midnight Rose, where we of course have princesses and a handmaiden who has an affair and an illegitimate child and whose grandson again falls into the cliched curly haired brown skin hero. Ms. Riley took the lives of two real life Indian princesses, Princess Indira and her daughter, Princess Gayatri Devi and mercilessly intermixes and changes their lives, which in reality would have changed a very strong fabric of Indian history and Indian feminist movement. Again her protagonist while strong and strong Indian women were a reality but illegitimacy in 1920s India was not something that would have dealt with aplomb that Ms. Riley deals with, especially if the child has mixed parentage. In India where caste and affinity to your ethnic heritage, still form a large part of every day lives, a child of foreign parentage, in the early years of 1920s would have caused a havoc,  no matter which remote hilly village you hide in; infact more so there than in the bigger cities. These nuances, which are critical to understand and then portray the socio-cultural-historical narrative based out of this country is unfortunately getting more and more trampled in the competition to build a intriguing plot line with an exotic enough setting to seduce the reader. These books continue to impress upon the audience of the world, what has been stereotyped a thousand times about this country – tea estates, princesses, animals, slums, spirituality and such like! These books at then end of the day fail to bring forth, the actual India, which is a mix of all these things and so much more – there are good and bad people, there swaths of deserts and snow capped mountains, there is spirituality but there are also scholars, and while we love animals, we also can be kind and mean in equal measures and this has nothing to do with any of us being related to royal ancestry or not!!! To end, if you really want to read to about India, stick to non fiction or Indian authors or English authors circa 1850-1950s!


20 thoughts on “India Through The Ink….

  1. Thanks for this article. I love reading books about India. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it. What are your feelings about books by Jhumpa Lahiri and Aravind Adiga?

    1. Thank You! I do think there are a lot authors who write with deep insights and extreme sensitivity about India; but then there are others! I really like both Adiga and Lahiri and especially the latter, as she sticks to the “Indianess” she is familiar with – that of expats trying to find and retain identity of roots long lost! There are some great books about India out there and I hope you get to read them and one day see the country for yourself!

      1. I would love to go to Agra someday where you can volunteer for a week to help take care of the elephants at the sanctuary and make porridge for the bears.

  2. wow: juggernaut, tattoos, and strongly dipping limestone formations! ( i used to be a geologist) it seems like a writer has a successful novel and then is basically copied for years afterwards. I blame it on the pursuit of money: nascent authors are so eager to dip into the current plot or popular ambience that they don’t take the time to understand what they’re writing about… that, plus the natural limitation of novels: someone once said that there were only 30 basic plots and i think it may be less than that. But, also, for someone who’s a born writer, they legitimately might not have the time or resources to fully investigate before placing pen on paper; most books have to do with interpersonal relations anyway, and so they might feel that those are similar all over the globe.
    Anyway, great points, and a worthy hint for readers to look for authentic and well researched works before plunging into the depths of the sub-continent…
    Hope the heat isn’t too terrible down there… great post!

    1. Wow! I never knew your were a geologist! We must talk more about that! I agree with you that there are only so many plots out there, yet there is Mr. Turton a current day author turning an English Country House Murder mystery on his head and presenting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Stories are old but the narrative can be new. Also interpersonal relationships are often shaped by the socio-cultural environment of the times! Hence my disdain for mixing the stories of two very powerful women of Indian History. the 1920-1940s India was a very politically strife place where every relation was more or less defined by which side of the Empire you stood for – against or for. None of these recent publications even come close to mentioning such matters, let alone delve into its implication. I get that money and the current age of “instant” everything is limiting to creativity, but then to place a narrative in a country just for an exotic factor, when it could be placed in the author’s more common periphery, is just I don’t know, shows lack of empathy I guess.

  3. I’m sorry you didn’t find The Art of Inheriting Secrets to your tastes. I assure you that I worked very hard to do my research, and didn’t take it lightly. I had three Indian writers read for me, two native and one American, and I worked extensively with another, a cookbook writer, to write as authentically as I could about food. Because food is my jam. I wasn’t actually writing about India, but about Anglo-Indians and how they’re doing things. I’m fascinated by both India and England, as well as immigrant culture and how our engagement with the new country changes both us and the country. If you’ve read my other books, you’ve probably seen that I am also interested in gay relationships and how much pain many people suffered . As far as black curly hair, that’s kind of my thing, too. In a romantic novel, I’m spinning a fantasy. First I spin it for myself.

    The world would be so boring if we only wrote about ourselves and our own experiences. I may well have got a lot wrong, but it wasn’t for lack of research and diligence.

    Finally, I’m actually writing this from Jaipur and I feel overwhelmed and in love and furious and so very glad I’m here. India is difficult but it is also a power I believe is going to change the world.

    All my best.

    1. Ms. O’Neal, Thank you for the kindness in first reading and then responding on my comments. Let me first begin by saying, what I wrote at the onset, it cannot, simply cannot be easy writing about a country not your own and should that country be India, this problem is compounded further. It is heartening to know that you referred to many sources and writers for writing this book; but what I was trying to convey and I hope you will not think of me as pushy, when I write this, that while you did consult a cookbook and consulted experts, Indian food is, well common. I am not arguing about the what you wrote about the food per se and I appreciate that’s your strength, but the fact that Indian food had to come in; and I know this synced in with your plot line and I do understand the need to have strong supporting characters,but equation of India and food is, well stereotyping the very few well known facets of our country, when there is so much more. You can of course say and you would be very right, that food represents this nation strongly, my point being, I hope writers like you, would help bring other nuances of the country to the world stage. I completely agree with you that homosexual relationships are painful and so much pain had to be endured and is being endured even now because of one’s choices in love. I am not for one moment denying that homosexuality was not prevalent in India, but if you look at the socio-cultural history of the country, the kind of woman you call out in the historical time you called it out in, well, that would be nearly impossible. I understand your point on immigrant experience, and it is my fault that I missed that point completely in the narrative. I am also in agreement with you that world will indeed be very boring if we wrote of our own little surroundings! I am very happy to know that you are currently in India and I hope despite challenges which I know our country does pose, you will have a memorable and enjoyable stay!
      I really really appreciate your time in engaging in this discussion with me. Thank You again for your kindness!

  4. Oh this was great! I find it interesting that colonial authors are better at writing about India than present day authors. At least the colonial writers actually spent time in India. You would think current day authors would know better by now. It’s like they are perpetuating a kind of literary colonialism and you are right to be angry about it and bring it to our attention.

    1. Thank You! I just cannot understand why they would not do sufficient research in these days of easy information access. I am just very dissapointed by this “everything goes” approach!

  5. i don’t remember whether i mentioned that the Deccan Plateau in central India is the largest flood basalt deposit in the world… actually there may have been one in Siberia in the Permian period that was larger; a massively huge volcanic event at that point in time was a major contributor to the Permian extinctions, in which over 90% of the species on earth were wiped out… but closer to modern day, i live fairly close to the Columbia River flood basalt deposit, which is the second largest… or maybe third in light of the above…

  6. Ah, interesting! I think this sort of attitude is endemic. The rush for fame and fortune makes modern authors focus more on an exciting plot and the research and accuracy, if there is any thought to it at all, often falls by the wayside. Thank you for yet another good reminder as to why I stick mainly to classics. I’m not adverse to modern writing, I’m just very, very careful who I give my time to. Great post! Thanks for sharing it!

  7. Interesting post and comments – were all the photos yours as well? They’re stunning.
    I’ve just finished Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire…have you read it? I’m fascinated by the post-colonial revisionism that is obviously occurring in India and Australia atm.

    I went through an Anita and Kiran Desai phase about 20 years ago – I loved their peeks into a modern India through the feminine lens (especially after reading A Passage to India), which I loved but it was very masculine and very colonial in perspective.

    I feel like I’m in good company now for not liking The Life of Pi (the book that is – the movie was visually stunning) and Shantaram either 🙂

    I will always be grateful to you for introducing me to Rabindranath Tagore and I hope you host another readalong one day.

    1. Thank You for the insightful comment and I am so glad I am not the only one who disliked Pi or Shantaram. I have not read Tharoor but I do appreciate his intellectual capabilities as well his understanding of the Indian History and politics which he brings forth everyday as a member of the Parliament. I will get to the book sooner than later. I love the Desai woman and I really enjoy their work and while Passage to India left me feeling Meh; it is nothing in comparison to these recent spate of India focused writings. I am so so glad you enjoyed Tagore and I am happy to undertake another read along. I have included one of his works in my CC list and I can bump it up in priority to read it sooner in your company! Will keep you posted!

      1. p.s. The pictures are all taken by my sister or me as we traveled through the country over the years! Thank you for the compliment, I will pass that on to her!

  8. I will keep your advice in mind! I do love reading about India, but a lot of Indian authors get published in the UK and not the US, it seems. I just bought a couple on Kindle that I couldn’t get in print. (Two States by Chetan Bhagat and a kind of riff? on that, Two Fates by Judy Balan.) I will confess to not reading Life of Pi because I was pretty sure I’d hate it. I like what I’ve read of Narayan.

    1. I know what you mean by many Indian authors being around in UK and not US. I know many who would like to read or even love to read about India, but there is so much of stuff out there that it can lead to a lot of confusion. Yeah, Chetan Bhagat is not our best in terms of literary output; in fact he should not even be in the list, You can try Amitav Ghosh though; his books I know are more easily available and his books speak of the country and her people in much more deeper ways. You could try Shadowlines or Glass Palace.

      1. Now see, THIS is the stuff I need to know! I saw Bhagat on a list and it looked fun, plus it was pretty cheap on Kindle. I have never tried Amitav Ghosh, but I’ve heard the name. Thanks for the tip!

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