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Indian writing in English: Write on Top

     Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

Among the 100,000-odd visitors at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year was Somnath Batabyal, 38, a former Delhi journalist and now a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He had edited a book of academic essays and had his doctoral thesis published as well, but had never written a line of fiction in his life. He was, however, toying with the idea of writing a graphic novel and had got an artist friend to make a few sketches, which, at the festival, he showed the author Vikram Seth, also one of the attendees, while narrating his story to him as well.

Seth was so impressed that he tipped off V. Karthika, Publisher and Chief Editor at HarperCollins India, who in turn approached Batabyal. But she wanted a regular novel - not a graphic one. "I was absolutely taken aback," he says. "I had never thought of my story idea as a full-length novel. I did not want to put in the effort but was convinced." He signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins for what he calls "a substantial advance" - though he is unwilling to reveal how much.

1,00,000 estimated number of visitors at the last Jaipur Literature Festival.

That was just the start. As the news of the deal he had signed spread in the publishing world, his mailbox was flooded with enquiries from British and American literary agents, all wanting to sign him on. He finally settled on Jessica Woollard of The Marsh Agency, London, purely because she was more persuasive than the others. "For months it seemed my life was a fairy tale," he says."Suddenly I was being pursued. The problem was I did not have a novel." He wrote one nonetheless, which is scheduled for publication around Easter next year.

Batabyal's experience is an indicator of the enormous global appetite for Indian writing in English that has arisen in the last three decades. Nor is he alone. November, for instance, saw the publication of a collection of short stories, The Gurkha's Daughter, by Prajwal Parajuly. Short story collections are the stepchildren of the publishing world - it is believed very few read them - and such books by debut making authors are almost unheard of. Yet Parajuly - as leading British newspapers noted in awe - all of 28, hailing from distant Sikkim, and still a student at Oxford University, not only managed it, but secured a whopping five figure advance (in pounds sterling) for a two-book deal, the short story collection being the first.

Though Indians have been writing in English for a very long time - the first book by an Indian in English, the eponymous Travels of Dean Mahomed by Sake Dean Mahomed was published in 1793, the first novel Rajmohan's Wife by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1864 - it was only after the emergence of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in 1981 that the world took note. Midnight's Children not only won the prestigious Booker Prize that year, but has been twice since then adjudged the best among all the Booker winning books - in 1993 and again in 2008. Since then books by Indians in English have increased exponentially, with hundreds of titles coming out every year, three more of which have won Booker Prizes - Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things in 1997, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss in 2006 and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger in 2008.

The overwhelming success of the Jaipur Literature Festival, which since it started in 2006, has only been growing bigger each year, with some of the tallest names in world literature attending, is also testimony to the drawing power of Indian writing. "I would say that a few Indian writers such as Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh are now counted among the world's best," says Karthika of HarperCollins. "There are also some lesser known ones who have become extremely popular in countries other than Britain and the United States.

Anita Nair, for instance, has been translated into 30 languages." What of the future? "Indian writing in English has proved its consistency," she adds. "It is not just a wave that arose and is going to recede. Each time I attend say, the Frankfurt Book Fair or the London Book Fair, I'm struck by the persistent interest global publishers display in Indian writing, including the newest writers."

Debashish Mukerji

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