How Reading Indian Authors Rekindled My Love For Books
When the authors we read are predominantly white, we risk being othered, alienated, and bored even by the book in our hands.
I’ve been surrounded by books for as long as I remember. I pretty much learnt to read from the little Ladybird books, and the fantastic adventures of the Famous Five and the Hardy Boys shaped my boyhood daydreams. I loved these books, and they shaped my dreams of backyards with tire swings as a kid, and cruising in a '57 Cadillac with a pretty blonde girl in the passenger seat in later years. These were all-American dreams. But I was still an Indian kid who’d barely spoken to a girl, driven around by Uncle in a second-hand Baleno on dusty roads. I wouldn’t quite comprehend this disconnect until much, much later. But I kept reading. Because books opened up worlds to me. It fascinated me how vivid imagery could be conjured up by a few deliberately worded phrases. I lived in these books, and they became a part of me.
Then, college — and ‘real life’ — happened. For a couple of years, I barely read. The few times I did pick up a book, it didn’t go well - I’d either labour over a short read for weeks, or just give up. It happens to most of us, right? The idea of immersing ourselves in a good book sounds wonderful, but never actually seems to happen. We are a generation of once-proud bookworms whose shelves have been left untouched long enough to entice decidedly more destructive worms.
We are a generation of once-proud bookworms whose shelves have been left untouched.
The dozens of unread books on my shelf taunted me. Then one day, on a whim, I picked up Manu Joseph’s Serious Men - I figured I’d abandon this one just as I had the others.
I ended up finishing the book in less than a week. And I had a great time. Why did it work out this time?
The setting was familiar — the Indian education system, riddled with classism, casteism and sexism. The prose was vivid and lively, the humour uproarious, and the satire biting. Witticisms in a distinctly Indian voice littered the book. The upper-caste, upper-class professors with their ridiculous ego wars (and its consequences) were replicas of the ones I saw as an engineering student in a ‘premier’ institute. ‘Protagonist’ Ayyan Mani’s aspirational plots, hairbrained as they may be, are the story of swathes of the Indian urban population.
I knew this story. I knew the places it came from. I knew the people it spoke of.
Looking back on the tomes I tried to wade through before, I realised that most of them had no hook - there was very little in them that I could to relate to. These books told stories of worlds far away from me, literally and thematically. They were written in places I have never seen, about people whose joys were unfamiliar, and sorrows distant. I couldn't empathise with their conflicts, nor understand their celebrations. Their cultural mores were not mine.
I realised, then, that one truth rang through nearly every prior book I’d tried to read: white authorship.
What constitutes ‘good’ or ‘classic’ literature has been dominated by white writers for centuries. Everywhere the white colonisers went - which accounts for quite nearly the whole world - their literature was passed down as the gold standard, the civilised words to aspire to. The authors of these books have always written from a Eurocentric perspective. Their writing assumes that their readers know and understand the intricacies of their lives, that their voice reflects the reader’s. Their histories are assumed to be the versions the world accepts. Their contemporary works presume a knowledge of Western pop culture.
What constitutes ‘good’ literature has been dominated by white writers for centuries.
Even classic works of fantasy like the Lord of the Rings trilogy are rooted in Western folklore and mythology. The rolling green plains in and around The Shire, inspired by the English countryside, don’t seem nearly as poignant as, say, the serene shores of Kashmir’s lakes in Midnight’s Children. When a white author turns their eye on a story set outside their traditional environs, such as in Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram’s depictions of Bombay and rural Maharashtra, it can sometimes suffer from a romanticization of Indian realities. In that book, the protagonist waxes poetic about the widow who’s made into a cult figure, extolling her stoicism. But he diminishes the toll this could very well take on her identity outside this deification. To him, after all, this fierce religiosity is simply a wondrous part of Indian life. For scores of readers around the world, reductive assumptions about our lives are forced upon us.
It’s easy to dismiss my disillusionment with white writing as a lack of imagination. The emotions that their works are suffused with are supposed to be universal, after all. But even the most universal of things require a tangible tether to our realities. I’m much more likely to associate the calm of the woods with a shaded banyan tree than a towering chestnut. My first love is much more likely to have lured me in with the jasmine in her hair than white lilies in her flower crown. However powerful our minds are, they draw upon what we know.
It’s easy to dismiss my disillusionment with white writing as a lack of imagination.
The celebrated Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the ‘danger of a single story’ in her captivating TED talk. What we read shapes our understanding of the world. When we read stories of white characters in white towns doing white things like knitting by the fireplace in a white season - sorry, winter - we see none of us in them. We are, to our own eyes, foreign. On the margins of stories centred around people who are nothing like us.
This is upsetting. Because I know there are so many more stories to be told by people who look like me, speak like me, whose lives do not exist in relation to a foreign culture, who have woven their own rich tapestries.
White literature can still, of course, be incredible works of art. Their perspectives are deserving of exploring, enjoying and immersing oneself in. But, I decided, so are the millions of others.
That’s when I decided to read more — much more — writing by people like me, people who draw from cultural cachets far more rooted in my life than white Western writing.
I was foresighted enough to have several unread books on my shelf from around the country. The one I first set my eyes on belonged to an oft-ignored part of India, the North East. Mari by Easterine Kire tells the story of a Naga girl in the midst of the terrors brought to her land by World War 2. It’s a tender story of love, family and tradition that offers a glimpse into a culture that hasn’t been given its due in literature. Her writing is simple, but its heart is overflown.
Speaking of tenderness and overflowing hearts, Janice Pariat (another North-Easterner) has quickly become one of my favourite authors. Her writing isn’t just beautiful - she proves over and over that the lyrical prose we have read in a Nabokov needn’t just be replicated, it can be made her own. With gorgeous turns of phrases that weave in memories of sweltering Delhi as well as that of frigid London, it’s truly refreshing to read about a Western bastion in an Indian voice, rather than read about an Indian capital in a foreign voice.
And how could I talk about the beauty of words without mentioning The God of Small Things? Arundhati Roy’s brutally melancholy classic has the emotional heft of a Hemingway, but it might not have hit as close to home if it wasn’t set so close to home, amidst the backwaters of Kerala. I was overjoyed to discover the I didn’t need to rely on Western stalwarts to experience the emotions they are famed for capturing - Indian writers can often do it better.
I didn’t need to rely on Western stalwarts to experience the emotions they are famed for capturing.
Racing through several more deeply moving, stimulating books written in a familiar cultural voice, I realised that I was in love with reading once again. The epiphany almost made me cry tears of joy. It was like meeting an old friend again, but better.
Past generations of readers may not have escaped the grasp of the colonialist hangover, but Indian millennials really ought to make an effort to effect a change in our reading habits. With the wave of talented Indian writers coming in with fascinating stories to tell, this should be easier than ever.
Let us seek out literary voices that had once been silenced by white arrogance and ignorance. Let’s read voices like Perumal Murugan and Volga and Bhisham Sahni, who dive deep into the very places we live in to reveal new nuances to us. Let’s pick up books with the echoes of voices that sound like our own within their pages.
We owe it to ourselves to indulge in the pleasures of reading. What better way to find joy in words than to find stories we might live through, so we might find ourselves in them?