August 2002

Roohi Choudhry

south asian bookslut

Exploring and exposing books by writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and Nepal

When I first began writing fiction as a precocious 7-year-old Pakistani living in Harare, Zimbabwe, all my characters were white. Their names were as Anglo-Saxon as possible: Angela, Jones, Sylvia, William. Their crises never ventured further than a lost ball in a neighbor's yard or a scraped knee falling off a bike. Resolutions were swift and centered around teddy bears and helpings of apple pie.

If you were a psych minor in college, I'm sure you've already reached a smug conclusion or two about my childhood. But whatever neuroses of my own were at play, the absence of South Asian role models limited my perspective, too. Writing in English, the language I had come to call my own, meant writing about English people. They were the heroes of all my literary forays, and I could not see beyond them.

Then things began to change.

At some anonymous moment in the late '80s or early '90s, South Asian literature became a global phenomenon. Maybe it was Salman Rushdie, maybe it was Vikram Seth. It's hard to pinpoint any one instigator of this literary puberty. Coupled with my fledgling awareness of myself, this was pivotal. Suddenly, my fiction didn't have to be peopled with faces that looked nothing like mine. Here were bona fide South Asian writers meeting fame and acclaim right in our local paper's A&E section.

I was fascinated, enchanted. I searched aisle after aisle of the public library, scanning spines for remotely South Asian names. I read writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka with the ferocity of someone who has been blind for a long time.

Needless to say, the renaissance changed everything for me. By extrapolating the conflicts and themes in these books to my own life, I became kinder to myself, looked with more empathy upon my parents, wrote with a new truthfulness. I know you'll understand these transformations as only fellow booksluts can.

At first, I was starry-eyed with my discovery; these authors could do nothing wrong. But as I became more familiar with the industry, its inner workings revealed inevitable imperfections. Sub genres were quickly dispersing at the time into warring factions -- the diaspora writers: crying the confusion and trauma of the new world; the feminists: attacking arranged marriage and creating single-dimensional men; the Partition sufferers: painting the tragedies of the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition with as gruesome a brush as they could muster; the historicists: complacent in their dreams of Mughal and Maharaja glories past. Today, all these players bicker over who is least authentic, who is least universal, who has sold out most unforgivably to the West.

From these first motley accusations, the fissures in South Asian writing grow wider. The shallow, the bland, the unoriginal are all cashing in on the fad. As with any literary trend, too many writers have hitchhiked their way into the limelight with their brownness a passport. The "exoticisers" are
perhaps the worst criminals of all. Writers penning little more than travel journals sell scores of paperbacks. As architects of a henna-tatoo, dowry-victim, chai-latte stereotype, they stick to what Oprah-esque book groups buy in droves. Critics haven't minced words. Hasan Suroor, literary critic at The Hindu (a leading Indian daily), generalizes grossly, but nevertheless describes this particular scourge to a tee: "Our Indian English writers gives the West what it wants. The West does not want our writers to tackle the big, universal themes, but to stick to the tried and tested: Partition, arranged marriages, spirituality, caste and communal strife, exotica in general. And our writers oblige."

Identifying quality from the sheer quantity has now become a skill into itself. But despite the wannabes, ground-breaking South Asian writers are still emerging from all corners and my mission is to find as many of them as I can to share with you. I also want to discuss here the controversies and name-calling that's become de jure in South Asian literature: why exactly are American and British South Asian writers so criticized in their own countries of origin? Where has the current slew of sexy South Asian fembot writers beamed in from? And are they worth any more than their airbrushed glamour shots and sensationalist blurbs? Who are the people that make all this happen: the publishers, the organizations, the translators and of course, the readers?

I'll also embark on a literary backtrack here, to trace out all that I missed before my ethnicity became trendy. R.K. Narayan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Tagore, Ghalib, Manto, Chughtai. If few or none of these names are familiar to you, look out for the classics installments as I retrace the genre into its bewildering past, one that nurtured art and literature for centuries, and then abandoned it to poverty so callously.

If this introduction has been a hectic and sparse map, then it's captured the spirit of South Asian literature nicely. With the boom has come a maddening array of choices, of extraordinarily bad as well as life-changingly powerful writing. I'll lead you through the genre as I attempt to make sense of the chaos with you, interviewing writers, publishers and translators, reviewing books -- contemporary and classic -- and examining sub genres such as diasporadic, feminist and gay and lesbian South Asian writing. And on the side, I hope to recommend some great books for you to read.