Reclaiming the Indian Story

A few decades ago, when author Ashok Banker was trying to get his Ramayana series out, publishers were turning him down saying Indian audiences may not be interested in mythology.

Times have changed. Now you almost can’t find a non-mythological fantasy series on Indian bookshelves.

A few days ago, a writer friend received a rejection letter from a prominent book publisher saying that though it was good writing and a good story, it didn’t feel Indian enough and therefore they didn’t think it will work. They added that they are indeed interested in original fantasy from India but much of what exists in the fantasy book shelf today are mythological retellings to one extent or another.

I don’t know if I want to call this change a good one or a bad one. But it is a change and it will (and already has) affected the reading habits of an entire generation. I would even go so far as to say that this pop-myth tsunami has lowered standards generally and flooded book shelves with writing that is largely mediocre.

But does this mean I wish this shift towards mainstreaming of mytho-fantasy had never happened? Narak no!

I find it a welcome change that Indians are reading Indian stories written by Indian storytellers. And also that it is Indians who are deciding what is Indian-sounding and what is not. Compare this with the state of affairs that caused many publishers to reject Chetan Bhagat’s first novel. The author of Five Point Someone may not be the best thing to happen to Indian writing in English since VS Naipaul, but he clearly touched something in the Indian reader that publishers didn’t even know existed. In fact, Bhagat’s success, followed by the successes of writers such as Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi, points to the filling of a gap that had heretofore been considered insurmountable — the assumption that unless traditional definitions of “good writing” are catered to, publishing success cannot be had.

These books are the pulp classics of tomorrow. These stories will be the foundations of tomorrow’s fandoms (if not today’s). What some people don’t realise is that the best thing for a nation’s literary life is books that the reading public can root for — stories that people can get behind.

Having said that, it seems only one kind of Indian story is being told, at least in the mainstream. There is a definite throwback in the general direction of mythology and mythological retellings on the fantasy bookshelves and non-fantasy stories reflect the wishes and desires of an optimistic and upwardly mobile Indian middle-class. These aren’t bad things in and of themselves, but they can end up being hindrances in the path of growing a diverse Indian literary landscape.

I defend these stories because they need to exist. The alternative is a literary landscape full of dead White writers reminiscing about the good old British Raj along with a sprinkling of urban Indian voices that do little more than reinforce Western views of India — a world of dirt, disease, slums, social inequality, and superstitions.

It is not that these things are not worth writing about. But these are definitely not the only things worth writing about. Our new wave of so-called bad books have shined a necessary light on another India — one where people are happy, hopeful, and proud. These are also things worth writing about. And who better to tell these stories (and read them) than the happy, the hopeful, and the proud people of this nation?

The most awesome Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi says

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

I for one, am happy that more and more Indians are reclaiming this power and are exercising it to tell their own stories to each other. 

Because if you really are looking for the literary disenfranchised, you need look no further than the Indian reader who picked up a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by an Indian author and couldn’t see himself in it. And when he said he didn’t understand the book that people the world over had loved and hailed as the definitive Indian story, he was told he was stupid and chased out of the book store by gatekeepers of taste and sensibility.

I am glad that now he too has books he can read, heroes he can root for, and worlds he can roam in.