Three Pieces of Contemporary Indian Literature
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
India is an amalgamation of sacred tradition and rapid modernisation. Western media still regularly presents the country through an orientalist lens, where India is defined either by third-world poverty or a romanticised maharaja past. Indian-English literature provides an antidote to these representations of the country and opens up a space for contemporary Indian voices to be heard. The three selected works are defined by their insights into modern India and for their focus on India’s minorities.
The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship, by Nandita Haksar (2018)
My most vivid memories of traveling through India are tangled up in experiences with the country's cuisine: thick creamy curries heaped onto a torn piece of garlic naan; narrow market lanes where flatbreads, stuffed with spiced vegetables, sear on a hot pan; onion pakoras eaten out of newspaper as my early morning train rocks across the Rajasthan desert. In her memoir, Nandita Haksar explores this fundamental position Indian food holds in the nation’s cultural politics. Haksar grew up in a Kashmiri-Brahmin family before working as a human rights lawyer and activist. She begins by recounting a childhood where her interactions with food unknowingly signified her place in the caste system. While later chapters focus on her unique adult experiences with food, such as sharing meals with Burmese and Iraqi refugees. The memoir also debates larger questions regarding vegetarianism, inter-dining, a globalised food industry and the social distinctions between Hindu and Muslim food. Haksar’s early life and career provides her with a deep understanding of how food not only concerns the domestic lives of Indian people, but also is intertwined with their politics, gender and class.
The Adivasi Will Not Dance, by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (2015)
This provocative collection of short stories gained recognition after being banned in the Jharkhand state of eastern India, where the book was criticized for depicting the Santhal women of this region in an immoral light. The scene responsible for the ban is found within the short story November is the Month of Migrations, where a young woman agrees to have sex with a police officer for fifty rupees and two cold pakoras. The Jharkhand state’s criticism of the scene is solely focused on the female immorality, rather than the corrupt police officer’s treatment of her. Ironically, the ban only further emphasizes the cultural problems that the fictional characters of Jharkhand face within the novel.
Adivasi writing has predominantly been restricted to the indigenous dialect and therefore rarely appears in popular Indian literature. Shekhar’s stories reveal the relatively unknown difficulties faced by communities in this region. The collection’s focal story portrays the Adivasi people as cultural heritage exhibits, dancing for tourists and showcasing the diversity of India. Behind the colorful performances are communities lacking access to basic health and education services. Shekhar’s focus is on marginalised characters: mothers, daughters, farmers, and villagers. Consequently over half of his protagonists are female. We are introduced to women courageously opposing the system that suppresses them, and others who are simply surviving under the weight of it. We meet farmers struggling against the force of modern industries and learn about superstitions powerful enough to break a family. Shekhar’s collection of short stories is emotionally engaging, profoundly human and highlights the deeply relevant struggles of the Jharkhand communities.
Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil (2012)
Throughout literary history there has been a fascination with the modern city. Whilst the traditional structure of the village attempts to control human behaviour, the liberty of a city allows for the darker side of humanity to thrive. Pound, Elliot and Dickens all wrote about the unique depravity found within the modern metropolis. Jeet Thayil continues this tradition in Narcopolis by drawing the reader into the dangerous underground of 1970’s Bombay. The novel centers around an opium den on Shuklaji Street and the diverse range of clients frequenting the establishment. These clients include a Hijra character, understood as an intersex or eunuch person in western cultures, a Chinese soldier who escaped communist China, and the many artists, prostitutes and gangsters who exist within the darker pockets of the city. Throughout the novel, the timeline slowly progresses towards the millennium. Muslims and Hindus feud, while the first bombs begin exploding throughout the city. The conflict of cultures, faiths and people intensifies as Bombay evolves into the Mumbai we know today. Reading Narcopolis is a surreal and dreamlike experience. Thayil’s lyrical writing style and tendency to slip between realities, can often feel as though you have also taken a drag from an opium pipe. Drawing from his own experience with drug addiction in Mumbai, Thayil convincingly pulls you into the city’s frightening and compelling heart.