Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thoughts in a bookstore

Looking through the “Indian Writers” part of a bookstore (a section that seems to grow larger every month), I stopped muttering to myself long enough to register something I hadn't quite noticed before - there is a lot of Indian pulp fiction out there and that is a very good thing. It’s a sign of the market coming of age that there are different kinds of Indian writing in English and they are all of them prolific. It's several worlds removed from having the one Vikram Seth or Arundati Roy who had to be all things to all people.

The problem that lingers, I think, is that the rest of the world has yet to catch up. All Indian writers that are marketed right are treated with the same tone by the same kind of reviewers. Sacred Games is a case in point. Chetan Bhagat got the write-up in the New York Times that Vikram Chandra deserved. I believe that the increasingly hysterical Mann Booker Prize has a lot to answer for, too.

Often, good Indian writing - the books that are Indian only incidentally, or those that are so fundamentally Indian that they need no decoration with henna or scenting with sandalwood – these, like the independent Indian movies, cross borders quietly and make their mark among those who know. In the big picture, the whole publicity thing probably doesn’t matter.

So I’m left with one burning question and giant peeve – do Indian publishers not believe in editors or proof readers? Especially in a time when anyone with a keyboard can and does write, why isn’t this considered essential? I’m finding basic grammatical and structural errors in more and more books. A delightful read like The Zoya Factor was spoilt by weird grammar glitches that an average sub-editor with a hangover could have corrected. It drives me crazy. People have argued with me about preserving the integrity of “Indian English”. Bollocks. RK Narayan is the quintessential Indian English, and I have yet to see bad grammar or wrongly used words in his books.

I just finished reading a singularly execrable book. “What Would You Do To Save The World?” is essentially the story of a real beauty contestant, told through the thin fictional veil of a “Miss Indian Beauty” contest. With so much good material to work with, it could have been a Devil Wears Prada (the designer of the cover may have believed that, too, from the blurb). All that emotion, manipulation, the discomfort of a doctoral student making herself jump through frilly hoops for a tiara, frustrated at not understanding her need for it, the fact that the accolade is inevitably tawdry even with the real diamonds, a faded institution struggling to mean something to somebody against the backdrop of a country already torn by too many ideological paradoxes and a world that prefers to get that sort of fix from reality TV. Hell, in the hands of Rushdie, it could have won a Nobel! Instead, the book can’t be bothered to go higher than the level of a mediocre newspaper feature.

I’d decided not to trash any more books on my blog because of not wanting to give the universe ammunition for when it comes to payback time, but this one is wantonly bad. It makes me feel homicidal, not just the waste of good material (which after all, is just opinion), but also the fact that it's almost semi-literate in places.

Talking of payback, at the other end of the bookshop (and spectrum) is a terrifyingly eloquent Zadie Smith, to name just one, who makes me want to simultaneously stop writing and write more, the hit of pure joy and fear at the edge of a cliff with a glorious view. There’s a difference between talent and gift, and I may have the wrong one, but I’ll never know until I know, and at that point it will be too late. Someone may read my book and say “In the hands of PD James or Ian Rankin or Donna Leon or Ruth Rendell....” but just as I write that, I realize that none of them would produce this book. So it seems not to be derivative, then. At least that’s something.

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