On India’s Lack of a Literary Culture and Community

February 26, 2021 § 8 Comments

By Anandi Mishra

Growing up 400 kilometers from the capital of India, Delhi, in an erstwhile industrial town Kanpur, I barely had any access to books that were out of my school syllabus. This was the early- and mid-nineties and all I had access to was a massive school library, its walls lined with books by legendary British writers. These, bequeathed to us by our colonial heritage, were a universe that kept me engaged for an entire decade. I relished in the works of authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling because I did not know any other authors. With age we were supposed to move forward to reading Mills and Boon or the novels of Danielle Steel. Discovering any titles other than these would have to happen on our own time, in a different set of circumstances and perhaps with access to a different library.

After a certain age, we were just not supposed to read books. There was no time to be wasted in honor of a creative impulse. If you were seen with a novel in hand you would be berated for wasting time.

When Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things, it caused a tiny stirring. I was barely six years old at the time, probably reading Wordsworth and Eliot during our hour-long weekly library classes in school. Little did I know that when I would encounter the book about a decade later, it would positively change my world.

Every time I try to recall the moment when I first wished to be a writer, it’s a blur. By the age of 17, I was reading one book or another every week, buying them from expensive franchise bookstores in a mall in the university city where I now lived. Clueless about the things to read, with no one to guide I would end up buying not so scintillating titles like Conversations with God. During a vacation in the south Indian coastal town of Kanyakumari in 2008, I remember ambling alone by the beach and coming across a vendor selling two or three different books from the Chicken Soup for the Soul section. They cost a meagre INR20 each. I bought them all and polished them off during my few days there. After this, I would graduate to reading all of Paulo Coelho’s books. Within a few months, I was through with all these fancy foreign titles, but the thirst within remained unquenched. That is when I was gifted a secondhand, cheap reprint copy of The God of Small Things by an uncle. I was 19 or 20 years old then and I remember inhaling the book in a couple of days. It gave me confidence that the kind of writing I wanted to do was possible and that there were writers I could look up to.  

None of what I read before and after came even remotely close to the magic of visual imagery painted by Roy. As much as I wanted to read other writers like her, there were not many easily available. That is not to say that good books were not being written by Indians in English language. There just existed a yawning gap between them and the readers in provincial small-town India. With the advent of literary festivals, book fairs, and book talks, I expected new avenues and important resources to open for readers like me. Instead, with the proliferation of the internet, these worlds continue to exist on farther ends of the spectrum, with literary activity limited to big cities, and certain books exclusively for journalists and people with access to travel.

Cashing on this lag, opportunistic writers with MBAs, engineering degrees and finance brothers, make merry. They write simple, basic novels about banal things in the lives of people in small towns in India and market them through social media, so that these titles are eventually sold everywhere, from online stores to makeshift roadside stalls, to railway stations and newspaper stalls. They sell between INR100 and INR200, which would be less than $2 U.S., and make for comfortable reads. They sell in vast numbers and then go on to be adapted as movies. While these books thrive, there is little or no criticism of their quality. Mainstream English language book critics sit tight, waiting for the next Salman Rushdie title to drop. There is no barometer against which those writers should be measured, and so, they continue to thrive despite what is sometimes utterly below average writing.

The more famous, big publishing house authors who do care about the craft continue to write books that have no way of reaching readers. They move overseas, teach in universities, look to make life better for themselves, leaving little or nothing for their readers here. Their absence contributes to the existing lack of nonfiction and fiction workshops, classes, fellowships, mentorships and other such helpful and vital resources in the Indian literary ecosystem. Any budding writer looking to understand how to make it as a writer, or even where to start off, is faced with a vacuum. As a result of extreme apathy, general callousness and selfishness, there is a lack of a true literary community that could otherwise protect and support a writer. Most novelists are heavily online but continue to stay out of reach. To be able to even secure a famous writer’s email address one has to juggle through contacts and connections.

Earlier this month this tweet by Indian journalist and writer Annie Zaidi found me hapless. I agree with her on the fact that there is a serious lack of literary magazines in India. In my last ten months of publishing, whatever little I have interacted with Indian literary magazines, my experience has been shoddy. Most of them don’t pay, don’t edit, heck, don’t even inform when your article is up on their website. They call their magazines “a labor of love” using that as an excuse for unprofessionalism. Since a lot of readers don’t know about these almost anonymous magazines, the editors continue to exploit earnest writers for cheap labor. As writer and literary critic Kalyan Raman replied to Zaidi’s tweet, “Perhaps tangential, but we need literary zines in English to build a more participatory literary culture and to engender a critical discourse that is unafraid of the gatekeeping establishment. In other words, to show up our own entrenched mediocrities and make space for the new.”

As much as I agree with Raman, there is something to be said for the shoddiness of the existing literary culture in India. As a nation we are enmeshed in the beautiful culture of reading and writing, and a lot of kids continue to aspire and dream to be writers in a third world country like ours. Instead of making it seem like an unattainable goal or punishing them for harboring dreams, the existing literati should focus on creating a space that fosters the minds of young and existing readers and writers. A reading population is a thinking population, and is needed all the more now, in a world that is rapidly going to right-wing hell.

Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. She tweets at @anandi010. You can read more of her writing here.

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