My interest in South Asian literature was ignited by my year off before university, 1993-4, which I spent teaching in Peshawar. An obsessive reader, I immediately joined Peshawar’s old-fashioned public library, and found myself endlessly borrowing Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Georgette Heyer, and Agatha Christie.
One day I found a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I gulped down during a single weekend at the family home I lived in and in the women’s areas of cafes and parks. English-speaking Pakistanis would comment to me, “That book is all right, but his other book is very bad”, and when I read The Satanic Verses several years later I could understand the offence caused by Rushdie’s often Orientalist portrayal of religious Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), even if I didn’t share the depth of their condemnation. Reading Midnight’s Children, though, was revelatory: this was the first time I’d read descriptions of a life much like the one I was living in Peshawar: people at prayer; gaudy advertising hoardings; Bollywood movies; and idiomatic, endlessly inventive speech patterns — even if the book was marketed, patronisingly and wrongly, as “a continent finding its voice”.
At university I read English Literature, but what really energised me were my further encounters with Indian writers, then enjoying great success as part of the “Indo-chic” of the 1990s. As one commentator observed, many South Asian writers began their careers in the eighties and nineties as “Rushdie’s children”, and there was a glut of forgettable novels written in the magic realist style, replete with separated twins, talking animals, filmi references, and miraculous talents. Yet the best of this (slightly) younger generation of writers — Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Arundhati Roy, and Rohinton Mistry — either avoided magic realism altogether, or worked with it before moving on to experiment with other forms.
Sri Lankan writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller, and Romesh Gunesekera were also making an important contribution to the international literary scene. For example, Selvadurai’s Funny Boy is a Bildungsroman about the increasing tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese in the late seventies and early eighties, culminating in the riots and unrest of 1983 onwards. It is also about the loss of an idyllic childhood world, and the realisation that growing up, for Arjie, involves learning about his ethnic and sexual identity, an often painful process. In Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, in contrast, Ondaatje deliberately refuses to discuss the various political arguments of the three warring factions in Sri Lanka, because to present their claims might give them credence. Instead, Ondaatje presents the war as a Kafkaesque exercise in futility, which is expressed through Gamini, the traumatised, amphetamine-fuelled doctor who works with the war’s victims and “turned away from every person who stood up for a war”.
Then there were the irreverent, often humourous fictions of South Asian writers in Britain, which were nonetheless attentive to racism and social exclusion. This new wave of diasporic writing arguably began with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and continued with novels by Meera Syal and M.Y. Alam, and, more recently, Monica Ali, Gautam Malkani, and Rosie Dastgir. Central to these texts is discussion of mixed, “hybrid” identities: pop music and popular culture; language and slang; intergenera-tional tensions; and multiculturalism, racism, religion, and belonging.
In the 2000s, as has been widely documented, there has been a flowering of Pakistani writing in English, its writers now featuring prominently in the international literary scene as award winners or nominees, bestselling authors, festival speakers and, increasingly, topics for research students and critics. To discuss only the fiction: the success of such novels as Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize), Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007 Booker Prize nominee), Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (longlisted for the 2008 Booker), and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009 Orange Prize shortlist), has led to justifiably large fanfares for American-educated Pakistani writers such as Ali Sethi and Daniyal Mueenuddin. However, this attention paid to the (undeniably excellent) “big five” of Hamid, Hanif, Shamsie, Mueenuddin, and Aslam can problematically lead to neglect of other less well-known but equally great writers from Pakistan, such as Sara Suleri Goodyear, Aamer Hussein, and Uzma Aslam Khan.
Amid all the excitement about the “New Pakistani Writing”, Indian writers have not been forgotten, and Kiran Desai’s and Aravind Adiga’s Booker prizes during the 2000s testify that Indian writing is far from being a spent force. Emerging themes in Indian writing include scrutiny of the BJP’s 2004 campaign slogan, “India Shining”, which was supposed to indicate that the wealth generated by the country’s brave new free market economy would trickle down, benefitting all. Texts such as Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games and Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned make it clear that corruption and gangsterism have stemmed any potential trickle, and that India’s poor have gained nothing from the rise of the “beautiful” super-rich.
South Asian writing more broadly shows a related interest in domestic servants. From Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ayah to Arundhati Roy’s Velutha, or Rana in Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence, servants and their families are far more prominent in subcontinental fiction than they have been in the West since the demise of Jeeves and Wooster. As Alison Light writes about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and her maid Nellie, “This was a story about mutual — and unequal — depen-dence but it was also about social differences, about class feelings and attitudes”. Add religion and caste into the mix, and you also have the story of servants in South Asia today. In contrast, authors based in the West (with such notable exceptions as Kathryn Stockett and Kureishi) tend to ignore the existence of an often racialised underclass there who clean, look after children, and provide sexual services.
Bangladesh too is developing a dynamic body of English language fiction, with writers including Adib Khan and Tahmima Anam. Here the 1971 war is an important theme (one which has also provoked Pakistani English-language responses from authors such as Kamila Shamsie [Kartography], Moni Mohsin, and Sorayya Khan). In her latest novel, The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam moves on to consider the 1971 war from an eighties vantage point, and also the turn taken by the young Bangladeshi state under the dictatorship of Hussain Muhammad Ershad and the growing influence of the Islamic Right.
Perhaps the most interesting development is to be found in the realm of genre. As well as the move away from magic realism, South Asia is currently experiencing an explosion of popular Anglophone forms. This is particularly evident in India, with the stratospheric rise of Chetan Bhagat, author of commercial hits including One Night @ the Call Centre. However, it is also happening on a smaller scale in Pakistan, with erotic fiction like “Challawa” being reissued in English to international fanfare. In diasporic Britain, the success of children’s fiction and popular autobiographies by such writers as Sarwat Chadda and Shelina Zahra Janmohamed shows that authors of South Asian background are being recognised by mainstream commercial publishers, and finding readers outside the traditional literary fiction market. There is still a lot to be done, but a diversification of genres, publishers, and writers jostling for space in the growing print and e-book markets of South Asia and diaspora is surely grounds for cautious optimism about the future of English-language writing.
The writer is a lecturer in postcolonial literature at Leeds Metropolitan University. Her book, British Muslim Fiction: Interviews with Contemporary Writers, was recently published