It was somewhere over the Indian Ocean, far from my destination and even further from sleep, that I turned to television to still my racing mind. A five-hundred-page guide to India lay abandoned at my feet. I can’t read when I fly; I’m too full of anticipatory energy. The documentary channel offered the next best thing so I hit play on the first video I could find in English. The words ‘Timeless India’ appeared onscreen.
Drum beats filled my headphones. On the tiny screen two men were locked in combat on a deserted beach. Wearing nothing but loincloths the muscly men clashed swords with one another. The narrator was British; his accent is what Bengali writer Nilanjana Roy might call ‘crisp like an apple’. The image dissolved into the sunny, palm-fringed waterways of Kerala, and the narrator began:
When Christopher Columbus discovered America it was said he was disappointed. For the place he was really seeking was the Coast of Malabar: India’s fabled spice coast, linked by intricate waterways to a hinterland of unimaginable riches.
The short film was made by India’s Ministry of Tourism and it’s a fun, if outdated, reminder of how foreigners exoticise India to this day – a fantasy of a timeless land of unimaginable riches. One that bears little resemblance to the metropolises of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, or any other city growing with the rapid speed of its economy.
I was like any other tourist craving a truly authentic experience – whatever that means. I was heading to Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), an annual writers’ festival in Rajasthan, a largely desert state in India’s north. Having mostly read books about India, JLF was an opportunity to educate myself about literature written by Indians – an important difference.
Lonely Planet described Rajasthan as a ‘fabled realm of maharajas, majestic forts and lavish palaces’. What I found in its capital, Jaipur, was not the fabled past but a modern city full of life. It was wedding season in Jaipur when I arrived. Elephants walked in between the traffic while musicians drove around in the backs of trucks. It was also the tail-end of a kite festival, and triangular shapes dotted the horizon.
Among travellers, Jaipur is known as ‘the Pink City’. In 1876 Maharaja Ram Singh had its Old City painted pink to welcome the visiting English aristocracy. These days the older parts of Jaipur are living museums, their facades a faded salmon colour. For a few rupees you can wander through the palaces and have your picture taken with the guards who stand outside the gates.
Asking ‘What is the real India?’ is as difficult a question to answer as ‘What is ‘Indian literature?’. ‘There is no one Indian identity or culture that I can easily explain’ Mary Kurkalang, a publishing insider based in Delhi tells me. Largely because there is no reliable data (India’s book industry doesn’t receive any recognition or support from its government), ‘publishers and writers in other Indian languages are lesser known or not known at all,’ she says.
In the West, prize-winners such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy are well-known. But such a list, writes Nilanjana Roy in her excellent guide to Indian literature, The Girl Who Ate Books, suggests that ‘Indian writing in the Western world is defined largely as Indian writing in English, with very few translations making their way abroad’. As Roy suggests in her book, the dominance of English means less visibility for writing which lies outside the mainstream, such as Dalit writing, or writing from the seven sister states which make up the country’s north-east.
There are twenty-two ‘official languages, in five different scripts but almost half the books published in India are in Hindi or English. The prevalence of English – India is the second largest English-language publishing market in the world – is a major reason why overseas publishers are turning their attention to the subcontinent.
I met Kelly Falconer, founder of Asia Literary Agency and former literary editor of the Asia Literary Review, during my travels. When I asked her about the current state of play, she said ‘the trend at the moment is that Indian writers and publishers are concentrating on, and celebrating, their own markets, in a way they might not have done so conspicuously in the past. This allows their writers to command better advances.’ Falconer points towards the million-dollar deal famously negotiated by Red Ink agent Anuj Bahri for novelist Amish Tripathi, whose ‘Shiva Trilogy’ reimagines the Hindu deity for a modern Indian audience.
Namita Gokhale, co-founder and director of Jaipur Literature Festival, also reimagines ancient Indian myths and history in her novels. She describes herself as a literary activist, passionately committed to showcasing all Indian languages – and this was certainly a running theme of the 2016 Festival. She writes in the program: ‘This January, the rivers of our individual experiences will flow into the Kathasaritsagara’ – which she translates as ‘the sea of our stories of our collective literary consciousness’.
I wanted this knowledge to wash over me. During panels, I sat up straight in my chair, pen poised, ready to jot down information about Indian culture, history, politics. The range of topics I encountered was positively dizzying: the legacy of Partition, Mahatma Ghandi, the future of sanitation, the role of Eastern philosophy in Western medicine. Audience members of differing religious views came to blows over Kashmir’s contested border – question time felt more highly charged than at any other literary festival I’ve attended. An outspoken politician sparked a lively debate about British colonialism. The panel grappled with the provocation: Should Britain now pay reparations to its former colonies?’
My five days at the festival fell into a pleasant routine. I started my day by drinking masala chai out of baked clay cups while listening to live Hindustani music on stage – the gentle plucking of the sarangi a nice counterpoint to the noise of people arriving. By mid-morning I was slithering through a mass of bodies, each going their own different direction, and jumping on the few remaining seats just before a session started. JLF is free but those who purchased a delegate ticket could take a breather in a special marquee. Each midday a giant feast would appear. I was ravenous, spooning large helpings of dal and paneer onto my plate, trying to get my energy up for the afternoon’s sessions.
One of the most interesting panels I attended featured Ruby Hembrom, the founder and editor of publishing house Adivaani. She promotes and translates literature by Adivasi writers, indigenous tribes regarded as lower caste. There were no translators on stage and one of her co-panellists spoke in his own language. Around me those who could understand what was being said shook their heads vigorously and broke into laughter. While I was disappointed to miss out on what was likely a very interesting conversation, I respected their decision nonetheless. The lingua franca of many writers’ festivals around the world might be English, but in a country like India such homogeneity doesn’t make sense.
Homogeneity has long been a feature of the (predominantly Eurocentric) publishing world. A report on submissions to the 2016 Man Booker International Prize shows that even within the world of translation, certain corners of the globe and languages are still privileged over others. Most shocking was the finding that:
not one of the novels submitted comes from or deals with the entire area east of Lebanon and west of Xinjiang or in the vast subcontinent between the Himalayas and Sri Lanka. There is nothing translated from Farsi or Hindi or Urdu or Bengali or Kannada or Tamil, nothing from Burmese, Thai or Malay, and only one book from all the languages of South-East Asia.
There is no shortage of literary culture, or indeed interest within the region. British historian William Dalrymple co-founded Jaipur Literature Festival in the early 2000s and has watched attendance grow from a small crowd to a quarter of a million people. Dalrymple credits Jaipur’s success as inspiring other literature festivals in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar.
Geographically, Australia is situated within the Asia Pacific but culturally we’re rooted in the old Western centres of power. Whatever sentiments our government expresses about the Asian Century, we still mostly consume the literary output of North America and Europe. Of course, it takes more than reading books from Asian countries for true intercultural relationships to blossom – but it’s a start.
Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, agrees more should be done to engage with Asia. ‘We live in this exciting and dynamic region, but we don’t have cultural conversations with our neighbours – that’s always felt like a strange disconnect to me,' she says.
Back home in Melbourne, I can re-watch many of the festival sessions on YouTube and borrow some of the books – those available in Australia, that is – from my local library. Just recently I was reading A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor and I was transported to the twisting backstreets of Delhi and the burning ghats of Varanasi. The anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, offered a similar passage, this time into the lives of India’s marginalised women.
Reading and travelling stir a similar desire: the need to be somewhere – someone – else. To visit the same country every time you go abroad might be considered a waste. So what does it mean if we’re visiting the same places in our imaginations time and time again each time we pick up a novel?
Of course, not every novel by an Indian author is necessarily set in India. There is a multiplicity of voices, ideas, themes which constitute its literature. As the narrator of Timeless India says – and JLF taught me – ‘There are many Indias, each one the real thing.’