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Indian Writers Discuss Impact of Their Literature - 2002-02-23

In the last two decades, several authors of Indian origin writing in English have made their mark in international literary circles. Some of the world's most prestigious awards have come their way - the Bookers Prize, the Commonwealth prize, and most recently the Nobel Prize for literature. This week some of these writers gathered at a country resort near New Delhi for a week-long international festival to discuss Indian literature's place in the world.

The Indian Council of Cultural Relations that hosted the conference called them the writers who are "at home in the world." They were refering to a crop of celebrity authors of Indian origin - Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy whose books have become well known around the world.

Many of them either live or have spent many years in Western countries. Writer Pico Iyer says Indian writers have been successful because they are multicultural - and in a world that is more global, their work represents a wide set of experiences.

"They are bringing together so many different worlds. I think most Indians are born multiculturalists, grow up with many languages, many different selves, access to a variety of cultures - certainly if they are in India, and just as much if they are travelling around. Suddenly it's like throwing open the windows and getting all these new rhythms and spices and traditions," he says.

Author Vikram Seth studied and lived for many years in the United States. He won wide acclaim for his book "A Suitable Boy." He says he has sometimes been criticized for choosing subjects that are not Indian. But he says, Indian writers have struggled to find their own identity, which is not restricted by the country of their birth.

"I suppose I struggled with it [identity] while I was at college and when I began writing. Identity both with respect to the language I wrote and with respect to the subjects that I chose. But eventually you find subjects choose you, and if you are going to write about California or about playing in a string quartet in London, or living in a small town in U.P. [Uttar Pradesh - a north Indian state]in the 1950s, you should really stop questioning yourself, whether you are being politically correct, or being faithful to your audience. All these things are extraneous. You should just write what you are impelled to write," Mr. Seth says.

Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul says modern Indian writing in English has given India a truer idea of itself. Mr. Naipaul was born in Trinidad - but the country of his ancestors has often figured in his writing. He said, "when I write, the past comes out of my fingers."

Indian writing in English is now part of university curricula in several foreign universities. Well-known author Amitav Ghosh says writers like Mr. Naipaul have helped Indian authors find their niche in the world.

"You can walk into a bookstore and the whole bookstore is filled with books written by Indians. When we were 17 and 18 you could not fill half a shelf with books by Indians. And at that time books by someone like Sir Vidya they were incredibly important to us. They really showed us the place we had in the world. That's what writing is about, that dawning of self awareness, that sort of dawning of what your relationship is with the world," Mr. Gosh said.

But it was not praise all the way for Indian writers who have made their mark abroad. Several writers in regional Indian languages said the work of Indian authors in English was specially crafted to appeal to Western audiences. They say the english writers' readership is probably wider in the West than in India, where they are known more for the international acclaim they have won than for their works.

Other writers said international recognition has been easier to come by for those writing in English because they are using a language which is now the global language. Author Nayantara Sehgal says this made many regional writers feel that they are at a disadvantage.

"The importance of a langauge is related to its political, economic and cultural and commercial power and position in the international community and English has the edge here. There's no question about it - in job opportunities and advancements of all kinds. This is not fair. But what is fair?" Mr. Sehgal says.

But all agreed that it's a good sign that some Indian writers in English have captured global attention - and hoped these authors will be an advance guard for many others from inside India.