Urban stories are the lifeline of contemporary English literature in India

India-Books

New Delhi
Madhusree Chatterjee

Cities are the new preserves of profound creative theatres in India- luring scores of young expressionists to paint their urban experiences and whims in words. The city has been an aggressive wellspring of an urban literature blitz in India for the last decade, spreading its wings to bring new terrain into its metropolitan folds across the length and breadth of this vast country – with more stories.

Urban literature is now a genre by itself unlike in the initial decades of the 20th century and before when lives played out in the rural landscapes before moving for their climatic denouements to the city. Now, literature is conceived and scripted within the urban precincts rarely accompanied by the need to see beyond the concrete skyline.

Three new books – Capital by Rana Dasgupta, Conversations in the Nude by Mihir Srivastava and The Americans by Chitra Viraragavan – explores four quaint urban facets of transformation, mobility demography and the aesthetics of metro-sexuality that are making up the cities and people of 21st century India.

Writer-reporter and artist Mihir Srivastava – a city slicker- reports about nudism through live drawings of nude subjects with whom he strikes conversations about freedom, aesthetics and the liberation of the human body from the confines of clothes and conventions – by encouraging them to shed clothes for posing sessions some of which lasts for days and even years.

Nudity in the contemporary Indian urban matrix means many things – a desire to come clean of urban pretentions that imposes a code of modern conduct on a human being as socially sensible species, a empowerment of the self and the body; self discovery, venting of existential blues, rebellion and a latent longing to the connect to the basic human nature by way of a dialogue between artist and the nude subject.

“I don’t consider myself as an artist to start with. I am not sure whether it is art I have written about. I look at it as reportage. As a journalist in a big city, I experienced a kid of existential dilemmas. I have always been witness to extraordinary situations. Over a period of time, these extraordinary circumstances became clinical- how people live and die. The stories brought enormous boredom after 10 years as a reporter,” Srivastava said. It was around this time that he began to draw nude as a hobby to tide over his urban blues.

“Once I took it up as a hobby – I realized that nudity was not an end but a ticket to enter into this very specialist place – ‘private place for public nudity,” Srivastava told this writer at his home in an upscale South Delhi neighbourhood- a quiet residential cluster, where no one questions Srivastava’s essentially metro lifestyle.

He lets his home out to “house guests from all over the world” for months at a stretch. The guests, mostly foreign – who come to India as scholars, artists or Indophiles for a brush with the eastern mystique — share Srivastava’s home and sample Indian urban comforts.

It is this sense of sharing without reservations that makes Srivastava very prosaic about the subjects he paints. “People project a certain identity – a complex identity, a professional identity, regional, linguistic and sexual identity. There is a great spiritual tension because of this – you are trying to control what people should think of you. Nudity, on its part, is an entry port to the space where you feel vulnerable because you think you can’t project or control perceptions,” Srivastava said. The writer-artist exploits this vulnerability to “its outermost limits” by allowing his subjects to get over the shame of being nude till the point “when the social condition that we have to project an identity gives away and nudity becomes the strongest means of self-assertion,” Srivastava explained this growing urban obsession with nudity in Indian mega cities, where lives are making fast-track detours to experimental tracks- and in a way reconnection to man’s primal desire for freedom from frills.

“Power equations change as my subjects begin to feel – this is who I am,” the artist said. Srivastava in his auto-biographical account about a painter of nude bodies tries to bring about this politics of the body through his experiences and anecdotes about painting people without clothes. The dialogues point to a new social paradigm where “the comfort level and acceptance of the body as it is on the rise”. Nudity is dispossession as well, the artist said.

“Sometimes, Srivastava has sex with his subjects. “But it does not get into my art,” he said.

The phenomenon of nudity as a statement in the modern civilisation stage dates back to the early history when Vatsayana conceived the “Kamasutra” – the first-ever love manual that showed lovers in various stages of undress and love – as an aesthetic statement. Over the millennia, nudity has been subject to conventions, religious dictum, and social repression as an aberration to emerge as a fashion signature in the 20th century west – with artists and votaries of human freedom endorsing it as a symbol of urban empowerment and even protest. IN India, the hippie movement of the 1970s unshackled several inhibitions associated with the acceptance of the body in the nude.

It is an urban reality for the artist in me, Srivastava, who is preparing to set out on a world nude painting tour in the near future.

If transformation is the thread that runs through Srivastava’s urban obsession, then writer Chitra Viraraghvan’s debut novel, “The Americans” address the transformation stories of the Indian immigrants’ to America in the 1990s-2000s. She narrates the changes through a motley cast of oddball characters who went to America post globalization and turned their lives around– doing what they had never dreamed of achieving in new worlds.

Drain has been an urban spur of transformation and demographic realignments since the run-up to globalization when the best brains from the developing worlds – primarily from India and south-east Asia – sought high-net worth professional trappings of the west that dangled as carrots for hundreds of young service seekers in white collared rings. Engineers, doctors, finance graduates, scientists and intellectuals moved westward creating a new cultural vocabulary – the immigrants’ tale.

This culture of relocation prompted an oeuvre of literature – the diaspora novel which took a look at the first generation of immigrant Asians in the west through stories of adaptations, naturalizations and integration in a curiously Indian way into the mainstream rainbow society. A second stream of literary exposition was the account of experiences by outsider immigrant – the ones who went to study in United States ivy leagues from the premier urban centres of India in a rush of graduate entrance tests. They were “foreign educated” urban Indian writers, who recollected their trysts with the west in literary retrospect in urban story-telling that related to the evolution of the socio-politico- historical and cultural landscapes they straddled. The pioneers of this genre – a group of writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni to recall a few – wrote about India from a western perspective because they lived in the west unlike their predecessors during the colonial Raj, who marveled at the colours of a maharaja’s India a century earlier.

“I wrote what I saw there. I was intuited to see how those groups who migrated from India dealt with American racism and class consciousness. Personally, these issues meant a lot because I belonged to the urban privileged class. But when I reached America (Boston), I realized I was an Indian. Race became an issue for me to deal with,” Chitra Viraraghavan said.

The writer, who went to America in the mid-Nineties to study, transformed her own life. “Indians in America live a little ghetto life- devoted to earning money. Most Indians fit into that category and enjoy it. But I broke away from the immigrants’ stereotype to lead a American life… It gave me chance to explore the immigrants’ stories from around the world, meet Indians who had ceased to be their old selves,” the writer explained.

As urban Indians, “one usually has a notion what India is; you cannot define India”. “Indians have this certain sense of superiority. This superior power is put to test when they negotiate the American landscape,” Viraraghavan said. The writer draws those people who have given up their Indianness to “make new choices that are sometime chaotic, dysfunctional and melodramatic”.

The underlying theme of both Raghavan’s and Srivastava’s narrative is globalization – where the boundaries crumble under the onslaught of mobility and flight maps which have melted the physical walls separating geography – into one global village.

The opening of the Indian economy in the 1990s bore its first flush in urban centres, when the multinational companies came knocking on the doors to open a different level of competition and corporate awareness among educated middle class with an ability to assimilate. A group of Indian writers, who were exposed to the tides of globalization early on cashed in on the spirit of “lazes faire” with Anglophone narratives that moved to and fro across India and its global chain.

Writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Shashi Tharoor, Anita Desai and Amitav Ghosh – to name a few – wrote about the new Indian, whose ethos spread beyond the boundaries of the nation. They were urban to the core with an individualistic Indianness that smelt of western capitalism because of their encounters with the occident.

One such writer is Rana Dasgupta, whose books, “Tokyo Cancelled”, “Solo” and “Capital” have been tempered by his status as a global Indian – who finds his stories in the cities of the world he has either lived in or has visited.

His latest novel, “Capital: ….” , released last year is an investigation into the changing soul of the country’s political powerhouse, New Delhi, an ancient city that has grown over the years – in the midst of the vagaries of history – to become a cosmopolitan urban magnate with a demography that has transformed radically to make room for an Indian microcosm. Dasgupta, unlike Mihir Srivastava or Chitra Viraraghavan, does not find his stories from the Indian urban archetypes and quirks alone; he is a global writer who likes to write about countries much removed from the cultural praxis of India – and its global connections- like Bulgaria in his award-winning novel “Solo” or as in his collection of contemporary folk tales “Tokyo Cancelled” set in the world capitals as an outsider, who reacts to the peculiarities of bigger urban civilization of a post-globalised nature.

“Do I like Delhi…,” Dasgupta pointed to the essence of his novel, “Capital” in an attempt to answer the question. “The Capital is one of my most significant books about the pains and anxieties in my relationship with the city to which I moved in 2000,” he said. All his three books were plotted in the city of Delhi – despite their diverse locales which Dasgupta were reminiscences of his earlier rendezvous with the globe.

“I lived in New York before and when I came to New Delhi, I discovered different kinds of cultural contexts. And just as I was writing the book, the contexts were changing. Capital tells the story of my arrival into the city and the stories of a certain cross-section of people- like the artists, bohemians, urban floaters, intellectuals and service men who make up the new capital. After five years of arrival to the city, 26/11 happened…This book has been written in the spirit of therapy,” Dasgupta said.

Delhi may be Dasgupta’s muse, but the “boundaries of excitement, the unforeseen and the sense of renewal” that the novel probes as the new urban foundations of uncertainty and exhilaration of living in mega cities applies to Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata in India – and to London, New York and Paris – the global capitals as well.

“The trend began with Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City,” says Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Penguin-Random House India. Mehta, who wrote about Mumbai as a maximum metropolis of his thought-scape in 2003-2004 encapsulating the transformation, culture and the colours of the city opened the gates to a flood of writers like Arvind Adiga, Vikram Chandra, Chetan Bhagat, Jeet Thayil, Gregory David Roberts (of Shantaram fame) and scores, who saw in the city the stories they wanted to tell – sitting like aural halos in the lives of the ordinary and extraordinary who inhabited urban landscape.

“Mumbai is a city of great drama probably because of the movie industry. It is any writer’s goldmine. Every person I meet in Mumbai, whether he is a betel shop owner, a cop or a crime reporter, has a story to tell. One can use the urban landscape and real geographies  ,” Vikram Chandra, the author of the cult novel, “Love and Longing in Bombay” said. (take more)

Another such urban phenomenon is Chetan Bhagat- the mass market’s best-welling writer who is a household name in urban India for his stories about new Indian realities of love, friendship, changing corporate cultures and social sensitivities – that combine both the heartland and elite urban India to comment on migration, demographic compositions of the neo-middle class, youth and the impact of globalization on cities.

Growth of new cities and the proliferation of English as a medium of education have been two of the biggest catalysts in the explosion of urban literature. As cities tier themselves into the hinterland, new young authors like Ravinder Singh – India’s phenomenal motivational love story writer – from smaller towns like Chandigarh have cast their spell on the average young reader with tales of “despair and love possible several times over”.

A current of renewal drives the new urban literature to speak of hope and find meanings in mundane urban joys- like in Nilanjana S. Roy’s award winning book, “The Wildlings”- an allegorical tale about Delhi’s stray cats, left to fend for themselves in the highrise clusters.

Experts say the “sociology of urban literature is difficult to quantify”. While on one hand, writers tend to become inured to the circumstances around them” on the other, a segment react violently to new social realities. The right stand is to strike a balance between fiction and real life.

Publishers say the segmentation of the mass urban readership into categories like “chick lit”, “young adults”, “literary fictions”, “alternative literature” and “contemporary mass market novels” have powered the growth of urban literature that has been pushing the farthest frontiers of story-telling. Business is most brisk in the urban mass market segment with publishers like Rupa & Co, Harper Collins-India and Penguin-Random House India devoting much of their resources and commissioning energies to urban mass market literature.

In a fast changing cultural and economic landscape where rural-urban migration has peaked in India, urban readers want to identify with their environs. Cities are the big things of the future. It is the city where all action has gravitated and in all likelihood will gather pace.

Publisher and chief editor of Harper Collins V.A. Karthika says “segmentation that was once seen to be important for more focused selling and marketing is now becoming less relevant”. “Any category you can think of is also subcategorised in various ways and the metadata that drives online search engines reference points of intersection rather than differentiation. So urban literature which, in the case of English language publishing, means nearly all fiction barring the odd exception and of course translations from other languages, is also romance or politics or crime or humour or whatever other category it fits. It seems to me that in India, the ‘pure literary’ is more and more a notional category of privilege. What readers appear to be looking for is prose they can access, and stories they can embrace as their own,” Karthika said. 

The great Indian urban middle class – the country’s highest literate block- wants to participate in the nationalism of the future. There is greater engagement at the intellectual level, says writer Pavan Varma, the author of “The New Indian Middle Class”.

(Conversations in the Nude, The Americans and The New Indian Middle Class have been published by Harper Collins. The Capital has been published by Harper Collins as well)

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