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Monday, May 16, 2022

A Passage to India: The Indian writers on The Big Jubilee Read to celebrate seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign

From RK Narayan, Kamala Markandaya to Arundhati Roy and The Indian Express chief editor, Raj Kamal Jha, the list has a wide range of Indian writers writing in English

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi |
April 19, 2022 4:25:44 pm
The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express newsDivided into seven decades, beginning with the year 1952, the list has seen the inclusion of a number of Indian writers and writers of Indian origin, besides global literary icons. (Photos: Amazon.in)

To celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s reign — the longest in British royal history — an expert panel, comprising librarians, academics and booksellers, have selected 70 books, including novels, short story anthologies and poetry collections from across the Commonwealth, to mark the seven decades of the British sovereign’s reign. The books, described as “brilliant, beautiful and thrilling writing” by BBC Arts, who have collaborated with The Reading Agency for the compilation, were selected based on readers’ recommendations from 31 nations across six continents and are representative of “shared stories that define our social and cultural heritage”, the BBC Arts website mentions. Divided into seven decades, beginning with the year 1952, the list has seen the inclusion of a number of Indian writers and writers of Indian origin, besides global literary icons such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, Damon Galgut, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alice Munro and others. Here’s a look at the Indian writers who made it to The Big Jubilee Read list:

1952-1961

The Guide (1958)

The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

RK Narayan (1906-2001)

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Writing a review of the international edition of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days in The New York Times on March 7, 1982, writer Anita Desai noted, “Apart from the compassionate realism with which Narayan observes life in this teeming microcosm, it is his sense of humour — fresh, sharp and wryly ironic — that prevents Malgudi Days from crumbling into the sugary crystals of sentimentality… Malgudi is peopled with characters whose company is pleasantly undemanding: not for them the hunt, the chase or the prize. A sense of detachment envelopes them comfortingly, and time meanders through their lives as somnolently as the river Sarayu. They know neither the pressure of the present nor the lure of the future, their lives and homes are complete in themselves, suspended in the auric amber of timelessness. Yet, Narayan never belittles his subjects; he conveys the full measure of their dignity.” The breadth of his compassion and the astuteness of his observation is also manifest in his earlier, celebrated work The Guide, in which Narayan follows the transformation of Raju from a disingenuous but lovable tour guide into a revered spiritual leader. The novel, which fetched one of the earliest and most enduring practitioners of Indian English literature — alongside Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand — the 1960 Sahitya Akademi award, remains a seminal work, effervescent and timeless.

Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961)

The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

Attia Hosain (1913-1988)

In a 2013 essay in Wasafiri, one of UK’s leading magazines on international contemporary writing, publisher Ritu Menon, co-editor of Attia Hosain: Distant Traveller, New and Selected Fiction (2013), wrote, “One knew about Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) almost before one read TS Eliot’s poem, so indelibly had the novel become a part of growing up, and growing into, modern Indian writing. That pitch-perfect prose, redolent of a place and time steeped in nostalgia; the figure of the heroine, Laila, moving through empty-yet-filled rooms, filled with haunting memories, and that one stunning image – “Into this vast room the coloured panes of the arched doors let in not light but shadows that moved in the mirrors on the walls and mantelpiece, that slithered under chairs … hid behind marble statues, lurked in giant porcelain vases” – like a kaleidoscope dimmed. Over the years, you returned to the novel again and again, finding in it a meaning you hadn’t grasped earlier, a subtext that now seems so obvious, an unusual subtlety of observation.”

Despite her disappearance from the literary circles of India and the UK after the publication of Sunlight on a Broken Column, her groundbreaking autobiographical work that followed her collection of short stories Phoenix Fled (1953), writer, broadcaster and journalist Hosain remains one of the pioneering post-colonial Indo-British writers of the 20th century. Her cosmopolitan life, her early induction into India’s political life during the freedom struggle contributed to her unique approach to culture and feminism that endured throughout her life and influenced her writing, which she continued with in private.

1972-1981

The Nowhere Man (1972)

The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004)

Like Hosain, Kamala Markandaya wore her genius lightly, despite her prodigious writing career that included acclaimed novels such as Nectar in a Sieve (1954), A Silence of Desire (1960), The Nowhere Man (1972) and Pleasure City (1982). Markandaya moved to the UK in 1948 after her marriage to English journalist Bertrand Taylor, and led an intensely personal life, devoted to her family and her writing. Among the first crop of writers to deliberate on the changes wrought in post-colonial Indian society due to increasing industrialisation, her work captured the tussle between the urban and the rural; between classes and genders, in their search for identity. Often considered her most celebrated work, The Nowhere Man is an epic exploration of the cultural churn that post World War II South Asian migration to Britain engendered.

In the monthly Feminize Your Canon column that appeared in The Paris Review on November 6, 2018, Emma Garmain reiterated Markandaya’s enduring appeal. “In 1956, the then-famous Indian novelist Kamala Markandaya was asked if she might set a book in England, where she lived with her British husband. ‘No,’ she responded, ‘I don’t know England well enough, and don’t think a static society—that is to say a society which has solved its problems in a mild and satisfactory way—can prod me into writing about it. I regret to say I have to be infuriated about something before I write.’ A decade and a half later Markandaya’s greater familiarity with English society, and its increasing volatility, resulted in her seventh novel, The Nowhere Man… When Markandaya wrote The Nowhere Man, she may well have imagined that the racist dysfunction she portrayed would, half a century on, be a bygone aspect of less enlightened times. But to the contemporary reader, the novel is full of conspicuous parallels to today, not least the Trumpian/Brexitish attribution of economic woes to the presence of an alien outgroup.” Markandaya is considered to be a seminal influence on generations of South Asian writers who followed, including Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Arundhati Roy.

Clear Light of Day (1980)

The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

Anita Desai (1937-)

First published in the 1960s, the protagonists of Anita Desai’s work are mostly outliers, characterised by their love of solitude and their quiet observation of the world around them. Desai’s peripatetic life ensured that while she was at home in the world, she never quite belonged to one place. It gave her writing a unique self-containment and a sharpness of vision that could pick on the constraints placed on women in both normative and idiosyncratic roles and middle-class families making sense of their changing milieu. In Clear Light of Day, her most autobiographical novel, Desai explores an Anglicised family’s coming to terms with a country in the midst of an increasing communal roil.

Midnight’s Children (1981)

The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

Salman Rushdie (1947-)

In an interview with The Indian Express in June 2021, writer Salman Rushdie said, “My creative relationship with India remains just about my strongest motivating force.” Midnight’s Children, his pathbreaking novel which won the Booker of Bookers twice, is a fable, tracing the journey of its hero, Saleem Sinai, born at the same time as the country’s emergence into freedom from British yoke. Writing about the novel, four decades after its publication, in an essay last year in The Guardian, Rushdie wrote, “For all its surrealist elements Midnight’s Children is a history novel, looking for an answer to the great question history asks us: what is the relationship between society and the individual, between the macrocosm and the microcosm? To put it another way: do we make history, or does it make (or unmake) us?”

1992-2001

The God of Small Things (1997)

The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

Arundhati Roy (1959-)

In 1997, when Arundhati Roy burst on to the scene with her Booker Prize-winning debut, it would place Ayamenem and Roy firmly into global literary consciousness. It would also mark the beginning of Roy’s long years of political and environmental activism and her frequent run-ins with governments in power. Even though she has written only one more novel since, in an interview to The Indian Express ahead of the publication of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in 2017, Roy spoke of how fiction was her sanctuary: “Even though in the last 20 years I have been writing non-fiction, if you look at each essay and the climate in which it came out, it was when things were closing in. It was urgent, it was trying to blow open a space which was closing down for people. For fiction, my body is different when I am writing. I am completely calm, I am in no hurry. I want it to take a long time, I want to live with it.”

The Blue Bedspread (1999)

The Big Jubilee Read list, books celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Indian writers on Big Jubilee Read list, indian express news (Photo: Amazon.in)

Raj Kamal Jha (1966-)

In a June 1999 article in The Guardian, Baret Magarian described The Blue Bedspread, the debut novel by The Indian Express chief editor Raj Kamal Jha and the recipient of the 1999 Guardian First Book Award, thus: “To say that the novel has caused a stir in the publishing world would be an understatement. It was bought by Peter Straus of Picador, and then sold to most of the leading international publishing houses, including Gallimard and Random House. It is the second fastest selling book in India ever; the machinery is in place for a triumph on a par with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.” Spare in language and audacious in scope, the novel is the first of Jha’s five much-feted literary works, the latest being The City and The Sea (2019), for which he won the Tata Literature Live Book of The Year (Fiction), 2019 and the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize (2020).

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