Many, many congratulations to Anuradha Roy for winning India’s prestigious Economist Crossword Book Award (fiction category) for The Folded Earth. It is thrill and delight for us all, and no book nor author could be more deserving. The shortlist also included books by Amitav Ghosh, Jeet Thayil, Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya and Rahul Bhattacharya. Here is the judges’ citation from yesterday’s ceremony.
This is a challenging, but by the same token, very exciting time for the Indian novelist – certainly the Indian novelist who writes in English. In an obvious and easily accessible sense, this has to do with the opening up of the global market. However, there are certain other aspects of this development that have a more direct bearing on the creative situation.
The problems of belonging and identity that played such a preponderant role in the first decades – the terrain that was memorably identified by Meenakshi Mukherjee as “the anxiety of Indianness” – seem to have lost some of their fascination. It is remarkable, therefore, that two (and arguably, three) of the five novels on our shortlist are set outside India, set as far afield as Guyana and Morocco. This is, unquestionably, a welcome development – Indianness is no longer a yoke that the Indian writer is forced to wear. However, this raises the matter of the complex relationship between locality and globality or universality in a very interesting way. Thus, we would argue, the global defines the horizon of aspiration, but the path to that horizon lies, and must lie, through some intimately experienced locality, some particularity.
Then again, and for immediately identifiable reasons, the first generation of writers feltcompelled, in some sense, to imitate Stephen Dedalus’s famous move, at the end of Portrait: “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Hence the urge, both declared and attributed, to write “the great Indian novel”. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is, of course, a crucial landmark in this cultural trajectory. But it is also evident, now, that for a new generation of Indian novelists, Rushdie has already become a forebear, a respected ancestor. Thus, we have novels that seek to tell small lives, to explore the shifting identities that texture ordinary living.
Finally, we cannot help but remark the fact that two of the five novels on our shortlist are concerned with opium, albeit at opposite ends of a deeply significant historical arc.
Being a judge for contemporary Indian fiction is like being a prospector for gold. Or for those who have read Rahul Bhattacharya’s splendid book set in Guyana, like a prospector panning the river for diamonds. That is to say it is both an arduous and an exhilarating task.
You sift through many layers looking for nuggets or shards of diamonds. As Rahul will tell you, when you first see a rough diamond, it looks quite ordinary.
For some, the thrill is in the seeking. For others, it is being able to possess that shining nugget. For a judge, it is being able to pick up and display this tiny fragment of stone.
In our case, we found many shining nuggets and by a process of elimination, discovered five such pieces. Each one was cut and polished in a different manner.
The final choice was a difficult one. Amongst the issues we discussed were those touched upon by Alok Rai – thus, the hunt for the great Indian novel, the burden of the past – colonial, feudal, or the affiliations of religion, caste and class, and the tensions these can create for the writer.
There is also the challenge of the present. How does a writer compete against the media’s invasion of public discourse in all its chattering, hectoring, commercially packaged format.
One way could be by creating a small, inviolable space in which to observe and record all the subterranean upheavals to create those moments of clarity that we value as literature.
The small diamond that we have unearthed and enjoyed is called The Folded Earth. All the three of us are happy the Economist Crossword Prize for Indian Fiction for 2011 goes to Anuradha Roy.