My interest in South Asian literature was ignited by my year off before university, 1993-4, which I spent teaching in Peshawar. An obsessive reader, I immediately joined Peshawar’s old-fashioned public library, and found myself endlessly borrowing Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Georgette Heyer, and Agatha Christie.
One day I found a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I gulped down during a single weekend at the family home I lived in and in the women’s areas of cafes and parks. English-speaking Pakistanis would comment to me, “That book is all right, but his other book is very bad”, and when I read The Satanic Verses several years later I could understand the offence caused by Rushdie’s often Orientalist portrayal of religious Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), even if I didn’t share the depth of their condemnation. Reading Midnight’s Children, though, was revelatory: this was the first time I’d read descriptions of a life much like the one I was living in Peshawar: people at prayer; gaudy advertising hoardings; Bollywood movies; and idiomatic, endlessly inventive speech patterns — even if the book was marketed, patronisingly and wrongly, as “a continent finding its voice”.
At university I read English Literature, but what really energised me were my further encounters with Indian writers, then enjoying great success as part of the “Indo-chic” of the 1990s. As one commentator observed, many South Asian writers began their careers in the eighties and nineties as “Rushdie’s children”, and there was a glut of forgettable novels written in the magic realist style, replete with separated twins, talking animals, filmi references, and miraculous talents. Yet the best of this (slightly) younger generation of writers — Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Arundhati Roy, and Rohinton Mistry — either avoided magic realism altogether, or worked with it before moving on to experiment with other forms.