Raising the stakes for Indian writing in English: The Caravan
Here is my own manifesto for Indian writing. I hereby call for a literature that engages with “the real”: not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past. Like the political parties, I too am trying to project myself to my home base.
The title of my novel Home Products, published back in 2007, was drawn from a quote by Mark Twain: “To my mind, one relative or neighbour mixed up in a scandal is more interesting than a whole Sodom and Gomorrah of outlanders gone rotten. Give me the home product every time.” But the title had always had another meaning for me. It was meant to signal that the story wasn’t for export. It was for readers in India. In fact, when people read it I wanted them to imagine that the novel could have been written in Hindi.
Also, I didn’t want to have to explain much. The book’s first sentence is: “Mala Srivastava’s mother lived in a two-room flat above a tiny kindergarten institution that called itself Harward Public School.” Not for a moment did I imagine that a reader of my novel in, say, Cambridge, Massachusetts, would immediately know anything about the unsuspecting humour behind the school’s name, a name that I had seen painted on a wall near my parents’ home in Patna. And yet, a reader like that, a reader outside India, wasn’t ever far away from my thoughts.
Soon after Home Products was published in India, the writer Siddharth Chowdhury, a friend from Patna, sent me a congratulatory note. He had especially liked a chapter where a boy lies awake beside a couple on their wedding night in Motihari. The groom engages in foreplay by speaking to his new wife about the high marks she matriculated with. She had scored well in both History and Geography. The groom says to the bride, “People like me know that the capital of Nepal is Kathmandu or that the capital of Burma is Rangoon. But please tell me—what is the capital of Mongolia?”