by Zeenat Mahal @zeemahal
Genre writing in English by South Asians is a comparatively new phenomenon. Though there are writers like Shobhaa De who have been writing popular fiction for the last two decades, most writers want to be known as ‘literary’ authors. The common belief in South Asia has been, until now, that in order to have any merit, writing in English has to be ‘literary,’ a term used to signify art. A literary book is supposed to have finer prose, important themes and most of all, it is expected to be a piece of such crafted excellence that it can withstand the test of time. Traditionally, value has been placed with this form of writing, while all other forms of writing are dismissed as worthless. This prejudice is true anywhere in the world, but it has lasted far longer in South Asia. Popular literature by South Asians has only recently found an audience in South Asia.
There are two phenomena at work here. Homi K. Bhabha suggests that the fascination with the written word leads to the ‘book [being regarded] as wonder.’ The other is the fascination with a person who can make a story out of nothing, or worse, ‘put you in a book.’ There might be remnants of post-colonialism working here as well. Writers who can employ the language of power, i.e. English, to write and to capture ‘truths’ and ‘reality’ are celebrated more than those who write in local languages, not counting the great poets and classical writers. The idea that the revered written word may be ‘reduced’ to nothing more than ‘pulp’ appal these gatekeepers of ‘taste’ and ‘merit.’ The written word as entertainment is frowned upon, because reading as a leisurely habit has been associated with rich, well-educated people who want to come across as intellectuals.