Thursday, April 3, 2008

Inspiration: INDIA

Full disclosure: Apprentice Writer is partly of Indian descent. As such, she enjoys 'collecting' novels with Indian settings or features - even while cringing every time she picks up a new one. Why this paradox?

There is something about the timelessness, exoticism, color and spice of the south Asian subcontinent that gives flight to the imagination of multitudes of novelists, within and without its borders. Therein lie two potential novelbuilding pitfalls:
Cultura Non-Equus + Non Persona.*

Some stories set in this region** involve overt or subtly negative portrayal of South Asian people and/or culture, contrasting with positive portrayal of the protagonists' culture. This can range from older texts supporting colonial mentality (i.e. "India is filled with backward heathens in desparate need of British enlightenment to save them from themselves"), to newer texts wherein South Asian characters range from non-existant, to window-dressing equivalent to furniture in a room, to stereotypically villainous or comical secondary characters at most. How many South Asian-set novels mention the landscape, weather, foliage and animals - but no indigenous people, with all the action taking place between, say, European or American characters? How many mention local characters solely to comment upon turbans or saris worn and curry eaten, without any description of their actual lives or families? How many only allow love interests to develop when Western characters encounter one another, with the unspoken rule that cross-cultural romance is out of the question?***

To be fair, balancing all these elements fairly against one another is a tricky business. Happily, there are many new and established novelists willing to wrestle with the issues in an intelligent, entertaining manner.

Specimens from Apprentice Writer's India collection:

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (dramatic fiction): A beautifully written, wrenching book about living under a dictatorship and how there can be no excuse whatsoever to maintain the caste system. Not a light or easy read, but should be on the required reading list of anyone who strives for an informed world view.

The Far Pavillions by M.M. Kaye (historical action adventure): An epic novel set in colonial times, describing a fairytale bygone era and lovers trying to reach across a cultural divide.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (contemporary fiction): A doorstopper of a book telling an appealling tale of family relationships in modern India. The author skillfully makes all three suitors of the young heroine equally attractive; she chose well in the end but Apprentice Writer keenly felt the loss of the other two.

The Sandalwood Princess by Loretta Chase (historical romanctic suspense): An entertaining novella of romantic and cultural intrigue.

Brick Lane**** by Monica Ali (contemporary dramatic fiction): Mirrors the struggle of a traditional young wife to adjust to modern London and the expectations of her co-expatriates there, with the struggle of her sister at home to surmount misogynistic attitudes. An eye-opening tale.

Bollywood Confidential and Goddess for Hire by Sonia Singh (chicklit): Both novels have great cover art, Indo-American heroines, and a modern chick-lit feel. Though Apprentice Writer didn't fully engage with either heroine or either novel resolution, she did like the author's imagination and new territory coverned. It was a refreshing change, and raises interest for the new imprint Harlequin will shortly launch in India.

The next specimen to be added to the collection:

DUKE OF SHADOWS, by Meredith Duran
This new historical romance release received mega buzz. Hopefully the story will live up to its impressive publicity, and - just as important - avoid CULTURA NON-EQUUS and NON PERSONA.

* (Apprentice Writer's Latin is next to non-existant. Apologies to Latinphiles everywhere.)
** (Yes, Apprentice Writer is aware that this pitfall afflicts other geographies as well. African cultures and peoples are often especially hard done by in terms of non-cultura equus and non persona.)
*** (This does not mean to imply that stories set in India without prominent Indian characters, etc. automatically indicate a negative attitude. There could be all kinds of reasons to structure a story that way. But: the longer the story in such a setting without a significant Indian character(s), the greater the risk the author runs of giving such a perception.)
**** (Yes, Apprentice Writer is aware that the protagonists of this book are from Bangladesh rather than India. She thinks the same principles apply.)

13 comments:

Wylie Kinson said...

I've heard the buzz and was wondering - should I?
On Mrs. Giggles review site, she actually compares it to MM Kaye saying it's not quite as good.
I read Brick Road, and I concur -- very eye opening. It really makes you take a look at personal prejudice when it comes to immigrants.

Wylie Kinson said...

Ooops - I meant to open my comment with 'Duke of Shadows... I've heard the buzz...'
but it mysteriously disappeared!

Meredith said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of it, particularly since the first book you list (A Fine Balance, by Mistry) is in my top five best-novels-of-all-time list.

I haven't read the chick lit you mention, but I noticed the absence of Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra -- if you haven't checked it out, you definitely should. I found myself rather taken with the structure of the book. The occasional insertion of flashbacks seemed to me to be cleverly mimicking the narrative structure of a Bollywood film -- with the asides/flashbacks serving the same function as a song does in masala films. It might be a stretch, but judging by all the Hindi film references he dropped throughout the text, I'd bet it was deliberately done.

Meredith Duran

M. said...

be still my heart - a featured author come to visit! how cool is that!

wylie - one of these days i'm going to have to seek out mrs. giggles. i keep hearing her name.

meredith - i haven't heard of 'sacred games' but thanks for the recommendation, i'll go look for it!

Wylie Kinson said...

m. - Mrs. Giggles scares the crap out of me (as an author) but I find she presents fairly balanced reviews without being a complete bitch about it... though I don't always agree with her!

Wylie Kinson said...

m. - I succumbed to the BUZZ. I was in Chapters yesteday and couldn't resist picking up Duke of Shadows.
I started reading it at midnight last night (just one chapter before going to sleep, i told myself...)
Turned out to be an almost all-nighter (I finished it!), and not many books can brag keeping Wylie from her sleep. The BUZZ was right!

Julia Smith said...

Hmm...I have an Indian housekeeper in one of my WIP's, she was the ayah of the family while the father served as a top military officer in India. They brought her back to England with them, where by that time she had become the housekeeper. This is in the 1840's, mind you, when that would have been very odd. Hopefully my story makes it work. Her name is Mrs. Kamala.

Very cool to have Ms. Duran drop by...!

Thomma Lyn said...

Oh, I loved A Suitable Boy, even though Lata didn't choose the boy who made my heart pitter-pat. ;) And here's a suggestion for you: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I thought it was an amazing book.

M. said...

wylie - the fascination about this story just keeps piling on! that's some recommendation.

julia - i LOVE your housekeeper character. maybe i can read your wip when its no longer ip?

tl - pitter pat is right - but my heart did that for both of the others! that fab poet and that passionate, handsome first love! how to choose!

and thanks for another reco - maybe i should do more country specific posts and to be able to collect more recommendations of great novels set in those places???

Amy Ruttan said...

I bought it, I am enjoying it.

Of course we've had this discussion face to face. I have a book I'm trying to sell in Victorian India through the Himalayas and no I don't like that old thinking that Indians were backward heathen. I have such huge respect for different cultures and different ways of life.

I love learning about different religions. Rather than going in and trying to convert I say que serra serra. Whatever will be will be.

We need more historical romances like Duke of Shadows. :) I am enjoying it so far.

Amy Ruttan said...

Apprentice Writer aka the enigma M!! LOL!

Thank you for coming to my party. It meant so much to me that you were able to be there to share it. I had a great time.

Thank you for the beautiful flowers :D

M. said...

Amy Writer: I like to think that the problems I wrote about are more of an issue in older texts, and that current authors feel the same as you do. I'd love to read your Victorian story and add it my collection!

Amy Birthday Girl: You're welcome! It was fun. Your husband is a peach to think of surprising you like that.

heather said...

You should try City Of Djinns by William Dalrymple.

It's not a romance, but it absolutely fascinated me - the author and his wife moved to Delhi for a year. What we actually get is the history he meant to write when he was there plus a liberal sprinkle of his landlady, his neighbours, weddings, funerals, births, a Mughal 'princess' (direct-line descendant) who is a librarian...

Everything in the book is true, and it's brilliant.