I have always been the champion of the underdog when it comes to Indian creative writing. By champion I mean promoting the unglamorous genres like poetry, short story, drama and creative non-fiction. Of course, I read a lot of mainstream fiction and non-fiction, either because of my professional writing commitments, or out of interest and support for new books by friends and colleagues.
Year 2012 has been outstanding for Indian ‘poetry’ in English. Many new fine anthologies appeared: These My Words : The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry, edited by Eunice de Souza & Melanie Silgardo contains an enormous range from Valmiki, Aurobindo, Andal to Tagore, Agha Shahid Ali and Vikram Seth — a pot-pourri that includes works in Sanskrit, Tamil, Bengali, Dogri and much more. Ten highlights ten talented young poets and is a mature selection by Jayanta Mahapatra; as is a generous compendium of South Asian American poets, Indivisible, edited by Summi Kaipa, Neelanjana Banerjee & Pireeni Sundaralingam. And for the sake of 85 strong post-1950s Indian poets in The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, I would recommend the 550-page anthology (inspite of having edited it myself) for the poetry’s formal panache, brio, style, range and sheer confidence. These anthologies are major contributions to the poetry world at large for their aggregation, disemmination, scholarship and archival value. Outstanding individual poetry volumes include: Adil Jussawalla’s long-awaited Trying to Say Goodbye, Jayanta Mahapatra’s Land, and Vikram Seth’s The Rivered Earth. Excellent volumes by younger writers include: Sandeep Parmar’s The Marble Orchard, Michelle Cahill’s Vishvarupa, Tishani Doshi’s Everything Begins Elsewhere, Vivek Narayanan’s Life and Times of Mr S, Nabina Das’s Blue Vessel, Vipul Rikhi’s Solitary Beyond Time, H Masud Taj’s Alphabestiary, Anand Thakore’s Elephant Bathing and Mughal Sequence, Anis Shivani’s My Tranquil War, R Raj Rao’s The Canada Album, and Bibhu Padhi’s Migratory Days. These books, among many others, make up for an exceptional year for Indian poetry.
The ‘short story’ in English too had a major revival in India with a number of leading Indian publishers putting out fine collections. My top votes go to: Janice Pariat’s evanescent Boats on Land, Prajawal Parajuly’s lucid Gurkha’s Daughter, Annie Zaidi’s gritty Love Stories 1-14, Altaf Tyrewala’s prose-poemish Ministry of Hurt Sentiments, Navtej Sarna’s evocative Winter Evenings, Rajesh Parameswaran’s I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, and Tania James’s Aerogrammes. Excellent debut novels include: Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, Jerry Pinto’s Em and The Big Hoom, Mridula Koshy’s Not Only the Things that have Happened, Pavan Varma’s When Loss is Gain, and Lopa Ghosh’s Revolt of the Fish Eaters. In mainstream ‘literary fiction’, Amitav Ghosh remains the outright frontrunner; and in English ‘drama’, Mahesh Dattani continues to be the leading playwright.
‘Non-Fiction’ has always been a strong category every year. For me, the books I’ve been gripped by for their breadth, scope, style and content, are: Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, Shashi Tharoor’s Pax Indica, Akash Kapur’s India Becoming, Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, Shaukat Kaifi’s Kaifi & I (Shabana Azmi’s mother), Chandrahas Choudhury’s India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion, Vikramajit Ram’s Tso and La, Boria Majumdar’s Cooking on the Run, Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s The Butterfly Generation, Ranjit Hoskote & Ilija Trojanow’s Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West, Peter Smetacek’s Butterflies on the Roof of the World, Ritu Dalmia’s Travelling Diva, Shankkar Aiyar’s Accidental India, and In the Company of a Poet: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir.
As a postscript, I’d like to highlight a few excellent non-Indian titles that have their publishing origins in India: the wonderfully written Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839–1842 by William Dalrymple, and from the Arab world: Hoda Barakat’s The Tiller of Water, and Haifa Zangana’s Dreaming of Baghdad. But ultimately, it has really been the year of poetry and the short story — and how wonderful is that for Indian culture’s literary health.
The writer is an award winning poet and author