New books on India offer brilliant reporting, despite crude conclusionsby Anjali Joseph / July 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Recent books have tried to capture the essence of India—but is it possible to draw conclusions from a country of a billion people?
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
By Katherine Boo (Granta, £14.99)
India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India
By Akash Kapur (Riverhead, £17)
Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast
By Samanth Subramanian (Atlantic, £12.99)
For a certain type of Indian novelist writing in English, the idea of India is both blessing and scourge. A blessing in terms of readership, for since the country has come to be considered a rising economic power, interest has increased in novels that offer a picture of “the new India.” A scourge because, for many writers, a novel isn’t a lightly disguised informative tract. They may have other ambitions—to tell a story or offer a sense of place that has little to do with political geography.
These writers can take inspiration from Gustave Flaubert, one of the forefathers of the modern novel, who wrote in an 1850 letter, “La bêtise consiste à vouloir conclure” (“Stupidity consists in wanting to draw conclusions”). But while novelists may decline to serve up conclusions, a resurgence in narrative non-fiction about India now offers to fill the gap.
The new breed of non-fiction in India either concentrates on a small locus—the bar-dancing industry, for example, in Sonia Faleiro’s lauded Beautiful Thing, or a biography of a city, in Suketu Mehta’s accomplished, insightful Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found—or the traditional journey structure which has its ties with the 18th-century travelogue, as well as 20th-century classics like Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. But the new non-fiction about India still aims to tell the reader a conclusive story about India. Pages of closely observed reporting, written in the conventions of character-driven fiction, find themselves summed up in formulations that can feel bizarrely crude, as two new portraits of India show.