Acclaimed modern Indian writers include Vikram Chandra, author of “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” and “Longing in Bombay”; Amit Chaudhuri, who three powerful novellas (collected as “Freedom Song”, 1999) were described by Rushdie as "languorous, elliptical, beautiful"; Other acclaimed writers include Raj Kamal Jha’s “Blue Bedspread” (1999); Sanjay Nigam’s “The Snake Charmer”; Haro Kunzri’s “The Impressionist”;

“Cracking India” by Bapsi Sidhwa is set during the partition, the historical division of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. The source of the film “Earth” by Deepa Mehta, it follows the story of an 8-year-old Parsee girl caught on the middle of sectarian violence. In India, the film is called “1947". Sidwa, also wrote “The Crow Eaters” and “Ice-Candy Man”;

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for “Heat and Dust”. She was born in Germany to Jewish parents and moved to Delhi with her Indian husband in 1951. She also wrote “Travelers”, “How I became Holy Mother and Other Stories”and “My Nine Lives”. The shortlist for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize included Indian writers Omair Ahmad for “Jimmy the Terrorist,” Siddharth Chowdhury for “The Descartes Highlands” and Nitasha Kaul for Residue.”

Shashi Tharoor's “The Great Indian Novel”recreates the Hindu epic “Mahabharata” with Gandhi, Nehru and other freedom-movement figures in the mythic roles. Tharoor is a United Nations diplomat as well a novelist. He received a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy when he was 22 and has worked on team responsible for the peacekeeping operation in the former Yugoslavia.

Pankaj Mishra wrote “The Romantics” (1999), described the New York Times as "resonant and highly subtle. Mishra is also credited with discovering Arundhati Roy. Anita Desai is known for books about life in a west coast India village. “Fasting, Feasting” made the short list for the Booker Prize in 1999. It is about family's vastly different experience in India and the United States. Kiran Desai, daughter of Anita Desai, won praise for her first novel “Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard”.

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy is the author of “God of Small Things”, one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1990s. She received a $1 million advance for the book, believed to be the largest advance ever given to a first time novelist. In 1997, she won the Booker award, perhaps the world's most important literary prize after the Nobel Prize for Literature. Several million copies of the book were sold.

Before becoming an acclaimed writer, Roy worked as an actress, aerobics instructor and screenwriter. She lives Delhi and is married to a film director. She was influenced by Rushdie. Alice Truax wrote in the New York Times, "Ms. Roy's narration is so extraordinary—at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple—that the reader remains enthralled all the way through to its agonizing finish.”

The the daughter of a Christian mother and a Bengali Hindu father, Roy was born and brought up in Kerala, a culturally-rich, rain-drenched state in southwest India. As a child Roy said, "Before I could learn to read, Kipling was read to me. Language was more sound than sight. It was the sound of the words—like listening to music, to a song. It became something you play with like a puppy."

Roy was kicked out of her house in Kerala by her mother when she was 16. She ventured to Delhi, where she lived briefly in one of the city's notorious slums. She attended architecture school and paid her bills working as an architect's assistant. Roy and her boyfriend moved to Goa where they supported themselves by selling cakes to hippies. "I couldn't bear the tourists. They drove me crazy. I got very disillusioned with flower children—they were so stingy, and miserly, and bargainy. I had a ring, which someone had given me. I sold it to a man who sold fruit juice. He gave me 300 rupees and a banana shake. I said, "I'm out of here."

After returning to Delhi she worked in an office. "I couldn't stand that either, I didn't dress the part." She wore shells around her ankles and used a cigarette holder and rode a bicycle everywhere. A man saw her on the bicycle and asked if she wanted to act in a movie he was making. After that she did a stint bah writing scripts, something she didn't like because it involved much collaborating and negotiating, rather that sitting alone writing.

God of Small Things

“God of Small Things” is the story of an the Kochammas, an oddball family of Syrian Christians from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. The setting for much of the novel is the Paradise Pickle factory and the cast of characters includes Pappachi, an Anglophile etymologist that beat his wife; hsi son Chacko, a former Rhodes scholar who tries to organize workers at the pickle factory; Baby Kochamma, Pappachi's sister, who spender her time days watching "Santa Barbara" and "Bold and the Beautiful" on satellite television; and Velutha, the clever and upwardly mobile untouchable carpenter.

In the book, Roy explores family relations, caste divisions and social taboos, many of them involving Syrian Christians, an Indian minority. She describes Kerala as a place where elegant windows are covered with dirt, brass doorknob coated in grease and dead insects float at the bottom of empty vases.

In “The God of Small Things”, Arundhati Roy writes personal despair in India "could never be desperate enough," that "it was never important enough" because "worse things had happened" and "kept happening." Describing a trip to the airport in the Kochamma family's sky-blue Plymouth, Roy wrote: "A car breeze blew. Green trees and telephone poles flew past the windows. Still birds slid by on moving wires, like unclaimed baggage at the airport.” Describing a temple, she wrote, "The thin priest was asleep on a mat in the raised stone veranda. A brass platter of coins lat near his pillow like a comic-strip illustration of his dreams. The compound was littered with moons, one in each mud puddle."

Reaction to God of Small Things

“God of Small Things” sold more than 6 million copies worldwide with a couple of years after its debut. It has been translated into dozens of languages, including Catalan and Estonian, and was a No. 1 on bestseller lists in Norway, Australia, Britain and India.

The novel received rave reviews. Tasmin Todd wrote in the Washington Post, "It's hard to avoid using words like splendid and stunning to describe this debut novel. Words and images flip across pages like acrobats, combining and contorting in unexpected ways.” Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, "The narrative architecture of the novel is as subtle as its is powerful, a novel that is Faulknerian in its ambitious tackling of family and race and class, Dickensian in its sharp-eyed observation of society and character.”

The book has attracted its share of controversy. Roy was taken to court by a Kerala lawyer who filed a claim that the book was obscene because one scene in the book describes a sexual encounter between a Christian woman and Hindu Untouchable.

Roy said the inspiration for her book was a glimpse of an old blue Plymouth with huge tailfins stuck in the middle of a Marxist demonstration. She said that writing “God of Small Things” was intensely personal experience that she didn't relate to anyone, even her husband. She wrote the book in her spare time without a definite plan but designed it like a "piece or layers."

Arundhati Roy, the Activist

Arundhati Roy campaigned vigorously against building of the Narmada Dam in Gujarat State, which she opposed because primarily because it would drive thousands of villagers and farmers from their homes. Roy's second book, “The Greater Common Good”, described how millions would be adversely affected by the the building of the dam.

Roy has also been very outspoken in her opposition to India’s nuclear bomb. "What a tired, broken-hearted people we are," a people so in need of a boost "we set up this crave clamoring to be admitted to the club of the superpowers."

In March 2002, Roy was found guilty of criminal contempt by the Indian Supreme Court and sentenced to a one-day “symbolic imprisonment,” ordered to pay $42 and told if she didn’t pay the fine she would spend three months in jail. Roy was found guilty of contempt of the Supreme Court by “:scandalizing it and lowering its dignity through her statements.” In October 2000, she shouted slogans against the Supreme Court after it approved the building of the Narmada dam. Roy was jailed for protesting against the dam. There were some reports that she was beaten up and dragged across rocks by female police officers.

Gita Mehta, Vikram Seth and Shobha De

Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta to Hindi-speaking parents. He went to Oxford and studied economics at Stanford. He then began spending time with poets in the English department and won the Wallace Stegner fellowship to write poetry. Seth is known for his wicked sense of humor. He received a $1 million advance from Indian, British and American publishers for “A Suitable Boy”, an epic novel set in the 1950s explores the concept of honor and women in India. It is said to be the longest English-language novel written in the 20th century. "Seth's blend of domestic drama and historical detail has led Western critics to compare him with to Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy," Carla Power wrote in Newsweek. Seth also wrote “Golden Gate”, set in San Francisco, and “An Equal Music” (1999), his music novel.

Gita Mehta is another celebrated writer. In “Snakes and Ladders” (Doubleday, 1997) she celebrated her nation's 50th anniversary by comparing India's development to the children's board game in which players can jump ahead many spaces by land landing on ladder or falling back by hitting a snake. The ladders include the lively Indian free press, the perseverance of democracy in the face of chaos, self sufficiency in food and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Indian people. The snakes include corruption, Indira Gandhi, other overbearing leaders, and irresponsible politicians.

In “Snakes and Ladders” Mehta interviews ragpickers, describes failed development schemes, families the sue the Internet to arrange marriages, and farmers with cellular telephones to bypass middlemen. Mehta also wrote “Karma Cola” (1980) Mehta is married to Sonny Mehta, the head of American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, who she met while they both students at Cambridge. She divides her time between New York, London and India.

Shobha Dé, India's best-selling English language author, is known for her steamy novels that usually feature women dominating men. Her books often deal with sex quite explicitly: one reason she has been described as the Jackie Collins of India, a label she detests. Dé writes about the glitzy world of Bombay, a world she entered as a model and editor of a gossip magazine. Dé is still quite attractive. She often serves as a judge at beauty contests—and works very hard. As of the early she churned out about one novel a year, wrote three nationally distributed columns a week and wrote the story line for “Swabhimaan”, one India's longest-running and most popular five-day-a-week soap operas. She is also a mother with a tiger skin rug and six children.

Suicide of Drani Aikath-Gyaltsen

One of India's most promising new writers, 41-year-old Drani Aikath-Gyaltsen, was found dead in her home, from an apparent suicide attempt, after she was accused of plagiarizing a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, a popular romance author in the 1950s. On the morning of her death she wrote Khushwant Singh, one of India's best known contemporary authors, "I am still in very bad frame of mind. Afraid to live, afraid to die. But you are right. Only I can help myself. [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post, December 21, 1994]

Later in the day a niece found her on the floor with "something white dripping from her mouth, leading many to believe she poison herself—or was poisined. Determining the cause of death is often difficult in India. In accordance with Hindu Custom, no autopsy was performed and the body was cremated. The author's husband blames her mother and sister for her death. Instead of taking her to the hospital they called a local doctor who gave her intravenous fluids. According to the husband, the mother then went to her bedroom and her sister went to work. Aikath-Gyaltsen slipped into a coma and died the next day. [Ibid]

American-Indian Writers

Jhumpa Lahiri is an Indian-American writer of popular novels about India. She won the Pulitzer prize for her published debut, a collection of short stories called “Interpreter of Maladies”, which was described as a good as “The God of Small Things”. “Namesake”, her debut novel about a second-generation Indian-American that moved from Calcutta to Boston, topped the best seller list in 2003. Her parents were Bengali immigrants. She is married to a Guatemalan-Greek journalist. Her works are as popular and acclaimed in India as they are in the West.

Bombay-born Canadian Rohinton Mistry wrote “Family Matter”, an epic but economical family drama set in 1990s Bombay and written in the tradition of the great 19th century writers. He is particularly adept in his depiction of Bombay’s Parsis. His novel “A Fine Balance” (1995) won the Commonwealth Writers prize.

Canadian-born Indian-Sri-Lankan writer Anita Rau Badamu has won some accalim for “Tamarind Woman”, about an upper-class Indian childhood; and “The Hero’s Walk”, which examines the cultural gap between an India grandfather and his orphaned Canadian grandchild.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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