The 1980s and 90s saw a renaissance of Indian writing in English making the task of choosing the top ten authors of this genre especially challenging. The renaissance was spearheaded by Salman Rushdie with his path breaking novel Midnight’s Children in 1980. Ever since his success, there has been a glut of Indian authors writing in English. These contemporary writers are not confined to people living in India, but like Rushdie, a large number of them are part of the Indian diaspora. Earlier writers like Nirad C. Choudhuri, R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand or Raja Rao used English in its classical form. However, Rushdie, with his Pidgin English, signaled a new trend in writing as well as giving voice to multicultural concerns. Although his Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Fury, and Shalimar the Clown received critical acclaim for their themes as well as his use of magic realism, the book that generated the most controversy was The Satanic Verses. He was accused of blasphemy by many Muslims because of certain allegedly irreverent references to Islam’s Prophet Mohammad. A fatwa was issued by Iran’s Ayotollah Khomeini in 1989 calling for the execution of the author. Many countries banned the book including India. Rushdie had to go into hiding in U.K. Till date, Rushdie remains a hunted man with a price on his head.
Next on the list should be Vikram Seth who produced some magnificent works like The Golden Gate, A Suitable Boy, An Equal Music, and Two Lives. His first book is written in verse form and chronicles the lives of young professionals in San Francisco. But the work that propelled him into the limelight was his second book, A Suitable Boy, which was based in a post-independent India.
If Rushdie’s work liberated Indian writing from the colonial straitjacket, Arundhati’s Roy’s book, The God of Small Things, radically changed perceptions about Indian authors with her commercial success. She won the Booker prize and remained on the top of the New York Times bestseller list for a long time. With her also started the trend of large advances, hitherto unheard of among Indian writers.
The other authors who should be included in the list are: Rohinton Mistry, V.S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Shashi Tharoor, and Upamanyu Chatterjee. Mistry’s books shed light on the issues affecting the Parsi community in India. Although the novels are long and at times depressing, the beauty of the books lies in their lyrical prose. Some of his better known works include Such a Long Journey, Family Matters, and A Fine Balance.
One of the most enduring figures in the field and a nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul, is of Indian origin although he was born in Trinidad. His prolific writing career includes works such as A House for Mr. Biswas, India: A Wounded Civilization, An Area of Darkness, India: A Million Mutinies Now, and A Bend in the River. Naipaul is another writer who has courted controversy for a long time. His often scathing commentaries on developing countries like India or the Caribbean and his critical assessment of Muslim fundamentalism on non-Arab countries have been subjected to harsh criticism.
Another respected name that should feature on a list of the top ten contemporary Indian writers is Amitav Ghosh, who has won many accolades including the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Prix Medicis Etrangere of France. Although less prone to controversy, he is responsible for producing some of the most lyrical and insightful works on the effect of colonialism on the native people. His books include The Circle of Reason, The Glass Palace, The Calcutta Chromosome, and The Hungry Tide.
Jhumpa Lahiri, a recent entrant into the world of Indian writers, tackles the much-debated topic of cultural identity of Indians in a far off land. Lahiri took the literary world by storm when her debut book, The Interpreter of Maladies, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2000. The Namesake, her first novel, is an ambitious attempt to chart the lives of a family of immigrants through the eyes of a young boy. Both her books have received brickbats as well as accolades but she deserves a mention for tackling a subject long ignored by other Indian writers.
The list would be incomplete without a mention of Shashi Tharoor’s satirical works like The Great Indian Novel and Show Business. His latest book, India: From Midnight to Millennium, is a non-fiction chronicle of India’s past and its projected future.
Lastly, Upamanyu Chatterjee deserves a mention as he was one of the first Indian authors who found success outside of India with his 1988 debut novel, English, August. His wry sense of humor and realistic portrayal of India has given us the witty and amusing, The Mammaries of the Welfare State. However, he hasn’t been able to replicate the success of his debut novel with his later works, especially in the West.