India is a country with a long and rich literary tradition. Our oldest epics combined literary merit with deep philosophical principles underpinning them. In a country with a variety of languages and where political power and religious influence has waxed and waned over the centuries, the shape and nature of our literature has also undergone considerable upheaval.
When the British, who ruled over most of India by that time, introduced English into our education system, they also planted the seeds of what would become a major literary movement. The phenomenon of Indian authors writing in English dates back to the time of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore, who published works both in their native Bengali and in English.
In trying to make a list of India’s best writers in English, I have tried to focus on those with a considerable body of work and not on those with one or two significant books, so that there is a lot of reading to look forward to, for those who wish to act on these recommendations.
1. R. K Narayan
One of the first Indian authors in English to gain widespread recognition, over the course of a career spanning over five decades, Mr. Narayan published numerous novels, short stories and non-fiction works.
Some of his prominent novels include:
a) Swami and Friends
b) The Bachelor of Arts
c) The Financial Expert
d) Waiting for the Mahatma
e) The Guide (made into the superhit film of the same name)
f) The Man-Eater of Malgudi
Apart from this, his short-story collection, ‘Swami and Friends’ has achieved cult-like status around the world. Compared with western authors like Faulkner and Guy de Maupassant, Mr. Narayan was truly one of the trailblazers for the writers who were to follow
2. Salman Rushdie
Image courtesy : The Aesthete
A living legend, an object of controversy and hatred, Salman Rushdie nonetheless is one of the best writers India has ever produced. His style is difficult to read at times, and his English is generally peppered with a lot of vernacular, whether Hindi or Urdu, but the stories are often beautifully woven together, combining the absurd and the sublime into a heady cocktail for the readers.
The most feted of Mr. Rushdie’s works include:
a. Midnight’s Children
c. Shalimar the Clown
d. The Enchantress of Florence
Despite the controversies and the considerable political difficulties faced by him in India, he has consistently identified as a part of the South Asian diaspora, and his role and quality as a writer is unmatched.
3. Vikram Seth
A poet and author of considerable standing, Vikram Seth is also famous for receiving some of the biggest advances in publishing history for some of his works.
He has published three novels so far:
a. The Golden Gate
b. A Suitable Boy
c. An Equal Music.
Apart from this, Seth’s poetry is also very popular with the international audience, though within India the appetite for it is somewhat constrained. Nonetheless, the three novels themselves display an astounding variety and understanding of the human condition.
4. Amitav Ghosh
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Another prominent Indian voice on the world’s literary scene, Amitav Ghosh has won awards and recognition a-plenty, both in India and abroad. His books are regularly contenders for the Booker Prize, and also have created a niche for themselves in terms of commercial success. A sampling of Mr. Ghosh’s works includes:
a. The Ibis Trilogy
b. The Glass Palace
c. The Hungry Tide
d. The Shadow Lines
Mr. Ghosh takes the readers on vast journeys through space, time and linguistics, criss-crossing continents as he brings to life the best and worst of human nature.
5. Anita Desai
Image Courtesy : thedianerehmshow.org
Over the course of a five-decade writing career, Anita Desai has won considerable accolades. Famous for using visual images and being able to write for adults as well as for children without ever over-simplifying or seeming to lose an intellectual plane, Ms Desai’s novels include:
a. In Custody
b. The ZigZag Way
c. Baumgartner’s Bombay
d. The Village by the Sea (Children’s Fiction)
Her daughter, Kiran Desai, is an accomplished novelist in her own right, having won a Booker prize for The Inheritance of Loss, proving that talent can carry over generations.
6. Chetan Bhagat
Perhaps the only Indian writer who evokes as much dislike as Salman Rushdie, Chetan Bhagat is the most commercially successful Indian author writing primarily for an Indian audience. While the other writers in this list often write on Indian themes and setting (though not always), their style and their popularity has as much to do with their international acclaim as their Indian readership. Mr. Bhagat on the other hand, is an unabashedly ‘popular’ writer, the literary equivalent of a masala Bollywood film. But it would be wrong to dismiss him or his achievements on that count. A selection of his novels is given below:
a. Five Point Someone
b. Two States
c. Revolution 2020
d. The Three Mistakes of my life
Though his language is far from pure and his themes tend to be simplistic, Mr. Bhagat has a talent for writing characters that young Indians can easily identify with. For an outsider to gain an understanding of a certain section of Indian youth, it would certainly help to read the man who is their literary idol – Chetan Bhagat.