FEATURE

Continental Drift

What does an increasingly globalized world mean for Indian writers?

Published Winter 2014-15
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A bookseller on Connaught Place, New Delhi. / Photograph by Paul Bigland / Getty Images

In September 2013, something extraordinary happened in Paris: the Columbia Global Center in Paris and the Bibliotheque nationale de France joined together to convene a group of writers from around the world for public conversations about the effects of globalization on culture. It was a great success, with even the Louvre celebrating the event by saying, “Happily, we have the Americans to remind us that Paris is a great literary capital.”

For the Columbia-BnF World Writers’ Festival’s second incarnation this past fall, again under the direction of Caro Llewellyn, we narrowed our focus to a specific region: India, a literary superpower whose writers have achieved immense artistic success in the Anglophone world, though have yet to gain the same kind of recognition across the European Union. For five days in September, fourteen Indian writers gathered with 2,500 members of the public for lectures, readings, and other events designed to encourage debate about the impact of our increasingly interconnected world on cultural production and consumption. In order to continue the conversation, we invited those writers to submit original essays, four of which are printed here.

— Paul LeClerc ’69GSAS,
Director of Columbia Global Centers / Europe 


Indra Sinha

As a small boy, I had the good fortune to spend four years living near Lonavala in the Western Ghats, a range of jungle-covered mountains that run down the west coast of India.

It was 1957, and the road up into the hills wove in a series of steep hairpins past a small temple to Hanuman, the monkey god. Car wrecks were common milestones, and the truck drivers who ground up and down the road all day in first gear always left flowers as insurance. The garlands were promptly torn to bits and eaten by long-tailed langurs, who sat on the roof nibbling roses and marigolds, and watching the passing world with shrewd eyes.

When you reached the top, what a view. To the west was a forty-mile blur of coconut groves, tribal forests and swamplands, and a distant glint of salt marshes and creeks dotted with tiny shark-fin sails. Eastward, the escarpment rose still higher, with the mountains assuming fantastic shapes: vast rearing domes of rock wearing the sky like a wide blue hat. A basalt cliff jutting out three thousand feet was called Duke’s Nose, in memory of the Duke of Wellington’s famous snout. The last tiger in the area had been shot only fifteen years earlier by Mrs. Atkinson, a hunting, fishing Englishwoman.

“The hills where my friends and I roamed are mostly deforested, and the pockets that remain are full of tourists' litter.”

In the jungles that covered the hills lived small men who hunted bandicoots and porcupines with bows. At night, leopards came down to take village dogs, and as I lay in bed, huge green moths with tails like teaspoons came flap-tapping at my window. Each morning I knocked my shoes on the floor to dislodge scorpions. When the rains came, the parched hills turned green in a night. A six-inch-high rainforest sprang up, roamed by red-and-black-striped centipedes whose fangs could split shoe leather. My five-year-old sister was bitten by a nine-inch specimen and nearly died.

It was a very particular place.

A few days ago, my wife reminded me of a short story I had written in the 1970s called “Gentleman,  UK-Returned,” one of a group of tales set in the Paris advertising Lonavala of half a century ago. Reading it through again, I was struck by how much has changed. Today’s landscape is dotted with ugly villas and garish hotels. The hills where my friends and I roamed are mostly deforested, and the pockets that remain are full of tourists’ litter. The people in the story neither knew nor thought about much beyond their small world.

The big city, Bombay, was a far off, unreal place. England was still the heart of empire, and my Anglo-Indian friends (I mean the creole community as opposed to those English who had stayed on) continued to refer to it as home.

I dug out some more of my old stories. “Kallisto,” set on a Greek island in the mid-seventies, was essentially the complaint of an old lady whom my wife and I had met on the island of Poros. The war, the defining event of her life, was powerfully alive in her memory. Again, reading pages written nearly forty years ago, I sensed a particularity of place and sensibility that is now gone.

The early eighties found me sitting at a table under a plum tree in France, not far from the famous painted cave of Pech Merle. On the table was a typewriter and a glass of dark Cahors. In the typewriter was my first attempt at a story called “The Man in the Tomb.” I was smoking a Gitane, thinking — I’d been reading too much Lawrence Durrell — “Ah, this is what it is to be a writer.”

“The Man in the Tomb” was set mostly along a road from Galilee to Jerusalem. I had never been to Israel, but imagined a track lying like a white whiplash across limestone hills.

Six years ago, my wife and I visited Israel to research the novel of which my old story was the seed. We left Tel Aviv on an evening of filthy weather to drive to Galilee. As it grew dark, my wife, map reading, said, “We’re in the plain of Armageddon.” Armageddon, where a final cataclysmic battle will bring the world to an end.

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