Monday, November 9, 2009

'The New Anthem: The Subcontinent In Its Own Words', edited by Ahmede Hussain (Tranquebar Press, 2009)

(First published in the Outlook dated Nov. 16th)

What is South Asian fiction? How does it fare in the English language? And why do we need to know? These are important, interesting questions, which a book aiming to anthologize 'the subcontinent in its own words' really ought to have engaged with. A one page introduction merely asserting that “a strand of post-colonial literature” has now become an “independent genre” with a distinctive voice, is too brief and too vague to suffice. So when 'The New Anthem' moves hastily on to its twenty two short fiction pieces, we are fore-warned.

Some of the stories have South Asian settings and some South Asian protagonists. Only a handful reflect South Asian perspectives. Altaf Tyrewala's hand-wringing Mumbai abortionist, Monideepa Sahu's mother-and-son outing; Khademul Islam's Chittagong 'cyclone'; here are examples of subcontinental writers telling their stories in a language that came from a colonial power, and remains foreign to large swathes of their countrymen- and all without affectation or apology.

This is a major cultural achievement, but it is only meaningful in a specific cultural context. It would be wonderful to prove that the achievement is widespread- but you would have to focus. Where 'The New Anthem' lets itself down is in its uncritical collation of sensibilities- South Asian, diasporic, even simply Western. What suffers in the process is not the individual quality, but the collective thrust. That English fiction abounds in South Asian names, we already knew. And South Asian voices? We still don't know.

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