As Ripe for Storytelling as Dickens's London: Novels Inspired by South Asian Cities

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Five of the world's ten largest cities are in South Asia. They display jarring extremes of abject poverty and extreme wealth, of ancient communal conflicts and newfound industrial productivity--a reality brought to the world's cinema audiences by the 2009 Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire. It was a rare case where the film's screenplay was better written than the novel (Vikas Swarup's Q&A) that provided the skeleton for its plot. The real inspiration for the film was of course another novel, Oliver Twist. In Slumdog Fagin becomes a gang of amoral thugs who blind street kids so that they can generate more sympathy from passersby and hence be more productive as beggars; in both, the plots are full of farfetched coincidences that lead to happy endings in the final scenes. And Danny Boyle, like Dickens, relied for inspiration on the in-your-face contradictions offered at any street corner of London then, and Mumbai now.

Reviewing Slumdog in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane hinted at the literary potential of all this: "Boyle and his team ... clearly believe that a city like Mumbai, with its shifting skyline and a population of more than fifteen million, is as ripe for storytelling as Dickens's London, and they may be right."


Boyle and his team may be right? Of course they are right! The New Yorker publishes some of the most sophisticated writers in the city that considers itself the ultimate judge of English-language storytelling. Lane's choice of words is one more sign of Americans' parochialism and failure to realize that their preeminence is slipping. As China erodes American economic dominance, superb South Asian novelists are eroding North American--and British--dominance of English-language fiction.

As Europe industrialized, 19th-century novelists displayed an ambition akin to 18th-century Enlightenment philosophes or 20th-century academic social scientists. They aspired to understand everything, from the political to the intimate. They were the premier social critics of their age. Dickens, Balzac and Dostoyevsky subjected their characters, rich and poor, to a broad range of injustices. Some writers, notably Tolstoy, presumed to enter the minds of historical political leaders. Reading any of these writers' novels--an investment in at least 600 pages--the present-day reader encounters a multitude of characters whose lives have been tormented by an urban cacophony and the sins of the powerful.

For proof that South Asian novelists are the true heirs of these writers, I browsed the titles on my bookshelf. It contains a far from exhaustive selection, and I apologize to enthusiasts of novelists not mentioned. Let me describe a few who draw inspiration from the churning chaos of South Asian cities and who are writing stories as compelling as any of the 19th-century classics. Given two centuries of the British raj and the lack of a shared lingua franca in the subcontinent, English is, by default, the language in which much of this storytelling takes place, making access to this literature easy for English speakers. And given the intolerance of too much of the subcontinent's politics, many of these writers have exiled themselves to the West.

The best known is probably Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which is set in Mumbai (fourth largest among the top ten cities). But I am not a fan of Rushdie's use of magic realism; it spares him having to enter into the mind of his less sympathetic characters and understand why they behave as they do.

Although it has slipped to 30th in size among the world's cities, London is still, to use Doug Saunders's term, an "arrival city" for rural poor seeking their fortune. At the time of Dickens it was drawing domestic migrants from rural England, Scotland and Ireland; in the 20th century the migrants continued to come--from Jamaica, Uganda, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other ex-colonies. And novelists continue to write about "arriving" in London. …