Magazine article World Literature Today

Who Can Identify Byomkesh? the Mystery of the Missing Indian Mysteries

Magazine article World Literature Today

Who Can Identify Byomkesh? the Mystery of the Missing Indian Mysteries

Article excerpt

The impact of British literature on India was profound, altering the poetry, fiction, and drama of the many cultures and languages unified by the empire, and it has lingered. Victorian attitudes in public entertainment remained powerful enough to embarrass many Indians with the sexuality decorating their own ancient temples. Kissing was illegal in Indian cinema until the 1990s, though that has hardly slowed "Bollywood," which annually produces twice as many films as Hollywood and was estimated by Forbes to be a $2.28 billion industry in 2014. Book publishing is a similarly gigantic industry. Nielsen reports that literacy is predicted to reach 90 percent by 2020, and one-quarter of the youth population (83 million) identifies as book readers. Although most books published are textbooks, as might be expected from a dynamically developing country, pleasure reading is a significant part of the market and promises huge growth as well.

Strangely, however, what is written in India tends to stay in India. The sixth largest book market in the world, India is second only to the United States as the largest English book market in the world. Indians have scattered around the world, providing Trinidad with barristers, the US and Canada with physicians, and the United Kingdom with skilled and unskilled labor. London has hundreds of curry shops, and George Harrison incorporated the unique attributes of classical Indian music into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But where are the Indian novels? Not the sacred texts like the Vedas or the Kama Sutra, which opened so many Western eyes-where are the Who-Shot-Johns?

India provides incredible backdrops, from the snows of the Himalayas to the plains of Kashmir to the crowded streets of Mumbai to the fishing villages of Andhra Pradesh. Christians, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and Hindus live together in harmony and often violent conflict. Add to this the tensions remaining from the traditions of the caste system and colonialism, as well as the unique and rich cultural history, and it is easy to see why such novels as A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown, Kim, Siddhartha, and Life of Pi were highly popular. The most familiar Indian detective, Inspector Ghote, was created by H. R. F. Keating, an Englishman who had never visited India when he wrote the first of the series. It is unusual for any Indian author to break through to success in the West. Even though they may write in Hindi or Urdu, many write in English, and the history between Britain and India should lead to more publication in English-language markets. Most of the Indian authors readers may recognize lived mainly in other countries, like Rohinton Mistry (Canada) and Salman Rushdie (Britain). Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) is singled out by Wikipedia as the best-selling novel in the world by a nonexpatriate Indian author.

One of the main problems in importing Indian crime novels is not just the traditional American antipathy toward translated books and "odd" foreign names but also the often-unusual phrasings in the Indians' version of written English. A casual attitude toward the protection of intellectual property has also been blamed. Book piracy, especially of e-books, is said to be common in India, and there are thousands of publishers, big and small. When schlockmeister Harold Robbins was selling millions of potboilers like The Carpetbaggers, novels "by Harold Robbins" that weren't written by Robbins crowded tables in India. This may have been the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery didn't pay the bar bill for Robbins's hedonistic lifestyle.

Another reason commonly, but furtively, voiced concerning Indian crime fiction is that it isn't of high enough quality. This is something I have heard about a dozen nations' crime writing and find impossible to accept, especially given the volume and increasing popularity of crime fiction in India. Ninety percent of everything is crud, according to Sturgeon's law, but that includes the tsunami of Scandinavian translations and, to be blunt, 90 percent of our homegrown whodunits. …

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