The Great Indian Novel (TGIN) has been an old, thorny debate among Indian literati for decades now. With literature spanning centuries in many languages and across class/caste/region divides, there has never been any consensus on what makes for truly great Indian literature. And, certainly, Indian writing in English, particularly fiction, continues to have its ups and downs. During the years when there are international awards, everyone is happy. During the years when the pickings are far too slim, as with this year, there is muttering and hissing about how bad all English fiction in India can be.
The truth is, though, that there is a hegemony of a small band of gatekeepers within the Indian publishing ecosystem. They are the same folks who, for years, have hopped around from one firm to the other, nurturing the same group of writers and only allowing favored, connected ones into the hallowed folds. What this has done is stifled all innovation or risk-taking by writers who want to get their fiction published.
So this piece argues that we, readers and writers, need to be more discerning and demanding of “greatness in our literature; we need to understand exactly what “great” even means.
In India, where literacy rates are still lower than desired and school syllabi across the country still lack substantial literary fare, it may seem anachronous to ask for such discussions. It would also be difficult to argue that any single novel can fully represent the universal Indian experience – India is many different things to each of us. However, a wider, public discussion in the TGIN frame can enable us to explore more critically, as a society, what we need from enduring works of creative writing. Like all human creations – film, music, art, architecture, science, technology – the fictional works of our times are sociocultural, historical, and political artifacts reflecting our experiences, desires, conflicts, and potential.