Why Everyday Life Matters

This week in North Philly Notes, Ulka Anjaria, author of Reading India Now, explains the importance of reading literature to understand the Indian present and its political futures.

The Indian general elections are once again upon us. Like the upcoming U.S. election, this one too is fraught with anxiety about whether the country will re-elect the right-wing party of its incumbent prime minister. As part of legitimate fears about a global right-wing turn, this is the brief period when Indian politics becomes global news. But what is happening in India between globally-significant elections? What is the daily life of this fast-changing country beyond institutional politics, what are the stories that might never make global headlines? How are people coming to terms with recent changes – not only at the voting booth, but as they imagine their everyday lives?

When I spent a fellowship year living in Mumbai in 2015-16, one of the many things I was struck by was how distant both scholarship and the news media are from everyday life in India. There were several disturbing and violent, national-level events that occurred that year, such as the assassination of Kannada writer M. M. Kalburgi in August and the Award Wapsi movement that followed, where dozens of writers protested the government’s increasing indifference to mob violence by returning their national literary awards. A beef ban was instituted in Maharashtra, exposing the encroachment of Hindu hegemony on eating practices in the supposedly secular nation. Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student, committed suicide in Hyderabad, revealing the continuing casteism that plagues even university campuses. But in between these events, daily life went along at an everyday rhythm, much as it does around the world. Looking around to see where I could begin to read about this everyday rhythm, I found that it was largely absent in the news media and in scholarly accounts. While the news media, in both India and abroad, focuses mostly on party politics and violent events, scholarship tends to take a longer view, uncovering the influence of historical forces such as colonialism and Partition on the Indian present. While both of these are important tasks, I found that I had to turn to literature, specifically contemporary Indian literature, to begin to understand the contours of the Indian present.

Reading India Now_SMFor in fact, India is experiencing a massive expansion of its publishing industry, with some anticipating that India will be the world’s largest English-language publisher within a decade. This means that whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, many Indian authors had to gain legitimacy by publishing first in the US or UK, now Indian publishers have made it much easier to publish as an Indian writer. This has resulted in an expansion of what genres authors can publish in, such as fantasy fiction, mysteries and detective fiction, romance, chick lit, self-help fiction, graphic novels, and so on. Most of these new works are geared toward Indian readers rather than, as was in the past, international ones. This is coinciding with an expansion of the English-language readership in India beyond those who are western-educated, to first-generation English readers who might otherwise be reading in the bhashas (Indian vernacular languages).

Reading India Now, looks at the implications of this publishing boom for rethinking what is important in the study of India. Much of this new fiction is written for young people trying to make their way in a new India, and are thus local stories for local readers. As such, they do not often engage with historical analysis or with who is in power, but address issues of more local importance: what is the meaning of success, what are the possibilities and limitations of the new capitalist economy, what are the new social and sexual mores of the new India, and so on. If read as complex works rather than just simplistic, market-oriented fictions, these new books tell us a huge amount about the kind of daily life that never makes the headlines.

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