“Authentic” Fiction

Nilanjana Roy’s latest column for the Business Standard is about that word that strikes fear in any expat author, or any author writing about the immigrant experience: authenticity. More specifically, Roy looks at Indian fiction that is written from within and without the continent and the resulting question that seems to be on readers’ minds.

The problem lies elsewhere, with the books about India and by writers of Indian origin that come to us on an ocean of advance publicity, gilt-edged, flagged for our consideration, endorsed by the Western world, stamped with the approval of publishing houses we should be able to trust, foreign editors whose names are legendary, authors who are living shrines.

For far too long, the debate over the merits of “phoren” versus “desi” books has been hijacked by an obsession with authenticity. Is Monica Ali’s Brick Lane the Real Thing, or a simulacra? Are Rupa Bajwa’s shop assistants true to life? How much of Bengali culture can an NRI like Jhumpa Lahiri truly understand? Has Naipaul really understood the neo-revolutionaries with whom he explored India’s villages? Is Manil Suri’s Vishnu authentic, is Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s sense of history authentic, is Samina Ali’s Hyderabad authentic, is Vikas Swarup’s beggar-turned-quiz contestant authentic?

The only possible answers to these questions are the ones that writers give when pressed: a writer is free to imagine his or her version of reality.

What is the authentic India anyway-the city, the village, the slums, the farmhouses? And what part of the phrase “work of fiction” do you not understand?

And, she concludes (rightly, I think) that the only question that should be asked is: Are the books any good?