New Delhi: Stepping into the
soul of India is not easy for a foreign writer; the journey needs
more than mere love for the country. The process requires an
identification with history, facts at fingertips and an uncanny
nose for immediate socio-political contexts, show landmark books
written over the years.
When Belgian corporate executive-cum historian Dirk Collier
decided to walk into the mind of 16th century Muslim visionary,
emperor Akbar, for instance, he nearly adopted an Indian identity
Collier, who made at least 50 trips to India over 10 years and
took seven years to write the book, said he was inspired to write
a book after seeing a painting commissioned by Akbar's son
Jahangir in which the latter was shown holding his father's
"It was as if Akbar was talking to his son from behind his grave.
I wanted to know more about Akbar," Collier recalled while
speaking to IANS. The thought resulted in "The Emperor's Writing"
-- a book in the form of a letter from Akbar to Jahangir.
To write well about India, however, one needs more than just
affection, one needs evidence, Booker Prize winning writer Aravind
Adiga observes in a review of Patrick French's "India: A Portrait"
-- one of the most talked about books on India last year.
"What is missing in French's book is evidence of a struggle to
understand India and one's own place in it. French never gets much
beyond the glib assertion in his preface that the new, cool India
is the 'world's default setting for the future'," Adiga said.
The book paints a racy picture of a cool 21st century India by
drawing its strength from statistics, details, reportage and
candid observations. But it fails to show a flair of contextual
The act of writing about India requires an identification with its
history; both social and political.
"A number of modern British writers, including Geoff Dyer, Patrick
French and the late Bruce Chatwin, have been fascinated by the
country that their ancestors ruled," said writer Karan Mahajan in
Asian Window, a pan-Asian literary platform.
William Dalrymple, the author of bestsellers such as "City of
Djinns" and "The Last Mughal", is an example of what a foreigner
can bring on the table at a time when Indians are also writing
non-fiction about their country, Mahajan said. "He has an
unabashed eye for exotic details."
While Indian writers are sometimes taken in by the seaminess of
the current state of the country's affairs, readers often find
themselves denied of perspectives of "history, ethnicity and
religiosity" in literary works. Dalrymple steps in to fill this
void, Mahajan said.
For Geoff Dyer, the author of "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi",
the spiritual nirvana of Varanasi was the anchor of
semi-autobiographical Jeff Atman (the protagonist of his book) who
comes to the pilgrim town in quest for renunciation.
"Venice and Varanasi are very similar because of the water - but
Varanasi was so concentrated and sense," Dyer told IANS.
US-based Wendy Doniger, the author of "The Hindus: An Alternative
History", has been tapping into the wealth of Indian myths and
dynamics of the Hindu faith for decades now to cater to a new
segment of western and Indian audiences who are still curious
about eastern mysticism in a spillover of the flower revolution of
"The wild misconceptions that Americans have about Hinduism need
to be counteracted precisely by making them aware of the richness
of Hindu texts," she says in her book.
French religious scholar Michel Danino cashes on the myths
surrounding rivers to bond with the Indian soul in "The Lost
River: In the Trail of Sarasvati". The book has been shortlisted
for the Crossword Vodafone Literary award 2010.
"India has always been an object of fascination for foreign
writers because of its exoticism. Even the earliest of travellers
and chroniclers like Ibn Batuta wrote about India extensively but
with the specific purpose of cultural understanding," Dipa
Chaudhuri, chief editor of Om Books, told IANS.
One of the finest writers was Arthur L. Basham, whose book, "The
Wonder that Was India", was a historian's approach to India that
was, Chaudhuri said.
The British Raj has been a strategic inspiration for authors such
as M.M. Kaye and E.M. Forster, whose sustained affairs with India
resulted in an amazing collection of unparalleled Anglophone
Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)