Discussion Post: Exploring Diversity In What India Reads (Or Doesn’t Read)

This blog post has been on my mind ever since I participated in the Diverse Books Tag, initiated by Naz. His discussion about diversity in what we read was an eye-opener because even though I read a variety of books, I wasn’t looking at them through the lens of diversity. It prompted me to look deeper into diversity in what India reads (or doesn’t seem to read enough of), and what I read by Indian authors. I realized that I was not reading very diversely when it comes to Indian literature. There were too many people that were not represented enough in what I had been reading. This blog post is an outcome of my search for these  representations.

Diversity in what we read is not a popular conversation in India yet. A quick look through Flipkart and Amazon.in (where India buys its books online) reveals that the bestsellers in India are the usual suspects –books on engineering or competitive exams; books by foreign (largely white) authors and books by popular authors like Preeti Shenoy, Durjoy Datta, Chetan Bhagat, Ashwin Sanghi ,Amish Tripathi and others. For most Indians, (except perhaps the most sincere bookworms who go looking for books away from the beaten track) this is the standard reading diet. To the best of my knowledge, these books follow a standard template with not much representation.  So this is what gives me the starting point, the initial base from which to start looking for what is not easily seen.

1. Regional and Linguistic Diversity: I cannot begin to discuss diversity in Indian writing without acknowledging that it begins with the states. Almost any other kind of diversity we find in India is filtered, though some extent by what state the person belongs to (for example a Muslim in Kerala may be quite different from a Muslim in Uttar Pradesh). Every state in India has its own unique personality, with striking differences in lang1477075uage, the style of dress, the food that is eaten and rituals that are followed. For a person from one state, moving to another state can feel a bit like moving to another country.  Add to this the large urban-rural divide, and the complexity increases. And where there are differences, there are stereotypes and prejudice. Perhaps most important is the linguistic diversity — India has 22 official languages (not to mention the various unofficial mother tongues and dialects which can take that number to the hundreds). Needless to say, the amount of literature produced in the regional  languages is staggering, and inaccessible to people who do not read a particular language. One way to get around that is to read translations, but that isn’t happening much. Another is to make sure that we read books set in or by authors from different states. Even this is a struggle (for example, after watching the Malayalam movie Anarkali, which is set in the Lakshadweep, I was so taken by the beauty of these islands that I wanted to read some fiction set there, but wasn’t able to find any.) Vicky at Books & Strips has been curating a WIP list of books set in different parts of India. It is a beginning, but also a reminder to explore regional literature more.

2. Caste: Based on my 18108179personal observations, casteism is unfortunately, alive and well. Sometimes it is very in-your-face; sometimes it is more subtle. Any discussion of caste however, seems to turn into a shouting match of accusations and counter accusations. This is why  think there is a desperate need for own voices Dalit literature in the mainstream. Off the top of my mind, some authors who write fiction about caste and its complexities that I have read are Meena Kandasamy and Manu Joseph. I recently heard about and am looking forward to reading Urmila Pawar. I also found a goodreads list that has13185233 given me more recommendations.

3. Adivasi literature: This is one category which is a huge reading gap for me. I was shocked to realize that I have read books by and about indigenous authors from other parts of the world but have completely missed out on reading anything by authors belonging to the numerous indigenous tribes–adivasis in India. I went searching and found Adivaani which is “a database of Adivasi writing for and by Adivasis”. And of course, goodreads has a list too!

4. Religion: Personally, I haven’t experienced a reading gap when it come7518598s to religion in India. Looking at the bestsellers lists mentioned above however, I can’t help but wonder if there is an under representation of books from varied religious backgrounds. To call any of these religious groups “minorities” (except maybe for Parsis ?) would be a misnomer, as they are large groups, but India’s “majority” religion is Hinduism, and so the need is to read books that place other religions front and center. Scroll.in recently posted an interesting article about how Indian fantasy doesn’t seem to be moving beyond the religious epics, which are Hindu. In any case, I think that every Indian must read at least some literature about the Partition, which deals heavily with Hindu-Muslim relations and conflict, and about the Emergency and anti-Sikh riots.

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5. Sexual orientation: Sexuality in general is treated as a taboo in India. We simply do not talk about sex. When it comes to non-heterosexual relationships, this silence seems to intensify. The law too is to blame. While it is not illegal to be “out” in India as  lesbian/gay/bisexual, it is illegal to actually engage in the sexual act with a person of the same sex, according to the archaic Section 377. What is extremely disappointing is that homosexuality was decriminalized by the High Court in India in 2009, but that judgement was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013. However, this has not silenced LGBTQ activists and writers. Many writers have explored LGBTQ issues through their work as both Scroll.in and the Guardian have reported on this.  One of my few experiences with non-heterosexual relationships in Indian literature comes through the upcoming The Devourers by Indra Das, which explores bisexuality via speculative fiction. Another book I would recommend (to Hindus in particular and to anyone interested in mythology at large) is Shikhandi and Other Stories They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik.

6. Persons with Disabilities: This again is a big reading gap for me. While I have read books by non-Indian authors about p1209078ersons with disabilities, I could not recall immediately any book by an Indian author . When I went looking I came across Trying To Grow, a semi-autobiographical novel by Firdaus Kanga. Another book, which I haven’t read, but have heard of is Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. An article I came across lists other works as well, such as Sunny’s Story by Pramila Balasundaram and Shame by Salman Rushdie.

 

 

7. Non-Indians: Colourism is a very Indian problem, something left over from decades of being colonized. White skin is prized and dark skin derided. Even Indians who look different are teased, such as Indians from the north-east. Pakistanis, Nepalis, Bangladeshis and Sri-Lankans look a lot like Indians but are subject to stereotyping and prejudice. As India grows and increasing globalization opens its doors wider to the outside world, it is obvious that India will continue to become diverse even in terms of race. Recent violence against Africans in Delhi only highlights the need for sensitization to other cultures.  This is where seeking out and reading foreign, non-white authors becomes important. The term Person Of Colour does not make sense in this context, and creates the need for a new vocabulary, which I hope comes about soon.

These are the few sections of Indian society that in my opinion are under-represented in what the majority of Indians read. It barely scratches the surface of how complex and diverse Indian society is. There is a lot of intersectionality.

I may be wrong. I may have missed out some groups.This post is not as eloquent or as exhaustive as I had hoped it would be, but I had been sitting on it for a while and felt a need to send it out into the world. I apologize for anything that may be lacking, offensive or erroneous –it was not intentional. I am not an expert, and this post is based on my personal observations. It is merely an attempt to start a converstaion, which I hope others will carry on. Which is why, I would love to hear your views about diversity in Indian literature.

Before I wrap up this post, I have something to say about reading diversely. The phrase “diversity is not a trend” applies just as much to readers as to writers. Just as it is not okay to forcefully write in a marginalized character, it is also not okay to read diverse books, just because that is what everyone seems to be doing. The point of reading diverse books is to listen and learn, and if possible to empathize. It is okay to not understand fully or to not connect with characters that are different from you. It is however not okay to reject these stories as “not true” or “politically correct propaganda”, or to assume that the narrative of one author speaks for his/her whole community. When reading diverse literature from a position of privilege, it is often uncomfortable to read about how someone who does not share these privileges views one’s own group/community. It is necessary to overcome this discomfort and resist the urge to get defensive.

The idea is to understand that not everyone experiences the world the same way. The idea is to become aware of the privileges that one enjoys, which other groups may not. The idea is to develop a sense of respect. I certainly have become more aware of the privileges that I possess as a part of Indian society.

PS: Book covers are from goodreads.

 

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35 thoughts on “Discussion Post: Exploring Diversity In What India Reads (Or Doesn’t Read)

  1. Hinduism seems to be dwindling from being a majority through forced conversions, particularly in the south. And I’ve only faced reverse casteism but your points are so well researched. I didn’t even THINK about adivasi literature. I didn’t even know it existed which is disappointing. I’m disappointed in myself for that. Sigh. I’ll have to check out that goodreads list later today. I’m actually writing a post to counter that scroll post 😂. Well written, Vijaylakshmi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would like to read your counter to the scroll post. I tend to agree with the scroll post. Our mythology is great and all but I’m kind of getting fed up of all the angles and retellings. Would appreciate if those elements were used in completely new ways. And there is a lot more in Indian history to explore and write about than mythology.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Counter in the sense there are SO MANY books without it but the author hasn’t done her research. And a majority of fantasy novels from around the world have mythological factors in them, mainly Christian. It’s like saying Indians are religious but others aren’t. We have a rich history, why be ashamed of it and hide it? That’s the angle. I’ll let you know when I write it, of course. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a thoughtful, eye-opening post!! 🙂 I haven’t read that much Indian lit, mostly the ones that are promoted internationally, but I’m so planning on.exploring after graduation. It’s very interesting to learn more about diversity and oppression in countries like India. My dad has told me a bit about Pakistan, about the colorism (I’m white and pink to my family there apparently, which is super weird as I’m the opposite at home) and the horrible treatment of Blacks and names .for them. It’s so sad how if it’s possible.for people to kick down they will and there’s always someone considered lower.
    So glad you introduced the many aspect of diversity in India and I’ll be sure to check them out and you said it so well, threre will be need for a concept like poc soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am on the lighter side of the shade card too when it comes to India, and have been aware all my life of how people have treated me differently from those darker skinned. There is an instant assumption that I am more affluent and cultured.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Feminism in Cold Storage and commented:
    This is a great post about diversity in Indian reading. Everything about it applies equally to American reading, from the way different states perceive each other to the need to overcoming discomfort when reading about another’s thoughts on your own group.
    Diversity is a practice and one that we could all benefit from, it was great to see the thought shared and expounded upon from another point of view. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Devourers explores non-heterosexual relationships? Then I must read it!
    I hope that with time more stories about the LGBT experience in India are written in the coming decades.
    Thank you for writing should a thoughtful and eloquent post. Yes, it was eloquent and very informative!
    It’s fascinating how much regional and linguistic diversity there is in India. I know very little about it as much of my reading focuses on the West. I do try to read globally when I can but it is always inherently through a western gaze. This is most apparent when I call people from China, India, Malaysia “people of color” when the term doesn’t really makes sense in their cultural context. I’ve probably done it but hopefully not too often. I will be more mindful of this from now on and refer to POCs as nonwhite people who live in the west.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Naz. Greatly appreciate these comments from you😊
      The linguistic diversity in India can be overwhelming for outsiders. The West assumes that Hindi is spoken everywhere in India, but the truth is that a large number of Indians do not speak or understand Hindi. The lack of a common language makes communication very difficult sometimes.
      We become PoC when we come to the West, so that is okay. Our skin colour makes us stand out here. My point is that while in the subcontinent or in Asia at large, PoC doesn’t make sense because we are all “coloured” (I do not mean it in a derogatory sense).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I learnt a lot! I’m especially intrigued by Adivasi literature and will go check out those links you’ve added.

    I think it’s quite a common thread that disabilities in Asia tend to be ignored. Well maybe not ignored but hidden. And it is similar in Singapore with homosexuality. I am especially intrigued now by The Devourers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Sharlene😊 I think disabilities, both physical and psychological are treated in Asia as a sort of stigma, which has to be hidden, and that is quite sad. Homosexuality’ is still considered as a disease that can be “cured”. I hope that things will change and that these conversations will begin.

      Like

  6. This is a super interesting post. I’m always really fascinated by discussions of diversity in countries other than my own, because the power/privilege fault-lines are never quite the same country to country. So it’s interesting. Also you’re giving me a tonnnnn of authors to add to my TBR list!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think I just learned more than I ever did in high school in the United States. In the U.S. we’re all like, “India has cows that no one eats because they’re special, and also Gandhi.” That’s about it. When it comes to reading Indian lit, we’re always sent to Salman Rushdie. Seriously. Yeesh.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post. Well detailed and elaborate. I agree about how Indian books always give search results about academic books. And also about fantasies only on Hindu epics. Actually I prefer reading them in the regional languages because very often I dont feel connected to the English retellings/stories. Either the language doesnt capture me or the language doesnt capture the essence of the story. One good translated mythology I read was Yayati. It did capture my interest

    And yes! a muslim in one state and a muslim in another state are entirely different. I am glad for the fact that we go more by regional diversity that communal diversity. however the current times are bleak and so many people are misled by politicians.

    Also there are so many books on the caste system. And very few on middle class life. I wish that changed

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. “The point of reading diverse books is to listen and learn, and if possible to empathize.”

    Indeed! I hope books that feature diverse characters will increase empathy in people who otherwise do not identify with those backgrounds.

    This post is wonderful. Sadly, many Americans would be shocked to find out that there is diversity in India. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Yes, reading diversely has made me a little more aware, a little more empathetic😊 It is always amazing to know how many ways of viewing the world there are 😊

      Like

  11. Pingback: #Diversebookbloggers Feature: The Reading Desk – brown books | green tea

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