What Indian authors should read by everyone

Authors: The future comes from India


Read on one side

Recently, says Shreyas Rajagopal, he received a letter from an Italian publisher. The Italians had his novel Salt water read (the one this fall under the title Scar City appears in German), they also found it quite good. But could he not write something else after all? A family story, several generations, with a female main character and love across caste boundaries? One would really like to have that from him and publish it.

Rajagopal reports this with a mixture of amusement, agony and foreign shame. He is a 28-year-old city author, the product of an almost painfully contemporary upper-class youth in the 18-million metropolis of Mumbai; his strongest literary inspiration was the New York decadence and horror classic American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Rajagopal's India is not the setting for an ethno soap, but a laboratory of the 21st century. His fictional characters are interested in drugs, parties and designer brands, although "interest" is hardly the right word; basically they don't care about anything. At least not for love across caste boundaries. But in the West they know exactly what makes a real Indian novel.

We are sitting right by the sea in the Taj Mahal Hotel in the south of Mumbai, in an architectural oriental fantasy from the Belle Époque, which today embodies the luxury of urban, rich India - and its vulnerability: In November 2008, 33 guests and employees of murdered by an Islamist terrorist group during a three-day nightmarish siege. It is as if everything that drives the present comes together in India, modern as well as anti-modern, the forces of fanaticism and violence, but also the forces of market, globalization and capitalism; this colossus has one foot on the Hindu Kush and the other on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. "Every single Indian," says Rajagopal, "who has come in here in the last quarter of an hour wears Louis Vuitton shoes. That was not the case five or six years ago." The transformation of India, the revolutionary upheavals in society, the explosion of prosperity at the top of society - all of this is happening at a breathtaking pace. As a child, Shreyas Rajagopal lived in a completely different country: "When I saw a Mercedes from the school bus, the topic of conversation was over dinner."


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The fact that he has not forgotten that gives him the distance to the new consumption and status India that he needs as a chronicler. His novel shows a world that is both excessive and highly choreographed, as if by disinhibited puppets; The children of the rich keep coking, they collapse by the pool, throwing up and bring some calm back into the system with sleeping pills, but actually nothing moves or changes, it could go on forever; and the book's catastrophes (a suicide, a rape) do not happen out of passion and not even out of playful cynicism, but out of carelessness, out of a mental paralysis: because you don't want to be embarrassed and expose yourself humanely. Where does that come from, I ask Rajagopal, the obsession with the image and the fear of weakness, and expect some socio-psychological explanation, but instead he gives a very different kind of answer without hesitation: "This comes from America. There is not much Indian in it in this." Shreya's Rajagopal is west to the tips of her hair, has to think hard to choose a restaurant with Indian cuisine for our dinner (Italian would be no problem), only watches American films, never any from Bollywood. But deep within him lives the idea of ​​a real, better India that is completely different from the country whose elites are now plunging themselves into an imported vulgar modernity with power. What is the real India?

Only at the very edge of the field of vision of Rajagopal's figures do images of a third world reality appear, which for the privileged in South Mumbai is so exotic as if it were taking place on another continent: the suicides of indebted peasants on the nightly television news; an old communist college professor who prophesied the revolution; a street sweeper, covered in dust "that has apparently collected on his skin and hair for centuries". This is the India that development economist Jean Drèze and Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen talked about in her book To Uncertain Glory (The German edition will be published by C. H. Beck Verlag on November 17th). Drèze, a slim, long, bearded, slightly Jesus-like academic, has an astonishing story: he was born in Belgium, came to India in 1979 and has stayed; He is now an Indian citizen and was a leading social policy advisor to the previous government, which was voted out a few months ago. One of the most important reforms in decades, which guaranteed the rural population a minimum of employment and a basic income, is essentially Drèze's work. The business friends and orthodox market economists downright feared him as a powerful ideologue of an octopus welfare state. The way he sits there, quiet and inconspicuous in a bare little conference room on the campus of the Delhi School of Economics, where he teaches, one would not believe it.

Drèze and Sen wrote their book against the hype about the economic miracle and the upcoming superpower India, which became very fashionable a few years ago. According to their analysis, child mortality and malnutrition, illiteracy and poor sanitation are still severe handicaps, sometimes worse than in notorious slums like Bangladesh. In India, according to Drèze, there is a culture of inequality in which those above and below do not simply do differently, but live in different universes because the inequalities reinforce each other: lower caste also means poor education also means little money also means a lack of social and political self-confidence. Economic growth and technological progress do not automatically change anything, on the contrary: They can deepen the rift. Isn't it strange, asks Drèze, that a normal Indian bicycle, the little people's means of transport, looks exactly the same down to the last screw as it did 30 years ago and has no gears? While everything the elite needs or finds exciting, computers or cars or space rockets, has made fantastic leaps in quality?