Publisher, author and founder of Aleph Book Company, David Davidar’s latest anthology is A case of Indian wonders: Dazzling stories from the country’s best new writers – featuring 40 millennial and Gen Z writers. In an interview with Scroll.inDavidar answered questions about the future of short fiction in India, a growing appetite for fiction in translation, the writing and editing trends that excite him, and how the current generation of writers gives hope for a resurgence of fiction in the English language.
How did you A case of Indian wonders come into existence? Other than being 40 and under, what were you looking for when compiling your list of forty authors?
The idea of setting up an anthology on these lines had been brewing for a while. A few years ago, I edited a selection of the best short fiction films ever created by Indian writers, titled A handful of Indian masterpieces, and it was well received. At the time the book was published, I wondered what the future held for short stories in India – it was the seed, so to speak, from which this anthology sprouted.
I decided to use 2020 as a cut-off year to take a look at what new generations of writers were writing – the oldest millennials were about to turn 40 and the The oldest members of Gen Z were in their 20s, so it seemed as good as any time to do a math on what they were doing. Several of them had already started making their mark with early books, so I figured there would be enough material to choose from.
Of course, age wasn’t the only criterion at stake. Literary excellence was the primary qualification for inclusion in the book – all of these stories are superb.
How is the short fiction written by Millennial and Gen Z writers different from that of their predecessors?
In our country, many observers of the literary scene would have no difficulty in accepting that the period between the beginning of the 1980s and the beginning of the 2000s, a period of about 20 years, represents the golden age modern Indian literature, especially in English.
Salman Rushdie – I was deeply saddened and enraged by the despicable attack on him in New York that took place just as this interview was taking place – opened the doors to a flood of extraordinary works of fiction when he published his unequaled novel, The Midnight Children. Other notable books from this era include The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor, A decent boy by Vikram Seth The Legacy of Loss by Kiran Desai, A nice balance by Rohinton Mistry, The interpreter of diseases by Jhumpa Lahiri, and The God of Little Things by Arundhati Roy, to cite just a few works by Indian writers from here and from the diaspora who will stand the test of time.
It was also the period in which outstanding short fiction books were published by Ruskin Bond, OV Vijayan, Mahashweta Devi, Ambai and Nirmal Verma. I’ve published most of these big names at one time or another, which has allowed me to observe their genius up close – and that’s one of the reasons I was curious about this that their successors would offer.
As it appeared, A case of Indian wonders was a wonderful journey of discovery. I knew and admired the work of about half of the writers who made the final cut – extremely talented storytellers like Kanishk Tharoor (the only writer represented in both anthologies), Madhuri Vijay, Prayaag Akbar, Meena Kandasamy, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar , Avinuo Kire, Karan Madhok, Krithika Pandey, Neel Patel and Aravind Jayan, among others, who had either published acclaimed books or won major literary awards, but the rest only caught my attention because of recommendations from various writers and excellent detective work. by my editorial colleagues (many of whom are Millennials or Gen Zers) who scoured numerous literary journals (both online and in print) to find a few gems that ended up on the long list.
I then narrowed the long list down to the 40 stories that made it into the anthology – these were then revised or edited for publication. How do the stories of these writers compare to those of their predecessors? Pretty good, I would say. Considering the fact that most of these writers are early in their careers, I’d say there’s incredible talent on display. The future of Indian literature is in very good hands.
What writing trends among current generations are you really passionate about as a publisher? Are there any trends set by this new generation of writers that give you hope for the future of short fiction?
I was interested to see that there was a significant percentage of dystopian fiction to be had. I wonder if that had to do with the sensitivity of the writers concerned or with the tenor of our time! Many of these stories were a courageous interpretation of the dark ages we live in – where decency, intelligence, liberal values and a host of freedoms are rare or seriously threatened.
I think it’s important that our best writers are political in some way, especially in a dysfunctional society like ours, despite the very real risks they face, as evidenced by brutal aggression against Rushdie more recently, but also the murders of MM Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh and others. If novelists, along with historians, journalists, sociologists, and writers of accounts of serious inquiry and exposition, do not speak truth to power, or reflect the ugliness of the society of which they are a part, the ranks of those who oppose autocrats, tyrants, thugs and threats to freedom will be thinned.
Going back to the stories in this anthology, besides those that had a political flavor, there were exquisite tales grounded in mythology, stories that celebrated sexuality, LGBTQ themes and so on – the most interesting thing about of these writers was that they weren’t afraid to take risks with their writing and varied widely in their choice of subjects. I believe we will see spectacular work from them and others like them in the years to come – not just short fiction but novels as well.
And yet short fiction in English by Indian writers is hard to come by. Do you think that will change soon?
Short fiction has never been as popular as the novel and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. Short stories don’t sell as well as novels and why is a complete mystery to me despite decades in the game. As a result, there aren’t many writers who specialize in short fiction – what you usually have in the work of great writers is a bunch of novels with a few collections of stories.
Translations are increasingly popular with readers and publishers. A case of Indian wonders also offers translated news. Would you agree that the genre is also booming in regional languages?
I am delighted with the growing interest in translations by readers, publishers and executors of literary prizes, but it is far from enough. We need generous funding from culturally inclined businesses to support Indian literature created in languages other than English, as well as translation projects that will make work in these languages accessible to readers in English and in languages other than those in which the work was originally created.
We need funds from big industry because it is futile to expect state organizations to deliver – they are usually politically compromised, underfunded or bureaucratic. Publishers don’t have the funds to mount any sort of sustained, large-scale effort to popularize translations, so unless we have some large-scale corporate initiatives to support and market translations, everything what we will see are slow and gradual gains – this will continue to be a major source of frustration for anyone who wants to see the great Indian literature created in all our major languages popularized as it should be.
The Greatest Short Stories Ever Told continues to be a big hit in short fiction in translation. Why did you decide to start this series?
It all started with The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told by the brilliant and indefatigable translator Arunava Sinha. When this proved successful, we commissioned the late great translator Muhammad Umar Memon to set up Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told for us that also did phenomenally well.
After that, it didn’t take much thought to commission anthologies of short fiction films in translation from all major Indian languages. We will have about ten such books by the end of this
year and about 14 or so when we finished. Surprisingly, each of these books did well from the start and they continue to do well on the list.
Aleph Book Company has completed ten years in the publishing business. In what fundamental ways has Indian publishing changed in this short period of time?
Indian publishing hasn’t changed much since we’ve been around and I don’t expect it to fundamentally change in the foreseeable future. The arrival of e-books and Amazon has changed the way books were bought and read and digital and online marketing is now almost essential, but in terms of the types of books that are published – apart from the growth of commercial fiction and lifestyle non-fiction, which have been around for decades now – I can’t say there’s been a noticeable change.
How do you think readers and their reading habits have changed over the years? What types of books/writings suddenly seem to be favorites?
The four areas in which there seems to be sustained interest are self-help books, mythological fiction, general business fiction, and ambitious non-fiction books. Literary fiction has been in decline for some time now and I have no clear idea when interest in it will return.
We might need to have a series of monstrously brilliant novels published in quick succession to reverse readers’ lack of interest in hyped books of indifferent quality by modestly talented writers – we all hopefully wait for that to happen.
Is Indian fiction in English really in danger? What is your opinion?
I think it’s for the reasons I described above. But the talent and ambition of the writers represented in A case of Indian wonders makes me optimistic that a resurgence is quite imminent.
Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of the Books and Ideas section of Scroll.in.