Handfuls of Dust

Richard Cronin

  • Freedom Song by Amit Chaudhuri
    Picador, 202 pp, £13.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 330 34423 4

The first of the great Indian novelists to write in English, R.K. Narayan, wrote modest novels about modest people living in the small South Indian town of Malgudi. The completeness of the world he creates is possible only because that world is so circumscribed. Then in 1981 Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, and such a narrow focus no longer seemed possible. Midnight’s Children was impelled by the impossible dream that a single novel might somehow articulate the experience of the 600 million people living in the subcontinent, most of whom spoke in languages that Rushdie did not understand. There is a painter of miniatures in the novel who contracts ‘gigantism’. He finds his pictures getting bigger and bigger as he tries to stuff more and more into them. Rushdie infected the Indian novel with a similar disease. Novels like I. Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-nama, and Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel are driven by a frantic ambition to include within their pages all of India and all of its history.

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