#13: Join a book club, even if it’s only for one night. I spent Wednesday night at The Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank eating “Indian-ish” food at radio talk show host Jenny Cryws-Williams’ book club surrounded by lots of wine-quaffing and martini-drinking (mostly) women. (Note to the Hyatt: I am not sure you should be serving “Indian-ish” food.) The guest speaker was Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat based in Pretoria who wrote the novel Q&A,a runaway bestseller that has been translated into more than 30 languages and is being made into a film. He has just released his second book, Six Suspects and is already considering offers for the film rights.
His debut novel was written in less than two months while Mr Swarup was preparing to leave his posting in London for Delhi. “I had absolutely no idea idea what I was doing”, he said. It seems he was possessed by the story and just had to get it out.
Q&A is the the story of an Indian waiter in Mumbai who wins one billion rupees in a quiz show and by doing so lands himself in a hell of a lot of trouble. While some critics will argue with me I don’t think it shows in the book. It’s certainly not Joyce or Tolstoy but for a two-month piece of work it’s a fun read: fast-paced, cleverly constructed and you’ll want to finish it in one sitting. I would go as far as to say that it’s a superior book to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (with similar themes and setting) which I see has just made the Booker Prize longlist.
I have been a fan of Indian fiction since I discovered A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipul on my brother’s shelf – it was a setwork for his university English 1 course – and have always kept up with new authors. Vikas Swarup started the evening by talking about some of the book that for him define India writing — he was at pains to point out that these are not books that he himself has loved but they do define India in different periods for him. On the list was The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine balance, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, Naipul’s A House for Mr Biswas and of course Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children which recently was voted the best Booker winning novel of Booker-winning novels.
The list is an interesting one. While the books are all set in different times and are written from different perspectives they carry a sense of “Indian-ness”, something that defines the place and the sensibility of belonging to that place, however fraught the relationships to it are.
It left me thinking I would be hard-pressed to come up with a list of 10 books that carry a sense of South African-ness. There are whispers of it in JM Coetzee’s early work, and in Patricia Schonstein-Pinnock’s Skyline, Fred Khumalo’s Bitches Brew and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to My Hillbow but a few titles do not a canon make.