Genre Fiction of New India: post-millennial receptions of ‘weird’ narratives

ECAF Fellowship report from Dr. Emma Dawson Varughese, Associate, Leeds Beckett University

ECAF Centre: L’Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient, Pune, India

Genre Fiction of New India: post-millennial receptions of ‘weird’ narratives is a book manuscript which explores narratives of Hinduism and science in popular Indian fiction in English. Analyses of texts and author interviews interrogate ‘the weird’ as a genre term and how the reception of this fiction varies widely from domestic Indian responses to non-Indian, ‘western’ responses. The book presents the term ‘Bharati Fantasy’ and considers the roles of epic narrative, the numinous, ‘fantasy’ narratives, as well as mythology and ‘truth’ in cultural memory.

The Fellowship allowed me to access both space and time to write. Being in India, I was able to review the body of fiction that my Routledge manuscript engages with (what I term ‘Bharati Fantasy’) and subsequently, the content and organisation of my chapters changed. Having had a break from my research due to maternity, it had been 2 years since the initial submission of the book proposal to Routledge. Much new fiction has been published since then and I quickly realised that a significant proportion of that fiction needed to be included in my book manuscript. The beginning of my Fellowship in Pune therefore, was spent collecting in (and ordering) the new fiction. As I got hold of these new books, I was able to see that my initial book proposal no longer fully represented the body of writing I am focusing on. Two categories of ‘Bharati Fantasy’ became apparent and I have reorganised my chapters in light of this development. Much of this fiction I explore in my book is only available in India and thus the time reviewing and purchasing the new fiction was invaluable. A key theme in the book is ‘reception’ and the fact that a significant number of these texts do not appear outside of India or the wider region makes for fascinating discussion some of which I explored through my author interviews. I set up four author interviews: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Samhita Arni and Anand Neelakantan in Mumbai. Two of these four – Samhita and Anand – came about by me being in India as I had not had contact with these authors previously. I contacted them whilst in India and being able to phone and meet up with them made things much easier. In my discussion with Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi and Anand Neelakantan in particular, I was able to examine the interface between science, rational thought and Hinduism, epic narrative and cultural memory.

Although the ECAF centre at Pune (through Deccan College) is currently closed, I was warmly received by Prof Kshirsagar who connected me to Dr Deodhar with whom I spent some time studying Hindu thought and Vedanta. I had many questions in my mind about some of the topics and terms that had come up through the reading of Bharati Fantasy. I was particularly keen to talk to Dr Deodhar about the Sanskrit term itihasa, notions of fate, history, epic narrative and truth. Dr Deodhar was invaluable in helping me understand much of these terms and ideas; indeed, it was most helpful to go with the questions I had, rather than being presented with information through a series of lectures that may have been only tangentially related.

At Deccan College, I also met with Dr Sonal Kulkarni-Joshi who had been very helpful on email before my arrival in Pune. I had planned to deliver a lecture at Deccan College on the linguistic aspect of my research on Indian genre fiction but Dr Sonal was concerned that I may not have too many students attending given the time of year I was there (the start of the new semester) as well as the focus of my paper. She suggested I try the Department of English at the University of Pune. She helped make that contact (Prof Jawaare) and as a result, I gave a paper there. The paper was well received and I was invited to return to give a second paper as part of the Visual Studies PG teaching sessions – I spoke on my most recent book (co-authored) on a study of domestic Chick Lit book covers.

Deccan College also connected me to Anil Inamdar at the American Institute of Indian Studies. Anil was very helpful in finding me Hindi Language tuition – he put me in contact with Dr Dixit and I took lessons with her to improve my spoken Hindi. We worked on listening skills, fluency of response and confidence in using the Hindi I already know. She has suggested that I use Hindi more frequently at home and that I continue to use the grammar tables and aids I have designed to give me confidence in ‘getting it right’.