Many bards of Asian origin swarm the west. A number of writers from India, Pakistan and even Bangladesh have succeeded in imparting their intellectual ingenuity through the English language. Virkram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Tariq Ali are some of their forerunners.
It comes as a surprise to some readers of Seth's A Suitable Boy (1993) that the author of this, the longest novel in English ever written, has also penned six volumes of poetry.
What is surprising is not Seth's shift between prose and poetry like other contemporaries, but that an author famous for such an expansive, 'unrestrained' work of fiction, could also write with the formal and verbal restraint, economy and discipline of Seth-the-poet.
Mappings (1980) was Seth's first volume of poetry, was something of an apprenticeship, it includes translations of work by Chinese, German and Hindi poets.
Mappings was followed by From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), that won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, is a popular and compelling autobiographical tale of the author's journey from Nepal to India. Travel also provides the direction for Seth's next two collections, The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985) and All you who Sleep Tonight (1990). The Humble Administrator's Garden, is a witty collection of nature poems structured around plants/places: across China, India and US. All you who Sleep Tonight is an elegant book of poetry that combine the sharp humour that characterises so much of Seth's writing with darker subjects such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
In his next book of poems, Seth further displays his capacity for wit in Beastly Tales from Here and There (1991).
In a more recent collection, Three Chinese Poets (1992) Seth offers us his most ambitious and daring translation to date. The 'three Chinese' of the title are the T'ang dynasty poets Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu.
Seth's first 'novel' - The Golden Gate - was published in 1986. Composed of no less than 690 rhyming tetrameter sonnets (more than 7000 lines), The Golden Gate is a satirical romance set in San Francisco and is centred on the relationship of two professionals.
In his next novel, A Suitable Boy Seth combined satire and romance to even greater effect in what became one of the most popular epic narratives of the late twentieth century. This heavy weight novel, has earned Seth comparison with Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. It won the WH Smith Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Set in Brahmpur, A Suitable Boy uses the taboo relationship between a boy and girl as a metonym through which to explore the post-Independence conflict in India between Hindus and Muslims.
Seth's novel, An Equal Music (1999), is another romantic novel, but this time minus the satire. The book centres on two gifted musicians. One of the most impressive aspects of this novel is the way in which it manages to convey music through language. An Equal Music takes a conventional romantic plot and renders it compelling and novel through the seductive clarity and precision of its prose.
Born in 1952 in Calcutta, India, Vikram Seth was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Stanford University and Nanjing University.
Arion and the Dolphin: A Libretto (1994), was performed at the English National Opera in June 1994, with music by Alec Roth. Vikram Seth's latest work is Two Lives (2005), a memoir of the marriage of his great uncle and aunt.
Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta on 11 July 1956 in a Bengali Hindu family, to Lieutenant Colonel Shailendra Chandra Ghosh, a retired officer of the pre-independence Indian Army, and was educated at The Doon School; St. Stephen's College, Delhi, Delhi University, India; the Delhi School of Economics and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he was awarded a D. Phil. in social anthropology under the supervision of Peter Lienhardt. His first job was at the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi.
Ghosh is the author of The Circle of Reason (his 1986 debut novel and winner of France's prestigious Prix Médicis étranger), The Shadow Lines (1988), The Calcutta Chromosome (1995, winner of Arthur C. Clarke Award for 1997), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004). Sea of Poppies (2008), the first volume of The Ibis trilogy, set in the 1830s far-east, was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. The trilogy continues with River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire due for the coming May.
Ghosh's novels are thrillingly realistic and imbued with a wealth of historical detail especially in the context of Indian Ocean, suffused with the magic of place and plotted with verve.
Ghosh lives in New York. His wife, Deborah Baker, is author of the Laura Riding biography In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (1993) and a senior editor at Little, Brown and Company.
Ghosh is a faculty member of Queens College, City University, New York. There he serves as the Distinguished Professor in Comparative literature. He has also been a visiting professor to the English department of Harvard University since 2005. The Indian Government awarded him the Padma Shri in 2007. In 2015 he was named a Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow.
Ghosh withdrew his novel The Glass Palace from Commonwealth Writers' Prize alleging its unfair native-English-language requirement and the 'Commonwealth' term. He however stirred controversy by accepting the Israeli Dan David Prize consequently.
Tariq Ali a writer and filmmaker, was born in Lahore in 1943. He has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, and seven novels (translated into over a dozen languages) as well as scripts for the stage and screen. He is an editor and board member of New Left Review and editorial director of London publishers Verso.
Oxford educated Tariq Ali got involved in politics particularly to oppose the Vietnam War during his student life. After graduation he launched the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. He owned the Bandung a TV production company which produced programmes for Britain's Channel 4 in 1980s. He is also a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio and a contributor to The Guardian and the London Review of Books.
After publishing his first novel, Redemption (a political satire set in contemporary Europe and America) in 1990, he authored three acclaimed works of fiction. In spite of these perhaps Ali is still known best for his work with the New Left and his non-fictional works of political biography, autobiography, history and politics. The reader trying to get to grips quickly with the scale and ambition of Ali's voluminous work, as well as his dual interests in literature and politics could do worse than buy a copy of his recent collection, The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom (2009). In 300 or so pages, this book exposes the reader to his public and personal thinking over the past 40 years, including incisive discussions of some of the world's leading contemporary authors, from Joyce, to Roth, Solzhenitsyn and Rushdie.
Ali's political activism is inspired by the revolutionary years of the 1960s and he returns to this decade in several of his volumes. Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (1987) documents some of the key moments and movements of the decade. Chronologically following the passage of time the book is at once an autobiography and an intimate biography of post world war universe. Street Fighting Years, develops out of a book Ali published a decade before (1968 and After: Inside the Revolution, 1978), and includes passionate accounts of Vietnam, Che Guevara, Paris in 1968 and the Black Power Movement in the United States. In his more recent book, 1968: Marching in the Streets (1998), Ali takes a closer look at that pivotal year of the 1960s. The book offers among other things a stunning, evocative visual narrative of the period. What is arguably most significant about Street Fighting Years and 1968: Marching in the streets (1998), though, is their attention to the transnational dimensions of the 1960s. His latest work, The Idea of Communism (2009) was published to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both books do more than record history, they seek to refresh it, make it newly relevant: Communism, along with revolutionary politics is given a new breath of life by Ali.
Of course Ali's explosion of the myth of '1968' (or '1989') as a singularly Western discourse is at least partly informed by his own post-colonial background as a Pakistani migrant living in London. South Asian history and politics are never far from Ali's thoughts, as books like Can Pakistan Survive? (1983) and The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty (1985) and The Assassination: Who Killed Indira G? (2008) suggest. Other books, such as Masters of the Universe: NATO's Balkan Crusade (2000) deal with the neo-colonial implications of European and U. S. policy. Most recently The Clash of Fundamentalisms (2002) provides a provocative, polemic response to the events of September 11th 2001. Ali's political writing carries a new urgency and relevance following 9/11 as can be evidenced in the searing critiques contained within Bush in Babylon (2003), Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror (2005) Speaking of Empire and Resistance (2005) and The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008). The latter is a particularly stimulating account of Pakistan's new intimacy with the US following the collapse of the twin towers, as well as the tensions this intimacy has provoked both within Pakistan country and between nations.
Where Ali's political writings centre on the divisions and tensions between East and West, Ali's fiction also explores their crossings, overlaps and mixings. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992) - is the first of Ali's quintet, which also includes The Book of Saladin (1998), The Stone Woman (2000), and A Sultan in Palermo (2005). These award-winning historical novels explore the encounter between the Christian West and the world of Islam.
Arvind Adiga, Anita Desai, Monica Ali, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Tahmima Anam, among others, are keeping the influx of sub-continental English writers going.