As a major international writer, Philip Roth is read widely in India.
Saul Bellow, Gabriel Marquez, Bernard Malamud, Ernest Hemingway, William
Faulkner, Italio Calvino, and Graham Greene are some of the other writers
who enjoy immense popularity in this country. Roth's The Plot Against
America remained on the best- seller list for quite a while.
My doctoral dissertation was on the fiction of Saul Bellow. It was
only natural that I took interest in other American-Jewish writers.
Reading Roth alongside Bellow proved quite exciting - he is at once
different, though his fiction is continually in dialogue with Bellow's.
Roth depicts a multicultural postmodern America negotiating its own
identity. For an America watcher like myself, Roth's fiction shows all
that is on the American social radar.
We have a small Jewish population scattered over places like Cochin,
Bombay, and New Delhi. Nissim Ezekiel, a poet and a doyen of Indian
English literature, happened to be Jewish. Esther David, a living novelist
writing in English is also Jewish. The American Jews who impact literary
studies in India include Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Salinger, Mailer, Harold
Bloom and Stanley Fish.
In my judgment Roth takes Jewish identity very seriously. Granted that
neither Roth nor his characters are religious. Religion is just one
mode, albeit an important one, through which selfhood could be realized.
Often Roth realizes this selfhood or identity through sexuality. I'd
think Roth's fiction is saturated with Jewish concerns of various kinds
that articulate the dilemmas the Jews experience living in America both
as insiders and outsiders.
No, I'm not Jewish. I have visited the States twice for short periods
of time. So my reading of Roth is not informed by stay in the USA for
extended periods of time. I have profited enormously by attending the
Louisville conference. Stanley Fish's keynote address was excellent.
Monica Osborne's paper "From Europe to New York to Memphis: Transforming
the Jewish Shtetl" that examines the larger European and American literary-cultural
spaces tenanted by diasporic Jews was a model of rigorous and insightful
scholarship. The panels on Henry James, Kafka, Mann, and Thomas Bernhard
were also quite gripping. The conference provided an opportunity for
dialogue and exchange of insights and interests.
Roth's preoccupation with the family (particularly with his parents)
speaks particularly to an Indian readership. I guess he is read differently
in India compared to the USA or even France, where he has a sizable
readership. Maybe Roth is read in holistic terms in India. I wonder
if this is because we have no compelling need to theorize and situate
Roth vis-à-vis various social debates as in the West.