Philip Roth Is Big In India

I emailed English literature professor Gurumurthy Neelakantan (at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kandur) some questions (following his participation last weekend in the 20th Century Literature Conference in Louisville):

He replies:

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--vis various social debates as in the West.