She famously declared herself an "independent mobile republic" to protest India’s 1998 nuclear tests. She is vociferous in her opposition to "market-is-god" globalisation and US policies, and like the best polemicists, allows no shades of grey, giving voice to ideas that are unfashionable and uncomfortable.
Saint of the Gutters
The only person on this list who wasn’t born an Indian but became one, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu spent her life tending to people so sick and so poor that no one else wanted to look at them. Shamed, the world bore witness to her virtue, and heaped honours on her, including the Nobel Prize. Some, like Christopher Hitchens, made decent debating points about her proselytising motives and shady fund-raising, but Indians in general seemed to think that it was extraordinary that she bothered at all.
The title of his first novel, Swami and Friends, could serve as metaphor for the world of small-town India that Narayan Englished into fiction. Malgudi, the invented town in which his stories are set, is loosely based on Mysore, and is at once an idyll, another age and a persuasive stand-in for an everyday India. His novels, written in a plain style, are inimitable: he has no followers and, arguably, no equals.
It is statistically incredible that two brothers should make the list, it is even stranger that choosing Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman alongside Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Narayan should seem inevitable. But then, Laxman is our greatest cartoonist and his Common Man pocket cartoon in the Times of India has been a national institution.
Through her novels and short stories, this prolific writer gave Urdu fiction a brave and endlessly inventive new voice. To quote the London Times, her magnum opus, Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire), "is to Urdu fiction what A Hundred Years of Solitude is to Hispanic literature. [She is] one of the world’s major living writers."
The first to be published of the new breed of Indian novelists flagged off by Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Ghosh remains the most impressive. His work explores the historical connections between the Arab world, south-east Asia and the subcontinent. Neither parochial, nor possessed by a Naipaulian anxiety about the West, his fiction has a cosmopolitanism that chronicles Indian lives in their Asian arena.
His creative genius straddles many literary forms—from the historic sweep of novels like Sei Somoy and Pratham Alo (Those Days and First Light), set in the 19th century, to those reflecting complex turmoils, like Pratidwandi and Aranyer Din Ratri, both great Satyajit Ray films.