Tuesday, February 27, 2007

No More An 'Area of Darkness'?

India is no more an area of darkness (to invoke Naipaul)--with its economic rise, the west's spotlight is increasingly falling on India's literary stars, who earlier looked dimmer in the face of their brighter foreign-based counterparts.

Cathleen McCaul, writing in The Guardian's Feb 13 issue ("Subcontinental Shift") suggests that the focus of India's literary culture, for many years focussed on London and New York, might be changing now.

She writes: "India basks in the limelight of such NRIs as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, (but) their ability to portray India from abroad has been questioned."

Really? And who are the people questioning the abilities of Rushdie, Seth, Mistry, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee, Amitava Kumar (academic and non-fiction writer whose first novel, Home Products is due out soon), and many many others?

Cathleen parades the views of Tishani Doshi, Altaf Tyrewala, Rana Dasgupta, Jeet Thayil, Hirsh Sawhney and Nilanjana Roy to support her argument. They haven't said anywhere in the article that they find the above NRI writers to be lacking in authenticity but Cathleen seems to be concluding that there is a continental shift happening.

I think this is basically a useless debate, nevertheless very interesting. Tishani Doshi, Altaf Tyrewala, Rana Dasgupta, etc are budding writers (and I wish them the very best in their careers--they are just starting out) and they are yet to move beyond their debut works.

It is true that for a long time, successful voices in Indian writing in English have come from abroad, from the so called NRI writers. Even though, before these so so-called NRI writers, India had writers like R K Narayan and Mulkraj Anand (UK-returned), among others, who were writing from India about life in India, but the real spurt in IWE, in terms of, mind you, the western audiences and western media recognition and publishing success and prize-worthiness began with the NRI writers.

The continental shift Cathleen is talking about is largely a western phenomenon. With the success of India as an economic power, the spotlight has shifted from the west to the home barns. Those who are producing stuff in India now are also seen with admiration, their works now considered valuable for western consumption (did they find it immaterial earlier?).

What has changed, truth be told, is the way the west sees India and its homegrown talent, which is of course positive. Other than that I don't see any subcontinental or even tectonic shift. For every Tishani Doshi, Altaf Tyrewala, and Rana Dasgupta, we have had Upamany Chatterjee, I Allen Sealy, Gita Hariharan, Adil Jussawalla, Imtiyaz Dharker (and so many Bombay poets), Ruskin Bond, Khushwant Singh, Shashi Deshpande, Anurag Mathur, Shobha De, Mukul Kesavan, Kiran Nagarkar, Keki Daruwalla, Ashok Banker, Rukun Advani, Ardeshir Vakil, just to name a few. I am not even talking about Arundhati Roy who was an exception --she didn't go to any foreign university--but even far more recently, writers like Rajkamal Jha, Anita Nair, Tarun Tejpal and Rupa Bajwa, again just to name a few, have done interesting work.

The big question here is not even this subcontinental shift. It is, in fact, about how a writer's geographical location affects his writing. Is it important to live among your characters to produce that authentic fiction? Or can this be achieved with good research? And what about the writing that is done from a distance (as in the case of our NRI writers) to get that telescopic effect? How does it change the nature of captured reality in one's writing?

I think Indian writer Nayantara Sehgal has tackled this question fairly well here:

"There are no hard and fast categories that define exile, or alienness, or roots. And there is no such divide in literature. In the end, fiction can only be divided into two categories. It is either good or bad. But what distinguishes writing here from Indian writing elsewhere is simply that the home-grown writing of any country comes out of a home-grown sensibility. And that is a priceless possession, not to be given up, at least so long as there are nation-states and national literatures."

I think every writer has his own reasons to write and his motivations and inspirations might differ from other writers. If Tyrewalla feels that he can write only when he is based in India, it is fair enough for him to do so (that proximity to his characters is reflected in his work):

'I don't know how, for instance, I could write from the perspective of an imaginary butcher in a chicken shop if I wasn't also suffering the humidity like him, suffering the noise of a ghetto like him, and yet trying, like him, to think amidst this discomfort, this cacophony ... Midway through writing No God In Sight, I went to New York to be with my fiancée (now wife), hoping to continue with the novel there. I assumed I could write anywhere, that I could stretch my imagination wide enough to surmount the distance of thousands of kilometres. I was back in Mumbai in two months. It was a very expensive misadventure.'

But a writer like Rushdie felt that writing from a distance had its own peculiar effect, and perhaps, magic realism was a better vehicle to transport that effect to the realm of literature. Looking at India from a distance was like looking at it through a telescope (an angle of advantage?)-- the image was sharp and the perspective unbroken, cinemascope-like. He gave the example of a cinema screen--if you looked at it with your nose close to the screen, all you saw were grains (pixels). The farther you moved away from the screen, the clearer was the image.

In any case, Tyrewalla and Jeet Thayil (who left the US to work from India) are not the first ones to leave the west and live among their characters to create that authetic fiction. Decades ago, well-known Bengali poet and novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay, to give an example, returned from the US after doing a creative writing course. He wanted to live among his own people, close to the characters that he wrote about (Does it matter that he chose to write in Bengali, not in English?). The same goes for great Hindi writers Hariwansh Rai Bachchan and Nirmal Verma, and almost 100 years ago, Urdu poet Iqbal who earned his PhD from Germany but returned to India. About a decade back, Amit Chaudhuri did the same.

I don't think it matters where you live or write from--what does matter is whether you can get inside the skin of your characters. It might take some research and travelling and that's what writers have been doing from ages. Naipaul travelled to Asia and Africa to write about its people and places; Somerset Maugham wrote about south East Asia and Graham Greene was a globe trotter.

But critically speaking, the jump from Rushdie to the new generation of writers, does it portray a break in traditions? Does it have a larger meaning for Indian writing? Professor Amitava Kumar thinks so (remembered place vs real people in real places?):

'That narrow road from Rushdie’s childhood would join a busier street and, with suitable special effects, explode into the teeming pages of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. Like Naipaul in an extended part of A Million Mutinies Now, Mehta would show that a city is more than a sum of its parts because of its individual inhabitants and their unappeasable energies. Naipaul, Mehta, and even Chandra – unlike Rushdie, their writing about Mumbai has been based on a diligent search for material. These are works of reportage. It is crucial to grasp this break from Rushdie’s magical realism. The map that these writers unfold for us is not so much of a remembered place as of real people in real places.'

To a reader like me (critics might think differently), it does not make a difference whether the Indian story has been told from in India or from abroad. What matters to me is whether I can find a connection with the story.

And great stories have a universal appeal. Recently, Prof Amartya Sen talked about this universality quoting the great Tagore:

"... The open and welcoming attitude to departures originating elsewhere which Rabindranath Tagore articulated with compelling clarity in a letter to a friend (in a letter to Charlie Andrews in fact) in the 1920s, at the height of our struggle for national independence:"Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that the all the great glories of man are mine."

I personally think that that is a good guiding principle there--for all writers from anywhere. Every writer, no matter what he is writing about and where he is writing from, brings his own unique perspectives, and if they find a connection with our soul, we can claim it as our own, as a facet of truth that we recognize. Cathleen herself mentions that Pankaj Mishra's new book is about China and Rana Dasgupta's second novel, written from Delhi, is set in Bulgaria.

Jeet Thyil is bang on when he says that there are no boundaries between Indian writers writing from India and writers writing from abroad.

"There is no difference between non-resident and resident writers now. I see it as one body of work," he claims. "If you are a 21-year-old writer living in some little town in India and you read everything you can get your hands on and really learn your craft you have every chance of being published in New York."

But I think publishers, agents and critics will see more and more of this demarcation, and the home ground desi-label could turn out to be more profitable, more successful than ever before, and will vie for the same prestige (for many critics and readers) that was once reserved for the NRI writer.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Talk about a book without reading it?

Yes, that's possible. And here's a book on this subject that claims to teach you how to fake it.

Pierre Bayard, a Paris University literature professor, has come out with a survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes. “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?” has become a best seller, with translation rights snapped up across Europe and under negotiation in Britain and the United States:

“We are taught one way of reading,” he said. “Students are told to read the book, then to fill out a form detailing everything they have read. It’s a linear approach that serves to enshrine books. People now come up to me to describe the cultural wounds they suffered at school. ‘You have to read all of Proust.’ They were traumatized.”

“They see culture as a huge wall, as a terrifying specter of ‘knowledge,’ ” he went on. “But we intellectuals, who are avid readers, know there are many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book.”

Full text here at NYT.

Monday, February 05, 2007


I came across this interesting bunch of interviews in one of my favourite Indian journals, Tehelka.

The interviews separately feature two writers, Amitava Kumar and Kiran Desai, and one lit agent, I'd say the most famous for Indian writers at least, David Godwin.

I'm just pulling some quotes here from their interviews, and if the quotes pique your interest please go and read the full texts.

Immigration is not a pretty thing: Kiran Desai

There was this realisation that what my generation was going through in America was the same as what my grandparents had gone through in the UK decades earlier. Nothing had changed. Both sides like to see it as different — the US doesn’t like thinking of itself as a colonial power and Indian immigrants try and emphasise how welcome they are, but there is a lot of hypocrisy in that pretence. Immigration is not a pretty thing. It’s often very cruel. It’s just self-preservation to ignore racism in these countries.

The Arundhati Roy effect: David Godwin

I never begrudge any w
riter money or platform. But a much more interesting consequence of Arundhati’s success has been its impact on writing in England. Take Monica Ali. Or even writers from Africa and the Caribbean. It may sound far-fetched, but we are hearing a wider range of voices. The publishing industry has become more open minded as a consequence of Arundhati.

Bihari writers, anyone?: Amitava Kumar

I like Siddharth’s writing because it is daringly original. And Tabish is the better kind of scholar-writer that India somehow seems very good at producing.

But I doubt they would identify with the Biharis who run the kind of website you’re referring to. I certainly don’t.

I don’t write to furnish a better image of a place or a person. Writing for me is a way of finding out what is hidden from the world. All declarations of superiority are also symptoms of real inferiority. I know what is inferior in myself. I want to be honest about it.