Monday, January 3, 2011

Literature: What News from a Changing India

I wrote this essay for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition INDIA AWAKENS Under the Banyan Tree, which was curated by Alka Pande and which showed last month at Vienna's Essl Museum.

Literature tells us who we are, and not in the merely static sense. Our constant state of flux requires our best stories to capture not only a moment in time, but to also articulate the relationship of that moment to the moment preceding it, and to be prescient about the moment yet to unfold. By travelling our imagination and not just our histories to reach us, our dreams and not just our destinies, literature tells us powerfully, dynamically, who we might become.

Literature is positioned to bring us news, then, of our changing selves. What news of a changing India? And what news of literature in India?

Indian literature is a vast ocean in which the currents of many languages and peoples swim. The 22 officially recognized languages in India and the dozens of other languages and dialects all have active literatures. A language like Malayalam, little known outside of India, is prolific in its literary output and deeply engaged with the world. Translated into Malayalam, Ishiguro and Clezio join Zacharia and Mukunden in chronicling the changing world of the Malayalam language reader. Some currents in Indian literature, those of Tamil literature for instance, are ancient. Sangam poetry, the body of classical Tamil literature was created somewhere between 600 BCE and 300 CE. It is not possible to here swim the entirety of this ocean.

If we confine ourselves to literary fiction written in English, we swim a small but powerful current. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, spelled an end to the colonially imposed rule of English over other Indian languages: in fifteen years, English was to be replaced by Hindi in the operation of the Indian government. India saw language riots through much of the 1960s and 1970s as new states came into being, arguing for linguistic boundaries instead of those old boundaries convenient to the administration of colonial rule.

To this day there is no agreement about what language can replace English. It continues to hold sway, not only as the language through which the rule of law is administered and adjudicated, but also as the language of commerce, and yes, as the language of power. It is the language of India’s elite.

Until recently, those who wrote in English faced the charge of perpetuating the oppression of the colonial era. More seriously still, the argument went, it was not possible to authentically express Indian reality in this alien language.  This argument was stood on its head with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children, a novel that wrote the story of India in an English so charged with the emotions of Indian life, the very language was reshaped in the service of its story. The exuberant English that emerged had its precedent in the earlier All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani. It was literary English that took its frisson by making bold alliance with the Indian-English of the streets, that language which is laid over by the syntactical imprint of so many other Indian languages.

In the years since Midnight’s Children, the flexibility of Indians writing in English has only been matched by the seemingly inexhaustible malleability of English. A generation removed from his Indian roots, Daljit Nagra makes use of this malleability to tell a specifically Indian story of migration in his collection of poetry, Look We Have Coming to Dover.

This innovative use of English unfortunately belies the staid nature of much of Indian English writing. It is an exceedingly small group of Indians who are in a position to read literary fiction in English. At its broadest, the number of people reading in English does not exceed seven to eight million, drawn from of a population of more than a billion. Indian writer’s, cut off as they are from a wider readership at home, are particularly vulnerable to the cultural power of the west, about which the writer Pankaj Misra says, it ‘determines the artistic worth of, and, more importantly confers commercial value upon, work from places peripheral to the west.’

One important implication of western power in the making of writing careers is the resulting and overwhelming influence on the writer’s rendering of the home culture. The success of a work like Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner, which won popular and critical acclaim in the west for its Afghani-origin writer, sends a message that any critical look at a society formed by a fundamentalist reading of Islam must be drawn in such broad brushstrokes as Hosseini rendered the Taliban leadership. The villainy of his characters extends to paedophilia. Of course the implications at the philosophical level are disastrous: can evil ever be subtle and difficult to pin down, or is it always so obvious, so unsubtle, as in Hosseini’s depiction?

Too many Indian writers are immured in the broad brushstroke approach to Indian-ness. A generation and more have expended energy on a sort of anthropological writing, handling as curiosities what would otherwise be mundane – bindis, bangles and arranged marriage. Deciding how much of an India unfamiliar to the west may enter a work if it is to find success abroad is a constantly negotiated question for the Indian writer in English. Like Hosseini, some of these writers are immigrants to the US, while others live for extended periods of time in the west. The migrant writer is in this case like other migrant workers, someone forced by the economics of a global marketplace to travel where the work is. But the writer is unlike any other worker in that his work is determined by its accountability to audience. If there is any substance to the notion of authenticity, it rests here in the question of accountability. Nadine Gordimer said of African writing, ‘One must look at the world from Africa, to be an African writer, not look upon Africa from the world.’

Lost in the devotion to the ‘quaint’ story of India, in the accountability to the western, not Indian audience, is the answer to the question of inequity that confronts Indian society at every other turn. The Indian writer in English is a latecomer to the shifting understanding of who this nation belongs to, what story can be told about it,  and how a nation fissured, as India is, can even see its way to a whole story.

Arundathi Roy’s God of Small Things is an exquisite attempt to respond to these questions, to write into and against the schismatic nature of India. Love, this work argues, cannot be forbidden. The violent end of their mother’s forbidden love for an untouchable handyman is borne witness by twin children. They are separated, and separately endure the resultant shattering of their childhood, coming together in adulthood to violate the taboo against incest: re-enacting forbidden love. The very beauty of writing in this novel is a heartrending testament to the beauty that ultimately cannot be in life. As in life, even so in the novel, love cannot address systemic violence. In the thirteen years since the novel was written, the liberalization of the economy undertaken in 1991 has caused such rampant pillaging of the resources of the nation for the benefit of the few that Roy has said of India that it is cannibalising itself. It is significant that in the years since God of Small Things Roy has confined herself to writing non fiction.

Is the prescience of fiction, celebrated at the outset of this piece, telling us that the violence of divisions in India dooms this nation, as Roy’s characters are, to a shattered existence? Is it telling us the time for fiction is past? In answer to the former question we can only conclude that it’s hard to know, and not because Roy’s ambition for her work is limited. Not because The God Of Small Things fails to map the emotions of the nation, to fetch forth a language equal to the task of political engagement with our ideals, and certainly not for failing in its accountability to write from India. The failure here is external to the novel. A novel, however brilliant, can only project one fraction of the whole story. Though writers are celebrated for the introspective loneliness they suffer to make possible the act of creation, writing is a collective process, engaged in a dynamic relationship with the equally collective process of reading. Writers write together, deriving meaning and purpose for their work in their understanding of who else they are writing with and against.

Once again, we are back with the seven to eight million in India who have fluency in English. Of this group how many can write in the language? The national curriculum finds in English a language meaningful only for the access it provides to the commercial and bureaucratic worlds. It is not taught as the language of access to the self. When the possibility of introspection is cut off, literature is lost, lost even to those fluent in the language.

Few literary titles in English are released in India each year.

It follows that the brilliant and the skewed co-exist without the interaction necessary for critical understanding to develop, for light to be shed. Arvind Adiga’s recent readings of Indian society in The White Tiger finds a society beset by the anxiety that the oppressed may yet have their day, and possibly a murderous one. Adiga presents this anxiety so that it may then be allayed. When Balram murders his oppressive master, it is only after Adiga establishes him as singularly possessed of injured dignity, and therefore deserving of his rebelliousness. The very singularity of our hero makes impossible the notion of widespread rebellion.

There is, meanwhile, widespread rebellion in central and north India, organized anger in the form of Maoist insurgencies. In Kashmir, two decades of a separatist movement has been met with ferocity by the State. There are over a half million soldiers of the Indian army in a place where the overall population is 7.6 million.
Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie’s fictional effort at telling Kashmir’s story, sets up a masterful allegory of triangulated love—the Muslim boy, the Hindu girl and the interloping American who steals away the girl.  But it is a thin tale that turns a boy into a Jihadi to avenge his lost love. Basharat Peer’s recent Curfewed Nights is a compelling and timely non-fiction account employing novelistic elements to provide a more substantial understanding of how thwarted dignity (and not love) can result in violence.
Every piece of writing needs its corrective. But Indian writing in English is not yet informed by the critical mass necessary for a multifaceted viewing of Indian society—as it believes itself to be, as it imagines it wants to be. What we are denied is very real: the story of our engagement with violence is not only the story of Shalimar’s personal vendetta finding form in ideological violence, or Balram, broken bottle in hand retaliating against his master’s annihilating violence, but also the story of all the Balrams who don’t resort to murder, and the story of the many for whom violence is a collective, not individual weapon.

As writing and reading in English takes off in India, the resultant literature will shake off the political and cultural constraints that keep it from writing those stories that more fully write our common humanity. In the polarised world outside literature, the search for truth is about the business of one truth demolishing another. It is precisely because fiction is not in the business of truth, or at least not in the business of the one truth, that it achieves its paradoxical freedom to hold onto multiple truths. The fallacy that finds shape in the world outside fiction, the fallacy that we do not share a common humanity, finds its correction in fiction. The news from India: it is not past the time for fiction.


  1. Your essay is so much better than than the pretentious speech given by a similarly looking Ms. A.

    Your essay is well-written, and much needed.Excellent quote there by Nadine Gordimer, and a brilliant essay overall for suggesting at least two important things: that writers, though alone, are writing with/against responding to something, and that i w in english hasn't reached a critical mass. yes. i think so many brilliant stories could be told if they weren't coming from the few english speakers. it's sad thing that most of these events are also dominated by few people. even the jlfs, open to the whole world, are places where the english speaking elite come to network and connect. there isn't really any community type of interaction at all. there can't be unless people sit in circles and in small groups, and eat together. the floor will always belong to the 'important' people.

  2. p, thanks. yes, community is difficult and worth struggling for.