Do pick up a copy of this week’s Tehelka: It’s got another Indian v diaspora article by William Dalrymple, a piece by Rana Dasgupta about his Guardian article, and this:
“In regards to my little dispute with the Ayatollah Khomeini, let me point out that one of us is now dead. The moral is, don’t mess with novelists.”
Salman Rushdie, addressing students at Princeton.
On the outer fringes of the Great Indian Literary Circuit, very close to the borders of fruity insanity, are gathered the motley hordes of editors, critics, reviewers, book-page journalists, utterly confused TV crews and casteless writers such as myself (No UK publisher? Shame! Genre fiction? You call yourself human?) You shall know us by our glazed expressions and by the vegetarian delicacies we hold suspended on toothpicks near our mouths as we watch, amazed and enthralled, the vicissitudes of the intellectual giants of the literary A-list.
I wish I were an intellectual giant. The great thing about being an intellectual giant is that you can say silly things and people will take you seriously. So whether its Salman Rushdie blowtorching all Indian writers who don’t write in English, or VS Naipaul killing the Novel, intellectual giants draw splutters of outrage and passionate rebuttals instead of the quiet shudders and sympathetic glances they sometimes richly deserve.
If there’s one international literary tradition that our writers uphold almost effortlessly, it’s the glorious tradition of the literary spat. Every now and then, our more serious newspapers’ features sections are full of literary heavyweights bitching about one another, while we almost-insiders sit around in excited circles and recount old war stories – Ruchir Joshi calling Naipaul obnoxious at Neemrana, Pankaj Mishra’s savage review of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the Ramachandra Guha v William Dalrymple month-long face-off in a national magazine…it’s true. This is what we talk about. We don’t have lives. Sorry.
These arguments are occasionally really interesting – Vikram Chandra’s magic-realist rant about the authenticity of diaspora writers, for instance. But usually they’re just dead horses (or dead jeweled elephants, because we are exotic) being flogged incessantly. To find nearly every uninteresting and exhausted IWE argument reiterated in The Observer a few days ago by William Dalrymple, a writer I admire and always expect to be engaging and relevant, was disappointing to say the least – and not just because he’d made factual errors. Reading non-fiction involves a degree of trust – you hope the writer has his facts and arguments in place, and that he has something new to say. Which is why Dalrymple’s piece, where he dismisses all post-Arundhati-Roy Indian resident writers and points to the diaspora as the last brown hope, was a chilling reminder that anyone participating in the Great Indian Writing in English debate clearly has too much time on his or her hands.
Have we heard the ‘bhasha’ writers vs. Indian-English writers debate before? Have we discussed it to death, realized it’s a function of market realities and not the result of some evil imperial plot, agreed that we need many more quality translations of the many marvelous books in the many Indian languages that have well-established literary traditions and moved on?
Another chestnut – the great Indian novelists of the 80s came from elite educational institutions and were thus less qualified to write about ‘real’ India than writers from small towns. This doesn’t make sense from any angle. Is any Indian writer’s sole responsibility explaining a chimaeral ‘real’ India? Isn’t it fundamentally important to judge a book as a book? Because that’s what readers do. It’s also noteworthy that we aren’t in the 80s any more; today’s Indian writers are as diverse as their country.
It was inevitable that the post-97 hype about Indian fiction would die out. Since then, Indian writing has been growing steadily and quietly, diversifying, experimenting, expanding: Quality children’s books, non-fiction, fiction in various genres from thrillers to graphic novels. As the market gets larger, India will evolve into a mature literary nation (in English – it already has in various other languages). Already, for the first time, Indian-resident, India-published authors are trying to support themselves through writing alone, telling the stories they have to and not waste time worrying about compromises for firangi audiences. Of course, if a book finds an international audience, their lives become a lot easier. And if they’re writers without a great degree of clout, 21st-century publishing is a process of continuous compromise – adjusting their writing for a specific audience is just one of the many compromises market forces and publishing power equations force them to make.
Dalrymple’s current IWE argument of choice is about “the strangest aspect of the renaissance of Indian writing in English: the extraordinary degree to which, at least at its highest levels, it is now almost entirely written by the diaspora. As far as writing in English is concerned, not one of the Indian literary A-list actually lives in India, except Roy…It is not just that the diaspora tail is wagging the Indian dog. As far as the A-list is concerned, the diaspora tail is the dog.”
Of course, as a genre writer I have a chip on my shoulder about what constitutes ‘literature at the highest levels’, but moving beyond that, does an Indian writer become ‘diaspora’ simply by moving to a more lucrative marketplace to reach a wider audience? Author migration patterns follow market forces, it’s as simple as that. Resources flow towards locations where they can be optimally utilized, and these patterns obviously change over time. Is nationality to be measured in air-miles and visa stamps, divided by percentage of time spent in land of origin? The Indian market for Indo-Anglian fiction is tiny; is it a crime to seek greener pastures? And in any case, how does it matter if a writer acquires a new passport and a new address as long as the writer keeps producing quality work? Literature isn’t a competitive sport – it’s not the Olympics, and it’s not Miss Universe. Do we criticize British actors and directors for jumping on the Hollywood bandwagon because there’s no money in the British film industry, while sniggering about how the Indian film industry is so much more developed than the UK’s?
Most A-list Indian-origin authors are, like contemporary literary stars from any country, constantly traveling and completely comfortable dividing their time between countries. In his article, Dalrymple, a writer Indian readers and reviewers have always been glad to clasp fondly to India’s super-absorbent and fragrant bosom, does acknowledge the hypocrisy of the establishment which criticizes Indians for leaving their country while writers in the West are perfectly free to live wherever they want – consider his own considerable achievements as a Scottish writer living and writing in India (Aside for book journalists: Dalrymple’s great-great-great-grandmother was Bengali, so he’s just marginally less Indian than fellow Brits Rana Dasgupta or Hari Kunzru).
In his Observer article, Dalrymple then treads slippery ground when he reveals why Indian literature hasn’t lived up to its promise: no Booker wins since Arundhati Roy. So Indian writers living in India are not only supposed to chronicle the real India, but do it in a manner that wins them awards in the UK. Over the last few years, Indian-origin writers have either won or been shortlisted for nearly every high-brow literary prize in the west. Do we really need to make a list of great books that haven’t won the Booker? When Roy won her Booker, we applauded, just as we would if Ewan MacGregor won a Filmfare. But foreign awards are not the Holy Grail of Indian literature, nor can their juries determine Indian literary merit. We can do that on our own, thank you very much. Though if Indians (local, traveling, second-generation diasporic or fourth-generation resident guests) win awards, we will celebrate long and loud.
And if we ever want to put a temporary stop to IWE literary spats, we’ll have to organize an actual televised writers’ wrestling contest where our literary heavyweights can settle the score once and for all. Not-So-Young Men in Spats, we shall call it; there will be no Eggs, Beans or Crumpets present, but there will be a lot of Nuts. Sir Vidia, clearly the Hulk Hogan of Indian writing, and his followers will slug it out with Rowdy Rushdie and innocent passers-by in a gut-wrenching, epic battle of blood, sweat and ink. And when the dust has settled and the million-pound contracts have been signed, hopefully everyone involved will see how silly all of this is and get back to writing really good books.