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IWE Spats: Tehelka

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.


About Samit Basu

Novelist. Best known for fantasy and science fiction work. Most recently, The City Inside (Tordotcom)/Chosen Spirits (Simon and Schuster)


25 thoughts on “IWE Spats: Tehelka

  1. Simply amazing……
    extremely well written Samit!

    Posted by Unjustified Insanity~~ | September 3, 2005, 10:26 am
  2. “intellectual giants draw splutters of outrage and passionate rebuttals instead of the quiet shudders and sympathetic glances they sometimes richly deserve.” My favourite bit from this piece. Oh so true, and really nicely put.

    Posted by Roshan | September 3, 2005, 11:47 am
  3. What can i say,it leaves me speechless.

    Posted by Someone Somewhere | September 3, 2005, 12:06 pm
  4. Fantastic post; I think its time we stopped focusing so much on the writer and got on to reading a little more! I dont think the average reader cares if the writer is from Doon school or the most pathetic corporation school, or for that matter about magic realism or any other -ism so long as the writing is great.

    Posted by apu | September 3, 2005, 2:14 pm
  5. brilliant.

    Posted by Teleute | September 3, 2005, 3:07 pm
  6. Darling, you ROCK! And genre fiction IS “literature at the highest levels”, end of argument.
    (Now are you or are you not sending Manticore’s Secret on Gmail?)

    Posted by Jabberwock | September 3, 2005, 4:49 pm
  7. first up, samit, it’s a brilliant post. you deserve every adjective used above, and more.

    i do have, however, a few questions, and i can’t in all honesty stand up and defend (all of)them if you accuse me of nitpicking.

    Isn’t it fundamentally important to judge a book as a book?
    while i completely agree with you there, i’m sure you wouldn’t disagree that most don’t. i’m being snobbish here and generally excluding the ‘average/non-academic’ reader, but even among them, a text comes with its baggage, which is why you’re a genre fiction writer, not just a brilliantly hilarious writer. the label of (one of?)india’s first sci-fi writer is perhaps a compliment, most certainly a market attraction, but predominantly, it is. if you get my drift.
    the same goes for post colonial writing (oral novels, for example. i have always found the concept singularly…oxymoronic), womens writing, kid lit. i see that you don’t deny the existence of distinction in writing, but even then, the global readership is perhaps way past the point where a book is just a book.

    As the market gets larger, India will evolve into a mature literary nation–my wishes and prayers, samit, my wishes and prayers. post-60s australia is supposed to have stopped writing back or to to the west, as its own readership has come of age, but when placed in the context of this country, the task seems mammoth. the diversity, which you mention, is a two way thing, a blessing and a curse. will there ever truly be a global indian market in literature? this isn’t something i know anything abt, so i will take your word for it, and hope you are right.

    and i realise this is getting ridiculously long, so i shall call it quits. it’s not like it matters much, anyway.

    Posted by Rimi | September 3, 2005, 6:04 pm
  8. er, if you can send me a link or a copy of vikram chandra’s “…magic-realist rant about the authenticity of diaspora writers…”, i’d be…er, grateful 😀

    Posted by Rimi | September 3, 2005, 6:07 pm
  9. thanks v much all. most kind of you to write.

    the vikram chandra piece is at http://www.bostonreview.net/BR25.1/chandra.html

    Posted by samit | September 3, 2005, 6:37 pm
  10. Thanks for the nice post. But I think this whole debate about IWE (resident and exported) is getting increasingly circular. Why in the first place should there be such horribly facetious category as IWE. Ever heard of Spanish writers being called South Americans Writing in Spanish? These categorisations are symptomatic of a very deep insecurity. An adolescent fascination with ‘fitting in’. An ‘Oh I am so shit scared of being myself’ syndrome. I think we’ll truly arrive in the world of literature when we do away with such juvenile categories. Writers are (or should be) writers. The language is but a tool. It’s the idea that is supreme. And ideas have no passports. Bickering about language and residence is silly. And it’s about time Indians stopped these petty debates.

    Posted by MAHARAJADHIRAJ | September 4, 2005, 1:32 am
  11. Maharaj, your point is linked to English being accepted as an Indian language as distinct from a ‘phoren’ language.

    Ducky, Sir V as the Hulk Hogan of IWE? Man, I’d spend an hour ROTFL if it weren’t for the insult to Mr. Hogan.

    You, Sir, are the little boy who shouts “But the Emperor has no clothes!”


    Posted by J. Alfred Prufrock | September 4, 2005, 3:34 am
  12. Amazing…
    Certainly opens our eyes to the cynics of the world.

    Posted by Shobhik | September 4, 2005, 5:43 am
  13. Funny! Gotta go and get your book dude..

    Posted by zap | September 4, 2005, 6:15 am
  14. 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.

    the same is true for fiction, but then, realizing that, in itself needs a bit more maturity. The problem with many of us writers is that we have to survive on market terms, when we choose to make it our living. Maybe the answer isn’t really in writing to live. There needs to be an object, something more substantial than filling in our pocket books. The west has a good way of tackling this – Wallace stevens used to be an Insurance salesman, Eliot used to be with Lyolds Bank. The scene changed today to waiting tables and selling dogs in stands, and the arts as a permformance still gets respected. With our impeccable white collar education in India, I’m sure that is not possible. This indicates a certain lack of humility, at least from the experiential point of view, a must for good writing.

    The problem of Indian writers finding acceptance abroad is not really a problem – and neither does it reflect on the quality of Indian writing, but maybe, something fundamental – heteroglossia, a term linguists use to identify the role of context in understanding text, makes all the difference. And it ain’t difficult to realize that sometimes most of us writers, especially the young ones, have seen little and are immature enough, and maybe, we deserve just what we get (or maybe even more than what we deserve)?

    A colleague and sympathizer

    Posted by pathor | September 4, 2005, 8:44 am
  15. Top post. Lovely stuff.

    Posted by amit varma | September 4, 2005, 2:51 pm
  16. Brilliant!

    …and I think you have a great idea for a reality tv show there.

    Posted by Aishwarya | September 4, 2005, 4:05 pm
  17. amazing post. full of life. unlike ur passport pic on telegraph collumn. u look like a smiling cadavar in rigor mortis there. cheers.

    Posted by #3tiYo>B_shyo> | September 4, 2005, 4:54 pm
  18. jai: no can do. i would have a heart attack.

    again, thanks so much all of you. grinning from ear to ear

    Posted by samit | September 4, 2005, 7:30 pm
  19. A very well written blog. You have the makings of a comic writer. I see a Joshi, Kunzru or a Smith there. Try writing The Great Indian Comedy.

    Posted by Amit Chatterji | September 5, 2005, 6:04 pm
  20. 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.


    Let’s do it then!


    Posted by John | September 6, 2005, 7:51 am
  21. Samit, enjoyed reading your comments on the recent IWE spat. Seems I’ll have to put all the points together somewhere. It’s incredibly interesting.

    Posted by Zafar Anjum | September 7, 2005, 8:46 am
  22. Migration from one colony to another within the same city can have an influence on one’s life and work. And we are talking contients here. Surely, much a I agree with most of your post, you can’t be saying that leaving one country for another can noot have any effect on one’s writing? One writes what one experiences.

    Posted by shaun | September 9, 2005, 3:47 pm
  23. Well-written piece, though I don’t entirely agree that a book can be independent of its writer and the compromises he makes while moving to greener pastures, as you say. If it’s a compromise, then the writer is losing something (why else would one call it a compromise?). Doesn’t that loss arising out of the compromise affect the goodness of the book?

    The argument would be more relevant to literary writing which makes a claim of being realistic than to genre writing.

    Speaking of Naipaul, I am sure he deserves being called Hulk Hogan or offensive or arrogant, but his intellect and insight stand head and shoulders above other writers.

    Posted by Paritosh Uttam | November 11, 2005, 2:01 pm
  24. Great article!

    By the way, have you read Shashi Tharoor’s “Bookless in Baghdad”? Not only does he go into the turmoil of being an writer of Indian origin, but as a “intellectual giant” he has the liberty to criticize other writers. Check it out if you can.

    Nice site – congrats on your book!

    Posted by Indigo Bubbles | December 31, 2005, 4:43 am
  25. very wise, ducky. thank you. i have learned something today.

    saw your book II on the stands.
    for book III, get the guy who does “Anita Bomba” to do your cover. I’m not kidding, Samit.

    His name is Didier Cromwell. He’s probably expensive, but open to offers that can’t be refused.

    Posted by Fadereu | March 28, 2006, 2:59 am

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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
September 2005


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