Stories across a continent

Kunapipi Journal of Post-colonial Writing
June 19, 1998

This rewarding miscellany of creative and critical writing, guest edited by Shirley Chew, celebrates 50 years of Indian and Pakistani independence. The eclecticism of the contributions included is in marked contrast to the usual western critical gaze, which is fixed almost exclusively on Indian novels written in English. The recent anthology of post-independence Indian writing edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West was symptomatic.

The Kunapipi collection includes poems and prose translated from a variety of Indic languages from writers who live in the subcontinent together with those living in other parts of the world, which serves to remind us that there is no easy match between the two modern nation states and the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity of their populations. What appears to link the various contributions to the ostensive theme of the volume is the way in which they reflect the troubled post-independence history of South Asia, and seem to engage in an intertextual debate. For example, the opening poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translated from Urdu by Shoaib Hashmi) describes Pakistan's "dawn of freedom" as "This leprous brightness, this dawn which reeks of night." As though in answer, Kishwar Naheed (also translated by Hashmi) pleads with her "self-proclaimed masters":

"Do not teach me to hate my own land of the burning sun / for the same sun dries my washing in my courtyard / and bears me a harvest of gold in the field."

Saadat Hasan Manto's excoriating short story, "It Happened in 1919" shows how the mindless chauvinism engendered by the Rowlatt Acts in Punjab prefigured the violent horrors of partition in 1947. Manto's story contrasts with the encomium to revolutionary violence contained in Shankar's film, Bharateeyudu (1996), searchingly analysed in an essay by Tejaswini Niranjana and S. V. Srinivas. Set against the basso profondo of competing atomic detonations, these interrogations of the conventional narratives of national independence become even more compelling.

Ranjana Ash, in her commentary on her own translation of the Bengali novelist, Mahasweta Devi, speaks of "India's many nationalisms". Part of the strength of this collection is in its making those "many nationalisms" live. From Lakshmi Holmstrom's striking translation from the Tamil of a Dalit (increasingly used as a generic term for the oppressed) woman's biography, to the transnational world of the diasporic Pakistani woman in Aamer Hussein's subtle short story, "Sweet Rice" which is suffused with the nostalgia of exile ("don't look back and above all don't smell or sniff, it only takes you back to places surrendered") or to the demographically threatened Parsees in Bapsi Sidwa's novel, An American Brat, in which the mother's laconic, "She wants to marry a non" takes on a surprising pathos, we experience the clashes and complexities of a vast and culturally diverse subcontinent.

One of the most thought-provoking essays is by Shashi Deshpande. Herself a notable English-language novelist, Deshpande discusses the relationship of the anglophone writer to Indian culture and to writing in indigenous Indic languages. She laments the low level of critical discussion that lazily assumes that the English-language writers are pre-eminent because they are the ones we can read. She blames both the academic critics, who are characterised as exchanging impenetrable jargon among themselves, and the journalists of whom she observes, "Post-Shobha De, a flippant, wise-cracking style has been perfected and is used indiscriminately for all books". She concludes that: "however exciting and lively the scene in English writing (by Indians) has becomeI if we look at it dispassionately we will find that most of the excitement is media-generated and exaggerated".

In the West, at least, much of the interest in South Asian writing is in how this writing "represents" the subcontinent. It is easy to forget that for the writer in indigenous languages, there is no compulsion to provide explanations for the putative English reader. For example, Nirmal Verma's enigmatic and haunting short story, "Terminal" (translated here from Hindi by Alok Bhalla) is devoid of any culturally specific points of reference (save the rather misleading one of tickets to The Magic Flute). Its three protagonists are unnamed, the city in which it is located, dream-like and anonymous. In other words the story's cultural specificity is wholly linguistic - a point that is, of course, lost in translation. Verma, as a literary modernist, consciously rejects the importance assigned to location in the classical novel. But as Amitav Ghosh discusses in his lecture, "The march of the novel through history" (reprinted here), in the very act of fictionalising a location, an authorial distancing has occurred. What Ghosh describes as "the peculiar paradox of the novel", is that "those of us who love novels often read them because of the eloquence with which they convey a 'sense of place'. Yet the truth is that it is the very loss of a lived sense of place that makes its fictional representation possible."

If Ghosh is right, and I suspect he is, then arguments about a writer's capacity to provide us with a representative "inner voice", quarrels about "authenticity" based on language or residence cannot, without endless qualification, be either affirmed or denied. A writer like Rukhsana Ahmad, represented here by a powerful short story, "After Life", may have lived in Britain for a long time, but her plays, short stories and translations are profoundly linked to her motherland and tongue. As Deshpande puts it: "We need the cross-talk between all the literatures in our country and we need critics who will make this possible." Kunapipi's current issue has made an enthralling contribution to the "cross talk".

Ronald Warwick is a freelance writer and lecturer, who was formerly literature officer, Commonwealth Institute.

Kunapipi Journal of Post-colonial Writing: Special Issue: India and Pakistan 1947-1997: A Celebration

Editor - Shirley Chew
ISBN - 0106 5734
Publisher - Dangaroo
Price - £6.95 each; £20.00/year
Pages - 183

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