Tryst with westerny

Granta 57: India! The Golden Jubilee - The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-97 - The God of Small Things

June 27, 1997

Of the three books about India reviewed here, Arundhati Roy's is a novel, and the other two volumes are collections of fiction and nonfiction. Most of the contributors are of Indian origin, beneficiaries of one of the most striking features of the current literary scene in Britain and the United States: a level of popularity for Indian fiction in English which has reached a pitch that was totally inconceivable only a generation ago.

Names like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth are today difficult to escape, even among those who do not read novels - though Ayatollah Khomeini has more to do with Rushdie's fame than the latter would wish. Few would deny that Rushdie's Booker of Bookers prize-winning novel, Midnight's Children, published in 1981, is a work of real verve and invention. Seth's voluminous novel, A Suitable Boy, has been very widely read and enjoyed. Now Arundhati Roy's first novel, The God of Small Things, showcased in Granta 57, has become a hot literary property, with a prepublication advance of $1 million (even more than Seth received before publication) from publishers firmly convinced that Roy's potential sales will recoup their outlay many times over. The current issue of The New Yorker has been entirely turned over to fiction and nonfiction about India. We have even been informed by the publicity agent of Donald Trump that his inimitable employer has taken Rushdie's latest novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, to read on the beach.

As the titles of the two collections remind us, 1997 is the 50th anniversary of the ending of the British Raj. While this is true, politically speaking, in a very important cultural sense, the Raj has still not quit India; it can even be argued that its hegemony is stronger than ever. After 1947, there were Indian politicians who made a serious attempt to change India's ruling ethos from one based on English to one founded on Hindi. But one of the central facts about postindependence India is that although over 50 per cent of Indians can understand Hindi, the project to make Hindi the effective national language has not succeeded.

Quite the contrary: in this time of globalisation, profound developments in the economic and information fields have made the position of English in India more secure than ever. The past decade has seen two western invasions of India: by consumer goods manufacturers penetrating the hitherto protected Indian market, and by MTV and other western channels filling the TV screens in many millions of Indian homes. The goods, cultural emblems and standards, and language of the Anglo-American world are now present in India to an unprecedented degree, and are challenging its cultural traditions with relentless force. Although less than 5 per cent of Indians are thought to speak English with any fluency - a fact that should never be forgotten when considering India - the western popularity of fiction about India in English lends substance to the long-running idea that English may one day displace India's many native languages and become the national language of the future.

Prior to the 1980s, there were, of course, serious novels about India that became international bestsellers, novels such as E. M. Forster's A Passage to India and John Masters's Bhowani Junction. Other "Anglo-Indian" novelists like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, J. G. Farrell, and Paul Scott achieved wide circulation and critical success. But Rushdie, and those who have followed him, were the first "Indo-Anglian" writers to break through into the English-language market on a comparable scale.

This situation raises several interesting questions. What is the quality of this latest wave of Indo-Anglian literature that makes it so fashionable? What will be the effect on the Indian vernacular literatures which are not remotely as financially rewarding? Will the cleverest writers in India write in English, leaving old-established literatures in Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Urdu and so on, to second-raters - a literary version of the brain drain? And to what extent can writing in English capture Indian sensibilities?

On this last question, consider the differing views of the doyen of Indian novelists in English, R. K. Narayan, and the doyen of Indian nonfiction writers in English, Nirad C. Chaudhuri (100 years old this year) - both of whom are represented in these two collections. Narayan's mother tongue is Tamil, but his entire output of fiction is in English. Chaudhuri writes in both English and Bengali (his undisputed masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, was written in English), but refuses to allow his Bengali books to be translated into English because he believes no such translation could do justice to the originals: he becomes a different person when he writes in Bengali, he has remarked. He once told me that he doubted whether even 10 percent of the greatness of India's sole Nobel laureate in literature, the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, could be conveyed in English translation.

To Rushdie, such qualms will seem exaggerated. In his combative introduction to The Vintage Anthology of Indian Writing 1947-97, he tries to confront head on the basic strictures of Indian critics against Indo-Anglian literature as a genre: that English is a colonial tongue, necessarily alien in India; that Indian novelists in English, whose leading figures so often live abroad, are "deracinated to the point where their work lacks the spiritual dimension essential to a 'true' understanding of the soul of India"; that they have acquired disproportionately large international reputations compared with vernacular writers because of the strength of English as a global language. A defiant Rushdie equates English with Urdu as a language that came to India from outside but has now been thoroughly naturalised there. He claims: "It is part of the achievement of the writers in this volume to have found literary voices as distinctively Indian, and also as suitable for any and all of the purposes of art, as those other Englishes forged in Ireland, Africa, the West Indies, and the United States."

Rushdie's belief that English can be regarded as being as Indian as Urdu overlooks the close relationship between Urdu and Hindi. They use different scripts, and Urdu tends to draw upon Persian for much of its vocabulary while Hindi draws on Sanskrit, but Urdu has the same grammar as Hindi, and shares with it a huge basic vocabulary. Whereas English, structurally, has as much in common with any Indian language as Icelandic. To equate the stature of English in India and in black Africa also seems misconceived: unlike Indian languages, the native languages of black Africa have not until quite recently been written ones, and have no comparably rich literary traditions. As for the comparison with the role of English in Ireland, the United States, and the West Indies, let us just note that in India, English is not the language of the mass of people in any province. Although tens of millions of Indians do speak English, it is hardly their main language of thought. One would have thought that this fact creates a basic problem for Indo-Anglian writers in trying to enter the thoughts and feelings of their characters, let alone in conveying these convincingly to non-Indian readers.

The Anglo-American shabash! (Hindi for "hooray!") reviewers of the young Indo-Anglian novelists have been oblivious to this problem. They have taken it for granted that these Indian writers are the authentic literary voice of contemporary India. A London reviewer of Rohinton Mistry's novel, A Fine Balance, enthuses breathlessly: "(It) is the Indian novel, the novel readers have been waiting for ever since E. M. Forster and J. G. Farrell." A London reviewer of Upamanyu Chatterjee's novel The Last Burden opines: "The world of lower-middle class India is Chatterjee's as it is no other Indian's." Another writes of Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain: "(His) imagination is of a scale and richness commensurate to his native India."

As an Indian, I am startled by the overwhelming cultural solipsism displayed in these assessments. Note what is being said: if you seek the most authentic fictional renderings of Indian life, do not look among the writings of those who write in the mother tongues of hundreds of millions of Indians, with an ancient heritage beginning with Sanskrit literature - but read what Forster, Farrell, Rushdie, Seth, Mistry and the like write in a language which less than 5 per cent of Indians speak, and almost all of those as a second language. Proportionately, perhaps as many Russians as Indians speak English. Would anyone claim that Russia's authentic literary voice can be in English?

Max Hayward and Manya Harari, the gifted English translators of Doctor Zhivago, apologise in their preface to the novel for being able to give only a faint idea of the flavour of Pasternak's Russian prose and rendering of Russian speech. Anyone who tackles Tolstoy in Russian will see how he acquires a far richer dimension, untranslatable into English. Yet here we have the Indo-Anglians and their critical backers assuming that English is sufficient to give literary expression to Indian life. It is as if Russian writers of the last century had accepted the notion that French, the fashionable language of the Russian aristocracy, should be their literary language. (Tolstoy and Turgenev, for example, had perfect French.) Would such a literature, written in a language which was not that of the mass of the people, have achieved the psychological and philosophical depth, the oneness with Russian life, of the 19th-century Russian literature we know?

According to Rushdie, in his introduction, the trouble with Indian vernacular literature is that too often it does not have anything very interesting to say. He states that he and his co-editor set out "to make the best possible selection from what is presently available in the English language, including, obviously, work in translation. To our considerable astonishment, only one translated text - S. H. Manto's masterpiece, the short story "Toba Tek Singh" - made the final cut." (Here, most tellingly, he overlooks the fact that another of his chosen stories, by Satyajit Ray, is in fact a translation from Bengali by the author.) Rushdie is unequivocal: "The prose writing - both fiction and nonfiction - created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the ... so called 'vernacular languages' during the same time ...". He approvingly quotes V. S. Naipaul to the effect that too much Indian vernacular fiction is steeped in spiritual, mystic themes, and mysticism makes for bad fiction. He even claims that "this new, and still burgeoning, 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution that India has yet made to the world of books."

After such a fanfare, the reader may find it a disappointing experience to sample this marvellous literature from Rushdie's extracts. For instance, he has picked a callow, unfunny exercise in rendering 20th-century Indian history in satirical terms written by Shashi Tharoor, in which a Colonel Rudyard carries out a mass slaughter of Indian civilians modelled on the 1919 Amritsar massacre of General Dyer, and Indian terrorists seeking vengeance mistakenly assassinate a Professor Kipling. But Rushdie does not even mention, let alone include anything from, the ferocious, scarifying, satire of Indian postindependence political decadence found in the novel The Saga of Dharmapuri by the Malayalam writer O. V. Vijayan, a work which Vijayan himself has ably translated into English, leading David Selbourne to compare it in an admiring Times Literary Supplement review with Jonathan Swift.

The anthology has several pages of gushing, name-dropping reminiscence of 1947 New Delhi by Nehru's niece Nayantara Saghal, in which you learn about how Lord Mountbatten ate strawberry ice-cream and looked divine. But it has no space for one of the searing short stories about the poor of the great realist Manik Bandyopadhyay, famous in India for his Bengali novel Padma River Boatman, a sombre, bitter, unforgettable evocation of the desperate existence of Bengali fisherfolk, reminding one of the best of Gorky and Solzhenitsyn. Rushdie does not even mention Bandyopadhyay.

Such a renowned and widely translated work as T. S. Pillai's Malayalam novel Chemeen, also set among fisherfolk, does not rate a mention from our great aficionado of "vintage" Indian literature; nor does Pillai's landmark study of Untouchable sufferings, translated into English as Scavenger's Son.

First-rate writing is rare in any language, but in the most recent Indo-Anglian writing, there is a patent oversupply of frivolity: it gives the impression of writing that is terrified of getting serious about India's cultural heritage and social travails lest it bores the British and American audience it primarily has in mind. Its unspoken motto seems to be Toujours pour amuser les Americains et les Anglais. One understands, of course: that is how to bring home the bacon in a big way.

Thus a favoured subject is the competitive snobbery of the westernised upper classes, related typically in a bantering, bitchy style, not going deeply into anything about them that might be genuinely unfamiliar. Thus, too, the majority of Indians, who are not at all wealthy, are generally seen from outside, as a colourful, swarming, inescapable rabble, or else the subject of anthropological description.

This is India as the backcloth for the adventures of westernised Indians with whom westerners can identify: India as a bottomless source of the picturesque and grotesque, to be raided for western entertainment. In Rushdie's collection, amid all the Indo-Anglian superiority, a melodramatic piece like "The teacher's story" by Gita Mehta about a blind singer, stands out for at least trying to convey some of the finer, unique aspects of Indian culture with fidelity. Predictably, Rushdie represents Rohinton Mistry with an innocuous short story about a Parsi stamp collector, rather than extracting a chapter from A Fine Balance, a novel exceptional among recent Indo-Anglian work for the seriousness and sensitivity of its portrayal of Indian poverty.

In his off-hand dismissal of mysticism in Indian vernacular writing, Rushdie unwittingly betrays his outsider's view of Indian culture. It does not occur to him or to Naipaul that Hindu mysticism can be as authentic and distinctive a literary theme for an Indian writer as the question of God's existence was to many of the great Russian writers, and whose centrality to that literature so utterly bewildered 19th and early 20th-century western critics with their secular assumptions. Thus, Rushdie dutifully mentions the distinguished Kannada novelist U. R. Anantha Murthy, but not his novel, Samskara, famous in India, with its complex religious theme dealing with the decay of Brahmin culture, and its fine English translation by the accomplished Tamil poet A. K. Ramanujan (one of whose poems appears in The New Yorker). He wants his anthology to be entertaining, rather than challenging and all encompassing.

Arundhati Roy's generous publishers, for similar reasons, have probably made a good bet. Her book, set in my home state of Kerala, in the far south of India, has all the qualities which should tickle the western palate. Her characters tend towards the agreeably bizarre. The two children at the centre of the story are twins, each of whom has the remarkable faculty of experiencing events and thoughts that happen to the other. Their grandfather is a retired entomologist embittered by his failure to have a moth he had identified named after him. Thus: "Pappachi's Moth was held responsible for his black moods and sudden bouts of temper. Its pernicious ghost - grey, furry and with unusually dense dorsal tufts - haunted every house that he ever lived in." Then there is Uncle Chacko. His passions are advocating Marxism while running his pickle factory and, once a month, except during the monsoon, assembling a new balsa toy aircraft which invariably crashes immediately. Roy is as clever at wordplay as any Indo-Anglian writer, including Rushdie, and Kerala's unusual mixture of religions and its political background as a place where communist governments have long held elected power, give her ample scope for maintaining an endless series of verbal jokes.

There is much exoticism. It is instructive to see how cosily Gerald Durrell-like are Roy's efforts to evoke Kerala - "Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun" - compared to the descriptions of Kerala's landscape and atmosphere in O. V. Vijayan's entrancing, mysterious Malayalam novel The Legends of Khasak. But Vijayan has no anglicised Pappachi and Uncle Chacko, and is a Hindu mystic to boot: Anglo-American readers will not know what to make of him. As a Keralite I know that the history of social movements in Kerala is a stirring one; but any deep exploration of that would require the kind of weightiness that would never do. Instead, Roy gives the whole scene a marketably dotty air. When she does try to work up a tragedy out of the killing by police of an Untouchable man who has an affair with the twins' mother, so deliberately unreal are all her characters that one is unmoved. The God of Small Things works only as smart entertainment.

That is certainly the impression created by the special issue of Granta, put together by Ian Jack, as a tribute to what he calls "India's golden jubilee" (complete with an excited exclamation mark in its title). The event is, of course, only the 50th year of India's independence from Britain - a very different thing. Jack's introduction to his selection of writings by various hands - mostly well known, some Indian, some western (unlike Rushdie's collection) - is a veritable compendium of the unseeing western reporter's cliches about the subcontinent. To call it underpowered would be to exaggerate its strength. Granta, usually reliable in discovering substantial work, would never have attempted to get away with this had the country in question been, say, Russia or Japan.

Like many British observers, Jack seems to go gingerly lest he offend the allegedly "anticolonial" sensitivities of the Indian elite by speaking too frankly about Indian poverty and illiteracy. He prefaces his remarks on the topic by enthusing about how well the rich are doing out of globalisation: he welcomes the India of Bill Gates rather than Gandhi. He has little to say about the poor except that government statistics on their numbers fluctuate wildly. Reading Jack, you would think an Indian authority like the economist Amartya Sen, who has devoted decades of distinguished and illuminating work to establishing the nature of Indian poverty and development, did not exist. As for his selection, there is nothing to get excited about. The extract from V. S. Naipaul's diary about an Indian visit is over 20 years old; the pieces by Nirad Chaudhuri, Mark Tully, Anita Desai and Ved Mehta go through their familiar themes. There are no vernacular writers, and, in contrast to Rushdie, Jack does not attempt to defend their exclusion. Indeed, he does not seem to know such Indians even exist.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Granta 57: India! The Golden Jubilee

Editor - Ian Jack
ISBN - 0 903141 04 3
Publisher - Granta
Price - £7.99
Pages - 288

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