The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 3, 2002
Lead Article

At home in the world Which world, pray?
Ashwini Bhatnagar

SOME time back, the old crumbling fort was taken over by an enterprising businessman and given a complete makeover. The years of undergrowth were cleared and neat lawns with flowerbeds surrounding them were developed. The interiors were redesigned to preserve the ethnicity of artefacts even as conveniences and smells of a super deluxe modern-day hotel were injected into the medieval building. The cramped winding staircases that lead from one level of the fort to another are still there but they now reverberate loudly with sounds of different tongues. At the every best, the local dialect is heard as a hushed whisper in these precincts.


Naipaul with wife Nadira
Naipaul with wife Nadira

The fort stands at an elevation, dressed up. The ill-clothed Neemrana village lies at its feet below. There was a time when the two related to each other. The fort was a part of the village and the village was crowned by the fort. There was synergy between the two. But the times have changed. The fort is now a showpiece for a different set of people. It offers them the perfect combo — a slice of local lifestyle that has been cellophane-wrapped at the right places. It is a bit unreal, but, as of today, it is said to be at home in the world.

Perhaps the Neemrana Fort retreat for writers attending the International Festival of Indian Literature: At Home in the World itself typified the unreality that exists about Indian writing in English. It is there like the brick and mortar fort and has been lighted up from all vantage angles. At night it looks like a fairy castle. During the day very functional and utilitarian to its new inhabitants. Yet there is an unreal feel about the writing. Like the fort, its scale is grand, its contours bewitching, its ambience delectably exotic and its use niche-specific. It has rooms that open to panaromic views that go beyond the immediate horizon. But from the sweep of the skies and the high-rise existence come the questions— where is home? Mobile or fixed identity? And, ironically, who is an Indian writer?

Writers Farah, Vikram Seth, Naipaul and Ghosh at the meeting
Writers Farah, Vikram Seth, Naipaul and Ghosh at the meeting

Lunch time in Neemrana
Lunch time in Neemrana

These questions are legitimate for the new ‘brand’ of writing that has entered the market -place. It is said to have a universal tongue and, therefore, a bigger audience. The themes, style and content too have transcended local and regional barriers and the storyteller has evolved from being ‘my grandmother’ to the kindly spirit that reaches out to the listener en masse. The cultural rootedness has hence been replaced by multi culturalism where the writer comes with a roaming facility. To quote Anil Ramdas who lives and works in Holland, "A writer cannot be limited by geography." Says Sitanshu Yashaschandra, "I refuse to be dominated by any language, even if it is my mother tongue."

Yet the best Indian writing in English emerged out of the limitation of geography. RK Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulkraj Anand were the pioneers who wrote about their immediate environ only. They were followed by writers like Khushwant Singh and the new kids on the block — Vikram Seth, Allan Sealy, Amitava Ghosh, Arundhati Roy and David Davidar. All of them have used English as if it was their own mother tongue and as such it comes out as a language of imagination and not of power.

Thus, while in the East and the North, writers like Prem Chand, Manto, Bedi, Amrita Pritam, Pharishwarnath Renu wrote in their own tongues about the life and times of the people around them, in the South the same earthy flavour emanated from the anchalik sahitya of Narayan and Rao writing in a foreign language, viz English. It was only a medium of communicating the joys and sorrows of the characters as well as the typical sights, sounds, smells and senstivities of individuals and communities living within a geographical space. The English writer, in fact, was merely an intrument for translation of the nuances of everyday life into a language that had a reach across the narrow geographical confines. It was a language of imagination that made the local soil light up and sparkle, and there was a truth about this sparkle.

The debate today is not only about the locale and the tongue. It is also about truth and the rubbishing of it. Therefore, it is about subjectivity and each Indian writer in English has a viewpoint. Said Ramdas about Sir VS Naipaul, "He works very hard and talks to a lot of people, so he tends to think that what he writes is the truth. He was asked on Dutch television that even though he had written India: A wounded civilization, was he optimistic about the country? He said that it wasn’t about optimism, it was the truth." "And I am God," upcoming writer Ruchir Joshi added mocking the Nobel Prize winner. The one-book-old Joshi later went on to call Naipaul ‘obnoxious.’ Naipaul himself found Shashi Despande and Nayantara Sehgal’s views on colonialism and oppression banal and irritating.

The furious exchanges apart, a whole generation of writers have come about who have to reach down to scoop a handful of Indian life in order to put it before their writerly gaze. They are not the milieu, rather they sample the milieu while passing by. It is out of such samplings that books in the Enlish language are being written and are being talked about at cocktail parties. The milieu has ceased to be important. The sample rendering in the ‘language of power’ has gained ascendency over it. So, on the one hand, writing in English is one with pretenders like Shobha De, on the other hand, it is obsessed with the outpourings from the aging loins of Khushwant Singh. Every hack aspires to evolve into a writer. However, it is the rarest of rare Khushwant Singh who starts off as a writer and then dissolves into being a gossip hack. The gravy train got him, or perhaps the muse that visited him early in his innings could not find accomodation when he fitted himself in the bulb! The autobiography and the books preceding it, with just a few exceptions, amply prove the point.

Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth

Shashi Deshpande
Shashi Deshpande

Writers in other languages are understandably upset that even trash gets hype and advances when written in the language of power, while brilliant works in other languages are consigned to areas of darkness. Most Indian writers in English, they claim, get away with mere packaging of a story with local elements. Eminent Bangla writer Sunil Gangopadhyay points at the ‘lack of resonance’ in such writing. He told interviewers in Neemrana, "Regional writing has a wealth of details and subtle play of sentiments. The dilemma of their characters is readily identifiable. This is impossible or, let’s say, the plausibility is severely compromised in English. That’s why we do not see what’s widespread in language literature: writing with a minimal plot, barely a hint of a storyline. These writers are exploring the realm of mute experiences rather than overt action. And they work, because language itself has layers of imagery, connotations, resonance. I’ve yet to come across such writing among those who are writing in English. Where’s the poetic element that would permeate my consciousness when I’ve put the book back on the shelf? Where is the resonance that’s the hallmark of a timeless piece?"

But there is no denying the fact that English has become as much Indian as any of the 28 languages. The debate is not over whether one should write in English or not, but the authencity of what is written. A touristy look at Indian lives and times is off-putting, and, unfortuantely, this is what has been happening over the last several years, save a few exceptions. One perhaps is Amitava Ghosh who believes that writing comes out of a passion whether it is for a beloved, community or the country. But can the involvement come from utter rootlessness that many writers wear like a badge of honour? How far can the writing go with the ‘psychological condition of exile’, alientaion or imagined homes? Anita Rao Badami typifies her state when she says, "Permanent dislocation is my reality. I will never forget it and it will remain a part of me." Richard Castra claimed that he is as familiar with Bugs Bunny as with the Ramayana. Anil Ramdas put it across in one fell swoop, "Writers don’t need the word belonging or identity."

But it lingers, and Naipaul’s continuing engagement with exile is different from that of Khushwant Singh’s or of others who had to migrate from Pakistan in 1947. "Yours is a five-star exile. You are exiles out of choice. I had no choice." The resonance of the writing of each of them, therefore, is different and the question of identity is now on and now off. The same holds true for alienation, which becomes puerile if the writer’s involvement through storytelling is not passionate. The felt experience segregates it from a mere sampling of it.

It is mainly from this viewpoint that the present-day writers are different from writers of a bygone era. Nayaran could imagine Malgudi and let his characters play out their parts in it because there was no dichotomy between what he experienced, saw, imagined and wrote about. They drew sustenance from a very real existence and did not need any explaining even to a foreign gaze. They had bone and flesh and walked on dear earth. Unlike the protoganists of the recent much-hyped books, they were not suspended in ether.

Though Ved Mehta would like to believe that the NRI writers have managed to ‘cross pollinate’ Indian writing and have given it a ‘character’ that was not there before, the fact remains that they have also added to the emptiness of the Indian writing in English. From the storyline to its treatment, the attempt is to explain the Indianness to an international readership as a piece of exotica. The writer does not write because he feels involved with a character or a situation or even the story. He writes when he picks up a ‘topic.’ Shashi Tharoor’s novel Riot is a case in point. The ‘character’ of such writing is, therefore, suspect.

Of course, many of those who write in English do so because they cannot write in their own tongue. English comes to them more naturally because of their background. They have no choice. It is also because of their background that their Indianness is different from Indianness as such. They form the elite and write for gin drinkers. The ordinary paaniwallah is beyond the pale of their imagination. This is not to say that the writer has to serve some higher purpose or make a social commitment. He may or may not, and if he does so it may well be incidental. But fluff and more fluff should not be the defining quality of writing in any language, let alone English.

The Neemrana Fort, like the writing in English, has been vacuumed and cleaned. It is said that it stands proud and confident in a different avataar. But except for the artefacts and the starched turbans on waiters’ heads, there is nothing that can distinguish it from any other hotel in Delhi or beyond. It has been sanitised; deprived of its heat and dust, the smell of its earth — its very soul— and presented to the world fo its Indianness. How far will it go?

Photos by Subhash Bhardwaj