The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West
Let us now commemorate, or at least acknowledge the 10th anniversary of this 50th anniversary collection of Indian English writing first with a review of the book itself, and then, later perhaps, with a comparative look at whether Indian English prose continues its loud and triumphant parade toward early extermination.
I want you to imagine Jim Corbett, India’s legendary tiger hunter and conservationist, returning from the dead to visit the few remaining hectares of India’s jungle a century after spotting his first big cat as a small boy. Like the ghosts of rural England, India’s tigers are so rare and endangered that their fiery eyes and fearful symmetry, once roaming as poetically in Rajput kingdoms as in art, now exist only, albeit quite dramatically, in the story-filled tea-stall chats of India’s remotest villages.
Welcome to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, where “fifty years of Indian Writing” – what should be the literary equivalent of 50,000 Bengal tigers inhabiting a wilderness as large and unconquerable as Moby Dick’s (a billion people, 16 official languages, a few of which, excluding English, offer some of the most remarkable writing on the planet) — is like a tattered signpost pointing the way to “Tiger Reserve.”
And only when we enter this domesticated literary parkland does our talented tour guide, Salman Rushdie, inform us that herein lies the “best possible selection from what is presently available [in India] in the English language.” In other words, a safely-enclosed, second-rate safari where the tired animals can be fed through car windows. For as much as Rushdie’s literary agent might wish otherwise, Indian English writing does not, nor will it ever, represent Indian writing (an argument I will wrestle with later);
My own search for the indigenous Indian metaphor, specimens of which I’ve been collecting for years now, took me 186 pages, about one-third of the book to a sentence by Padma Parera, in her finely observed story, “Dr. Salaam”:
The only sound then was of the wind lifting the branches of the neem trees – gently, as a woman will lift her hair with her hand to cool the nape of her neck.
To reach this sentence – admittedly a poor specimen given that I’ve seen a similar gesture animate sunburnt, bikini-clad blondes on Californian beaches, but indigenous in its adorning all females with lengthy tresses — I had to trudge through a dry, empty, desolate terrain.
The tour began with a misplaced piece of political rhetoric, Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst With Destiny,” the speech immortalized not for being a piece of Indian writing at all, but quite the opposite — a spontaneous, heart-felt example of brilliant oration. As if to emphasise the mood, Nehru’s historic speech is immediately followed by Nayantara Sahgal’s nepotistic, hagiographic memoir about India and its founding fathers (her uncle Nehru and his close friend Mahatma Gandhi). Their inclusion here as a thematic trailhead helps clarify the misbegotten purpose behind Rushdie’s and Elizabeth West’s collection — not so much Indian writing as fifty years of a place called India. Thus triply confined – 1) written in English, 2) conceived by people with Indian surnames 3) heeding Nehru’s call “to work hard…to build a noble mansion of free India” – the ensuing samples of prose seem pitiably unnatural in this artificial landscape, what could also be called Rushdie’s Theme Park.
After the patriotic intro, my pursuit of the indigenous Indian metaphor took me through eleven more entries, including the masterful works of such legendary writers as Nirad C. Chowdhury, Mulk Raj Anand and Satyajit Ray – but oh how defeated they looked! Their tender, careful renditions of deified rivers, rhapsodical servants, the Jurassic adventures of a simple pair of Calcuttan Babus (Ray, as with his extra-terrestrial story “The Little Martian,” once again scooping Spielberg) seem covered with a kind of mange, forced as they are to coexist with the scabrous angst of comparatively minor specimens by such writers as Upamanyu Chatterjee, Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Arundhatti Roy and Kiran Desai.
And how pale and emaciated dear R.K. Narayan! India’s greatest English author confined to seven pages. Had all 578 pages of the collection contained only Narayan’s work the cover might then have merited the hyperbole “Indian Writing,” for here is a writer who truly represents a place, a people, a culture (something, ironically, the country itself has trouble doing).
In the Rushdie-West selection, a sunny, refreshing meadow of a story entitled “Fellow Feeling,” Narayan’s gentle, god-fearing protagonist tells an irascible, bullying train passenger that if he doesn’t behave,
“I will slap your right cheek and at the same time tug your left ear, and your mouth which is now under your nose, will suddenly find itself under your left ear, and, what is more, stay there. I assure you, you won’t feel any pain.”
You can see Narayan’s familiar paw-print in the words, “your mouth, which is now under your nose,” because in Narayan’s world, where characters are so dependent on the people around them that if you separated them they would die within a week, some men need to be reminded where their mouths are. This kind of affectionate portrayal, where characters are composed of and celebrated for their deficiencies, runs counter to the general post-Joycean literary trend in which characters operate their bodies with the entire universe stuffed inside their bellies, their borborygmus playing the music of the cosmos, the act of going to the toilet or masturbating producing a wealth of philosophical compounds.
Nor does metaphorical fauna flourish in an environment where English is a language of class affirmation, bureaucratic negotiation, neighbours trying to act “uppity.” Too much art in the English medium would only ostracise a writer like Narayan (who, like a good author, suffered from every deficiency except the ability to record timeless stories) from the people he met and talked to during his ritualised morning walks in Madras. Too much stain and artistic design in the window, no matter how Indian the colours and patterns, would only draw our attention away from Narayan’s native pastoral view to what, for Narayan and the people he writes about, is an alien art form. (…continued…)
Go to Part II — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages