Mind you, ELECTRA (not to be confused with Freud’s misinterpretation of the goddess), although lacking in most Indian customs, is not a bad place to live. Joyce, Proust, Melville – the world’s finest writers have vacation homes there. But these writers, writers who really have composed enormous tracts of their native landscapes, do not take well to a poorly sketched character “feeling a glow of happiness” or faces that work like emoto-meters, as in the case of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s howler, “On the faces of Mr and Mrs Kairon could be discerned a daze, an initial shock, and an inchoate ethnic guilt.” Therefore many of the writers whose subject matter doesn’t appeal to the Indian audience would be as quickly turned away from ELECTRA and humiliatingly redirected to collegiate writing programs in middle America.
Categorising by readership or amorphous ideas of nationhood, of course, is as absurd as categorising by surname. One should question this need to drape nationalistic sashes over the shoulders of writers and turn their fiction into pageantry. I cannot help but attribute the impulse to the fundamental disappointment many of the ELECTRA-type Indian-English writers must feel, when, after having their personal visions of India so warmly embraced by western editors, they come home to relatives who know nothing of their art, family members who – as you read them a page or two of your latest novel, editing out the sex bits and translating the difficult words as best you can – interrupt to ask, so how much money are you making? Isn’t it time you got married? Or worse, the book is set afire by angry Indian mobs and banned by the Indian courts.
Your natural reaction is to raise your awkward oriflamme of Indian ancestry and proclaim that your art and your self are inseparable, that because your self is as Indian as any Allahabadian Sandman or Delhian Sylvie, your art must be Indian too (never mind that it speaks a language the majority of Indians don’t understand). And look, just look at the growing number of other Indian-English writers — a whole collection of them! — who are carving out a similar territory, graphically describing all sorts of previously unspoken material (most of it pulled, coincidentally, out of a very British-American sexual closet), making an impact on the English literary scene, winning international awards, creating, as Rushdie puts it, “the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”
But what a tremendous contribution India would make to the world of cooking if Indian mothers would just start serving their pappadams with ketchup and cheese dip.
You might even say India has made a valuable contribution to the world of beauty since its string of successes in the Miss World and Miss Universe contests – never mind that the traditional Indian concept of beauty would easily fit two modern beauty queens into the same traditional dress, or that the average Indian female wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a swimsuit. When the German-Indian rap star Apache Indian sang his hit song, “I am an Indian” (the video of which, interestingly, became a kind of national anthem on Indian television because of its “unity-through-diversity” theme – hey, everyone’s an Indian!), he was not singing about the Indian identity, or even the German identity, because he was performing like a young American.
And thus the Indian-English author, in trying at once to serve the recipe of India in the dining room of English literature, faces a conundrum, the most common solution to which is the Indianization of the performance — the tuxedoed waiters serve fried samosas and chutney-covered canapés, the punch bowls are filled with mango lassi and todi juice, the candelabras fitted with bright Divali sparklers, and all the while the writer entertains the company with clever conversation, an endless stream of cross-cultural teasing and wordplay. But the general shape of the literature, the reason, form and purpose behind the entertainment – the aforementioned celebration of self — remains fixed; in fact it becomes more entrenched, more exclusive, because now it is suddenly rejuvenated with a new and exotic party game. Like Karoke. Or Bangra music.
Which is why the indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a more Tagorian creature in which an image matures entirely outside the English literary imagination – the base of a banyan tree spread like the sari of a seated women, a river rising to embrace a village with the passion of a young wife returning for the first time to her parent’s home — is such a rare and endangered species.
Apart from some whispers sounding like “neem leaves brushing the sandstone ceiling” (Parera’s second indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a record-setting two in five pages), I didn’t find another specimen in the entire Rushdie-West collection. I admit to having skimmed much of Firdauz Kanga’s most exasperating “Trying to Grow,” (Up?) which, reading like an Internet chat session, is as misplaced in Indian Writing as Nehru’s spoken piece of non-writing. Amitav Ghosh’s reflections on his anthropological study of a village in Egypt squirms uncomfortably in this Rushdiesque reserve and betrays the false nativity of the collected subject matter. The sample could as easily fit into a collection of Egyptian-English Writing, or Bangladeshi-English Writing, and Ghosh – usually quite suspicious of border-defined states – would have been wise to follow V.S.Naipaul’s example and disallow the patriotic representation of his craft by forbidding Rushdie and West to capture his work altogether.
The chapter excerpted from Arundhuti Roy’s Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things could be said to contain an indigenous Indian-English metaphorical conceit – the comparison of human sperm to those syrupy soft drinks sold in Indian movie theatres and carnivals. But here we have a case of an Indian packaging of a foreign commodity. While sperm may tropologically inhabit British and American phraseology, one doesn’t often hear it mentioned in public Indian-English discourse – although perhaps I mix with the wrong crowd. To her credit, of all the demonstrations of, as Devani puts it, “fascination of the male anatomy” (no less than five of the stories include descriptions of penile emissions), Roy’s may be the most artful.
Since publication of The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, another decade of novels and poetry written by Indian nationals has emerged in numerous languages and styles, and I expect I’ll comment on some of these eventually, but my initial impression is thus: India’s trade liberalization policies since Indian Writing’s appearance, the huge increase of London- and New York-based literary agents representing India-based authors, the mass influx of foreign tourists and businesses into India over the last decade, the availability of the Internet and cell phones across the country, satellite television, foreign ownership of Indian media, the explosion of young Indians wanting to be writers, filmmakers, artists, entrepreneurs and so forth (rather than the civil servants of old), the Indian-English accent on the telephone support call, the newfound sense of career ambition and the whole amusing illusion that our fast-expanding world is somehow shrinking – all of this will likely transform India, in Rushdie’s mind, into an even larger presence, a greater contributor to the world of books; but it’s unlikely to help infuse English literature with anywhere near the richness, the beauty, the immensity of life which India, the country, is capable of. For every Indian author who navigates the treacherous migration to an American or British readership, an unknown number of beauties will fly into windscreens or find themselves left with nowhere to feed.