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Part III — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part III

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.

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Part II — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part II

By contrast, for a writer like G.V. Desani, whose excerpt from “All About H. Hatterr” is more healthily represented (twenty-eight pages) as entry number four in Indian Writing, the English literary cathedral cannot be ignored.  It is an overwhelming feature of his imagination, his task being to redecorate it with personal artefacts.  The issue at hand is the “dhobin; viz., my Indian washerwomen,” who H. Hatterr believes has “a crush” on him, and his friend Bannerji is now responding to the revelation:

“Good luck to her.  Whereas, I deplore and deprecate sensual love, I am wholeheartedly for romance.  Is her name Priscilla, or is it Daphne?…I am anxious to know if you could concur with the bard Walt Whitman, and sing to her, As I lay my head in your lap, camerado?…it might be a genuine Darby and Joan feeling.  If so, Mr. Robert Bridges rightly protests, Quit in a single kiss?…Does she suffer from a morbid fascination of the male anatomy?  Is she an Elephant?”

Like his dialogue, Desani’s prose leaps and dances – an almost spontaneous exuberance which was cloyingly repeated by such Indian writers as Rushdie, I Alan Sealy, Shashi Tharoor, Kiran Desai and many others not included in this collection.  Here, the affections of an Indian dhobin are cast into a flashy mosaic of Greek Mythology, 18th century love ballads, the quotations of 19th and early 20th century American and English poets.

Throughout his H. Hatterr, Desani refers to an array of Indian settings, characters, fashions and foods, but describes them in foreign terms — opera, bull-fighting, African music, beer, champagne, European literature and sport.   I did encounter two possible indigenous Indian metaphors in these twenty-eight pages of play: 1) a man approaching the narrator like a “wild elephant’s trunk with the intent to pounce,” and 2) a swarm of mosquitoes making an “Indian pipe-like sound.”  I left them alone, however, because the first, apart from being mixed (half elephant, half cat), was unnaturally glossy, stolen perhaps from a travel brochure; while the second was not at all native.  An Indian pipe in India would not possibly be called “Indian” – it would be called a sannai, or a nadaswaram, or an instrument certain barbers in certain villages will play at weddings.

Born, raised, fed on India, you spend all day cooking a traditional Indian meal for some foreign guests, diligently mixing spices so that the butter chicken, the menthi dal, the Hyderabadi rice taste exactly as they did when the Moghul Emperor Akbar ate them in the 17th century. You are showered with compliments, of course, but dipping your pappadams (which you bought at a store) into the dal, like nachos into a dip, your guests — attempting only to flatter – say you could make a lot of money if you marketed them as a kind of potato chip.

Rushdie’s argument – common amongst many expatriate Indian authors – that his writing is Indian because he is Indian steps in perfect time with much of the popular English literary parade, a gaudy collection of forced individuality in which one’s writing should express one’s self, the uniform one wears should provide insight into the character underneath it.  (I see Narayan sitting worn out on a bench, having marched that street in a different era, wearing a suit and tie because the local tailor from his village insisted the great writer look impeccable for such an important “English” occasion).

Rushdie also knows that once you accept his premise, as most modern critics do, his argument settles well with the climate of his mother-country.  India is a plurality, after all, a unidiverse, a kind of protean battlefield strewn with the remains of one invading culture after another; and the passports of the naked sadhu who buries his head in the sand of Kanyakumari and the wealthy transvestite hairstylist in Delhi named Sylvie will bear the same three-headed lion embossed on the covers.  Indeed, how can we possibly define, question or refute one’s Indianness?

But what if we define Indian writing another way – not by the people who write it, but by the people who read it?  I suddenly see most of the writers in this volume haggling with visa officials at the Indian Writing High Commission, growing irate and finally being tossed out by dutiful guards.  Only six writers out of the thirty-two in the Rushdie-West collection would be granted permanent citizenship — Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Kamala Markandaya, Saadat Hasan Manto (who has written one of the best “Partition” pieces I’ve read), Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Satyajit Ray.

A few writers, such as Vikram Seth and Anjana Appachana, are offered the option of dual citizenship, a remarkable compliment, really, to their story-telling ability.  But the rest — Rushdie included — are hastily told to apply for nationality at, well, let’s call it something like the English Literary Establishment of Cultural Transience, Rebellion and Alienation (ELECTRA), down the road, where their themes of intellectual angst, so-called self-discovery, religious disillusionment, familial breakdown, bodily liberation, alcohol and sexual abuse will be met with greater appreciation.  (…continued…)

Go to Part III — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

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The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part I

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

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