Hartosh Singh Bal wrote a piece about how easy it is for any British ‘writer’ to be taken seriously in India. William Dalrymple, one of the main people named in the article, wrote back saying that the article was blatantly racist. Mr. Bal replied even more scathingly.
Wondering if all the accusations in the original article are true makes me think about the Indian literary scene.
Now I’m probably unqualified to comment on this, given that I’ve quit my fascination with Indian writing in English since probably my third year at NITK., and am not up-to-date on the scene. I think that probably happened because Indian writing in English rarely if ever is pirated in ebook form.
The stuff I’ve been reading since then is more or less nationality-agnostic, and given that I was going through enough trouble with see-sawing emotional states over the past few years, I have cut out anything that’s even mildly depressing. No tales of rape victims, no suicidal females, no people selling organs or themselves out of poverty. And I’m sick and tired of wordy prose, so all the emo stuff is also out. And, ever since the Mumbai train blasts, since when I have turned internetHindu and internetIndian, I detest, detest, detest any books that espouse the warped leftie-commie-westie perceptions of the Motherland and pronounce it to be the only true point of view [That’s not because of the point of view. It’s just that I feel their case is extremely overstated and I don’t want to hear those arguments again and again and again].
And guess what. The number of Indian books I’m reading has gone pitifully low. Off the top of my head, I can remember only three Indian English books that I’ve read with delight in the recent past. The most recent one is The Immortals of Meluha. It’s okay. It’s not a great book. The plot is rather weak, though the premise is brilliant. Then there’s The House of Blue Mangoes I’ve reviewed before here. And the most, most delightful one has been Gopa Majumdar’s translation of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda and Professor Shonkhu.
Isn’t it a rather depressing thought that most Indian writing in English is tragic, depressing, emo stuff? Or that it’s by foreigners/NRIs who’ve visited Delhi and Mumbai and maybe one location in the South and decided they want to set a novel here, and borrow the mainstream media’s perspective on the country to do so?
This means one of two things. Either India can’t produce people good enough to express themselves well in English, or these forin/NRI folks are actively preferred over India-born-and-bred writers. Ok, third possibility – depressing stuff is preferred anyday over stuff with more joie de vivre. And forin/NRI folk are more likely to write about the depressing squalor of India than the average English-writing Indian (it’s just darn impossible for someone who lives here to constantly be depressed about poverty and rape and abuse and organ harvesting enough to churn out book after book on those topics).
The first possibility seems likely. Yes, not everyone from an English-medium school speaks well in English, let alone write novels in it. But heck, is the situation so bad that we have very few who write cheerfully and well in English? I don’t want to believe that’s possible.
I’m ambivalent about the third possibility. Given that most Indian hit films are escapist fare, I find it hard to believe that depressing stuff is preferred over fun stuff. But then, it’s also possible that the folks who watch the fun movies are not the ones who read, and that the ones who read are folk who prefer emo sad stuff, because it feels more ‘real’. I was one of these people in my less-jaded days where I equated ‘real’ with ‘stark’, ‘explicit’ and ‘depressing’. And back then, I read a lot of Indian writing in English 🙂
The second possibility…. ah, here’s where we lock horns with the likes of Dalrymple. It’s no secret that Western (and even Eastern) recognition and approval is highly prized in India. It’s as if we have no good standards of our own that we look to someone else’s to know what to like and what not to. It’s like Yahoo coming to NITK’s campus for placements and instead of conducting their own set of Aptis and interviews, giving offers to the folks placed in Microsoft (No, that did not happen. And if you want, you can replace Yahoo with Infy and Microsoft with ITTIAM. Or any two random companies. It is immaterial). The reasons for that are many… colonial hangover, our persistent resistance to growing a backbone, our sense of identity and self being derided every single day by own own media… the bottomline is, you can go places here with a forin tag – skin colour, accents, degrees, passports. Even if you are decidedly a worse stringer-of-words-together than the average Indian; your use of the language will be feted as ‘interesting’ and ‘intriguing’ and ‘creative’.
Where’s our own Steig Larsson, JK Rowling (no, don’t point to the scriptwriter for the flick Hari Puttar), Rick Riordan (Amish Tripathi seems to be trying), Eoin Colfer, Agatha Christie? Why don’t we have our own Miss Marple, shouldn’t it be easy to have a nosy lady solving murders here? (Oh hey, we do… I found this series about a detective aunty called Lalli. Except it’s not thaaat well-written). Why don’t we yet have our own LotR, given that our folk myths are so rich and ripe for drawing from?
Where are our school stories, the ones that involve making fresh-out-of-college teachers with weird pronunciations run out of the class crying, and hatching plots over ice-lollies and salt-n-chillied-amlas after school? And what about our own murder mysteries, surely there’s sufficient fodder for that? And given that we have so many threats, where the heck are our spy thrillers? The only one I’ve come across that had a hint of a spy in it is Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey. Are we so unimaginative a people that we can’t produce our own kahani-mein-twist writer, like an Archer or an O Henry?
I’m not saying no examples of any of these exist. I’m saying there isn’t enough. I’m saying it’s not reached a critical mass enough to be its own genre, the way books about (and by) IITians have. The dominant chunk of Indian writing in English is hardly positive, fun-to-read stuff.
So, I repeat, where the heck are all these writers? Too busy slaving away in an IT company? Or gone abroad for higher studies/job and will now only write sickening Indo-nostalgic stuff? Or writing up a storm in some other of our fourteen languages? If so, why aren’t they being translated into English?
Or worse, are there actually none? Surely, judging by the number of user-contributed stories in children’s magazines from, say, eight years back and earlier, there must be a significant portion of good writers in their twenties now?
Coz it’s going to be a depressing next thirty if there actually are none. I see these children’s magazines go lower and lower in quality, and dumb down their content more and more. It’s a symptom of lower and lower standards in English writing in India…. when there is nothing to whet the imagination of children, it is a sad state of affairs, indeed.
Some people might say ‘This is why children should learn their mother tongue… writing in regional languages is far better’. I agree. But we’re looking at a generation of children whose parents themselves aren’t conversant with their mother tongues; and who talk, fight and play in English. Given that we use and abuse English so much in India (and wear it on our sleeves), shouldn’t we be giving back something to the language; is it so unreasonable to expect quality reads of our own stories, in our own language?