The commercial would begin with a shot of a blue-green planet afloat in dark space. Then, with instant thousand-fold
magnification, the camera would digitally zoom into the part of the landmass in the northern hemisphere that lies above the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent flecked closer to the top of the screen by the white crest of a wave representing the Himalayan snow-peaks. The camera would veer right, coming closer to the ground to reveal, for one-five-hundredth of a second, the muddy expanse of the Ganges, and then fanning above it a city visible only as a dirty wash of miniature roof tops, their colour a uniform grey. Binod saw very clearly in his mind the spreading delta of underdevelopment; almost despite himself, he smiled.
And Rabinder, getting more excited, said that the camera would be at ground level now, approaching a heavily loaded Ashok Leyland truck on the highway: as it got close to the truck, a white Maruti would zoom out from behind the truck. A few drops of rain would fall on the lens as the camera swerved, forcing a policeman on his bicycle into a puddle. The man would be wearing his khaki uniform and a red cap. The camera would avoid hitting the bicycle and, almost within that same instant, its eye would pick out a large yellow building. There would be a short pan along the length of a tall wall before pausing at a barred room in which would be a solitary man, sitting.
The film would cut to a shot from above: the top of the man’s head and, pressed to his right ear, a mobile phone. The place would be a prison near Patna.
A number of years ago, I took an overnight train with my family from Allahabad to Puri, in Orissa. It was a long ride in 2nd A/C, and, as usually happens on such trips, the people around us became our temporary friends. The train passed through Bihar in the middle of the night; the next morning, when breakfast arrived, we were in West Bengal. The little children from the compartment next to ours came racing in and exclaimed breathlessly, “We made it through Bihar! Our parents were worried bandits would attack the train, but we made it!”
Bihar is what is known in the US as flyover country. In the phrase of the guidebooks of old, ‘there is nothing here that need detain the traveler’– unless the traveler is Buddhist, and going to Gaya and Bodh Gaya. When one opens the papers in other parts of India, there is invariably news of some ghastly crime or another that has taken place in Bihar, or a corruption scandal, or some other example of ‘backwardness’ to add to the pile of reasons why we never would want to get out of the train in Bihar. A Bihari accent in Hindi is to be avoided, and makes a person sound uneducated, and of course, because poverty is widespread in Bihar, many laborers and servants in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay are from Bihar. In my experience in India, it has always seemed as though prejudice toward Bihar and Biharis does not need to be hidden; Bihari jokes are never off-limits.
It was my good fortune that my first real knowledge of Bihar came not from the pervasive stereotypes of the area, but in Hindi class, with a seminar on the novel Rati Nath ki Chachi by the great Bihari author Nagarjun. I will admit that my Hindi was not up to the challenge of reading Nagarjun at the time. Nagarjun was part of a literary movement in Hindi known as Aanchalik literature. The word aanchal, in Hindi (of which aanchalik is the adjectival form), means a number of things, including ‘region’ and also the border of a sari.* The term Aanchalik Sahitya is usually translated as ‘regional literature.’ But with its other meanings, the word carries with it connotations of warmth and comfort, as of the protection of a mother who shields her children from the world with the border of her sari.
Aanchalik writers experimented with carving out a niche for local language and culture in the areas of India where Hindi is the trans-regional standard language. Thus, Nagarjun, an author from the Mithila region of Bihar, inflected his writing with Maithili language and culture, while loosely retaining standard Hindi as the narrative glue. In Aanchalik fiction, dialogue is often written either in a local dialect, or heavily marked by features of that dialect.
For the language student, this style of writing is almost completely impenetrable because of the excessive demands it makes on one’s limited reservoir of vocabulary. I remember spending many hours futilely searching for words in the Hindi dictionary that weren’t even there because they weren’t actually Hindi. Nagarjun waxed eloquent about the mango in all its stages of development, for each of which there was a different word. In addition to this, there were also words for the things that can be done to mangoes in specific stages of development, all of which are apparently very tasty.
Long after reading Nagarjun, when my reading skills had much improved, I had the courage to undertake reading another great Bihari Aanchalik author, Phanishwarnath Renu. I had wanted to read Renu for a long time, as I had heard such praise for him. But I had not wanted to mar my experience of his aesthetic by my own ineptitude, as had been the case with my reading of Nagarjun, from whom I was left with a sense of an indistinct landscape littered with slowly ripening mangoes and punctuated by some surprising illicit (but hazy—to me) sex scenes.
Reading Renu was still difficult without knowing any Maithili or Bhojpuri, but I was at that point able to wing it. Renu’s 1954 novel Maila Aanchal is as magnificient as everyone promised. Set during the 1942 Quit India Movement in Northeast Bihar, and told from the perspective of a young doctor, the novel brings together a large cast of characters and showcases myriad aspects of the social structure of the village where it takes place. It also has an excellent plot. The title, which sounds poignant in Hindi, poses problems in translation. When looking online to see if there were English translations of the novel, I came across a host of infelicitous renderings such as ‘Soiled Border’ and ‘Soiled Linen.’ Maila means ‘dirty’ but it is a mellifluous word– unlike, for example, ganda or the English words ‘filthy’ and ‘soiled.’ Because aanchal means ‘region’ and the border of a sari, the title carries both connotations. The feel of the phrase ‘maila aanchal’ is not negative—it makes one think of a region-as-mother, a protective space, that is dirty, but not in the sense of being soiled. Perhaps translators have chosen the word ‘soiled’ because they feel that it carries the connotation of soil-as-earth, but frankly, that’s just not how it comes across in the phrase ‘soiled linen.’
The limits of Aanchalik literature’s translatability, with its heavy use of regional vocabularies and dialogue in dialect, are critical to developing an understanding of what it means to write realism in a deeply multi-lingual society. One could draw an equivalence between the attempts by 19th century British novelists at capturing a heavy brogue or a peasant accent, but the comparison has its limits. On a purely orthographic level, the scientific phoneticism of the Devanagari alphabet makes it possible, if not advisable, to render any accent, regionalism, or even a twang, with absolute precision (for example, the Hindi author Ashk sustains a dialogue between his protagonist and a girl with a nasal accent for pages by draping chandra bindus (diacritics denoting a nasalized vowel) over each and every word). English, with its arcane spelling and pronunciation rules, cannot incorporate non-standard accents with ease through spelling and must resort instead to syntax-play and word choice.
Underlying the effort on the part of the Aanchalik authors to introduce a regionalist flavor into Hindi literature, rather than simply writing in one of the regional languages, such as Maithili, is the fact that Hindi is a pan-Indian language. Anyone writing in Hindi is likely to get a broader readership than they would if they were to write in a language such as Bhojpuri. The effort contains both a financial motivation as well as a nationalist one. Some specificity is lost but since the project of realism is not to recreate reality, but to create the illusion of reality, the exercise of writing Aanchalik fiction is perfectly in tune with the realist aesthetic.
India is multi-lingual and multi-literary, but not all languages are created equal in terms of the socio-economic hierarchy. While writing in Hindi is more lucrative than writing in Bhojpuri, writing in English is far more lucrative than writing in Hindi. These differences of course reflect the socio-economic differences of the people who use the languages. To be a “Hindi-medium” person is generally to have ones life-choice possibilities more circumscribed, than those of an “English-medium” person, and so on. Writers in English reach an international audience, and in India, that audience is distinctly more well-to-do than the Hindi-reading audience. If the Aanchalik authors had to flatten out the contours of local dialects and languages when they chose to write in Hindi, authors using English face an even more daunting task if and when they wish to represent the speech and lives of characters that are not members of the fluently English-educated elite. Hindi is at least closely related to many regional languages such as Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, etc., but English is something completely different.
In the past I have been very critical of the way in which Indian novels in English have represented the speech of characters that are not meant to be fluent in English. In fact, as recently as last week I was critical on that point. Following Tabish Khair’s excellent discussion in his book Babu Fictions: Alienation in Contemporary Indian English Novels (pp. 99–129), I have found it troubling that non-English speaking characters have a tendency to speak in foolish-sounding pidgins marked with an assortment of Hindi words, and sometimes using particular Hindi syntactical features that, while non-humorous in Hindi, sound hilarious in English. I’m thinking in particular of Hindi-Urdu’s penchant for rhyming word pairs (chota-mota, ajib-o-gharib), echoing pairings, where the second word doesn’t mean anything (such as shaadi-waadi), and repeated words, that often add emphasis or even a layer of adverbial meaning (chota-chota, chalte chalte, dhire-dhire).
As a Hindi student I once found these features of the language hysterically funny, and when I read them used to create pidgins in Indian English novels, I found the dialogues both amusing and instantly recognizable as gestures to create the illusion of Hindi within the framework of a piece of writing in English. It was later, when I became used to these features of the language as I was more immersed, that I came to realize that saying ‘shaadi-waadi’ was not actually supposed to be funny, it was just the rhythm of the language. Over time, I began to feel that this method of representing the verbal patterns of characters whose primary language is not English was not so successful, and often infantilizing. Since non-English speakers tend to be, if not of a lower class, then at least provincial to the English-speaking elite in cities such as Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay, these comical portrayals of their speech patterns can feed into existing hierarchies and the often de-humanizing perceptions of populations outside these metropolitan centers, such as the entire population of Bihar.
In a post just last week, I triumphantly declared that English writing in India created the illusion that one was reading a translation through such features as discussed above. In my desire to see more money and enthusiasm going into the translation and publication of Indian literatures not written in English, I implied that the fact that these novels make the reader feel as though they were translated is a bad thing, since it squelches the demand for actual translations. Now, one week later, I am going to have to eat my words, or at lease finesse my point to some degree.
The quote at the beginning of this post is from the novel Home Products (Picador India, 2007), by Amitava Kumar, which will be published in the US in July 2010 under the title Nobody Does the Right Thing. I first heard this excerpt, along with other sections of the novel, presented as part of a year-long lecture series on ‘the city’ as a unit of study. Kumar’s lecture was the final presentation of what had been a series of buzz-word-heavy talks dealing exclusively with issues surrounding the ‘mega-city’—massive metropolises such as Bombay, Hong Kong and São Paolo. Kumar’s lecture itself was titled “Lights, Karma, Action: Report from Bombay.” As the series had progressed, I had been perplexed at the lack of attention being paid to all the lesser cities of the world, the also-rans, where millions of people live, but one can’t find a good wild-mushroom risotto for love nor money. I settled in for this final talk with low expectations: another afternoon, another trip to Bombay.
The lecture was, from the start, a surprise, as it was not a lecture at all, but a reading of a work of fiction. I kept waiting for the story to stop and the dry dissection to begin, but it never did. And what I, along with the rest of audience no doubt, had assumed would be a “report from Bombay” to us, the audience sitting in a lecture hall at a major research university in the United States, was instead a report from Bombay to Patna, the capital of Bihar. This change in direction was shocking and destabilizing, as we reversed direction to travel instead from mega-city to provincial city. The reversal became most viscerally apparent as Kumar read the passage at the beginning of this post.
The passage begins when the novel’s protagonist, a Bihari journalist named Binod, has come from Bombay, where he works for an English-language newspaper, to Patna (his home town) to investigate a story that he hopes he might turn into a film script. In the scene above, he is visiting his cousin Rabinder in prison. Rabinder is an enterprising and likeable young criminal who is full of ideas, some inspired, and some of the kind that land you in prison. In the passage, Rabinder is explaining to Binod his idea for a cell phone advertisement that he thinks could be really big. Binod is bemused by the idea that the advertisement zeroes in on a person in prison and asks Rabinder why he has chosen that focus. Rabinder replies, “Honestly, can you think of any place where a mobile phone would be more needed than it is in prison?” (p. 35)
In Rabinder’s description, we find ourselves viewing the advertisement in our minds (it is so familiar), and our expectations tell us that after the world, the northern hemisphere, the Indian Ocean and the Himalayan snow-peaks, we will find ourselves dropped into a familiar spot in a megalopolis—Juhu Beach, perhaps, Rajpath in Delhi, a bustling market in Calcutta—this is how the world works, in advertising. After the landmass comes into view, one lands in a place of significance. But instead, the description abruptly de-centers the viewer/reader in the next phrase, “the camera would veer right,” and whisks us away from the mega-cities and into the heart of flyover country: “the muddy expanse of the Ganges, and then fanning above it a city visible only as a dirty wash of miniature roof tops, their colour a uniform grey. Binod saw very clearly in his mind the spreading delta of underdevelopment.” And so we arrive in the maila aanchal.
One might go on to assume that the final touch-down of the imagined camera upon the head of a man in prison was a metaphor for the confinement of the poor souls trapped in filthy Bihar. Perhaps this novel will be about escape to the bright city of Bombay from the confinement of a filthy, crime-ridden pronvinciality. In some ways it is, but in some ways it isn’t. Though the third person narration is recounted from the perspective of Binod, who has left Patna and lived in Delhi and then Bombay, Binod could hardly be described as appropriately reveling in his emancipation from his homeland. He returns often, to visit his family, to investigate news stories, and always, despite the flaws of it all (crime and corruption play a large role), it is clear that there is a stronger visceral connection to Bihar than to his new home in the mega cities.
Indeed, the prison metaphor, which would have worked so nicely, is made short work of a few scenes later, when Binod, still on his visit to Rabinder, accompanies his cousin to see a wrestling match within the prison walls. No guards are in sight, though one of the wrestlers turns out to be a guard, and the prisoners seem to be left to their own devices within the walls. As Binod takes his leave, Rabinder accompanies him to the guard house, where:
In the cavernous hallway, naked bulbs were suspended from the roof from dark, coiled wires. Guards in khaki shorts stood quietly in the shadows as if it was they who were the prisoners. (p. 43)
And so we see that the roles of prisoner and guard quickly blur, and the hierarchy seems to be in the eyes of the beholder.
The Hindi Aesthetic
This past week, some years after hearing Amitava Kumar read excerpts from Home Products, I was finally able to read the book. I had remembered that there was something about its aesthetic that seemed very familiar to me. As I began to read, I knew right away what it was. Home Products feels like a Hindi novel. It even feels like a translation of a Hindi novel. I say this as someone who has translated substantial quantities of Hindi literature. In fact, the day before I began to read Home Products, I had been revising some old translations of Hindi short stories. As I read, I felt tempted to get out my red pen and cross out certain word choices as too close to the literal translation from Hindi.
The pace of the narration, the close attention to the mundane details of daily life, a certain reserved quality, a sense of connectedness to history, to human struggles, to politics, these are all markers that are ever-present in the Hindi novels of the mid-twentieth century. Kumar makes it clear through sections of dialogue and narration that this similarity is no accident. Characters make references to prominent Hindi authors throughout; some have degrees in Hindi literature. Binod’s family is solidly Hindi-medium, English literate. Though Binod writes for an English-language newspaper, he chooses to do so after some deliberation between Hindi and English.
The fact that Home Products has been written in conversation with Hindi literature is astonishing. I can think of no other English language novel that does this. Because of the hierarchy of language-medium education in India, it is rare for a writer in English to have read any literature in Hindi whatsoever. In my experience researching Hindi literature, I found that the English-educated classes outside of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, people who could read, write and speak Hindi, had read virtually no literature written in Hindi and had heard of no Hindi author other than Premchand. The fact that I was studying Hindi literature at all was usually met with derisive laughter. What could there possibly be to read in Hindi?
This is not due to mass personal failings on the part of English speakers but to the structure and goals of English-medium education. Hindi will only be of utilitarian importance to this class of people, and when it comes to the arts, they will be better served by reading English literature. And of course, as is usually the case in a vertical hierarchy, the Hindi writers on the next rung down are very familiar with what the rung up is reading. In Hindi literature one finds a wide array of erudite literary references to Western writing, for example. Hindi authors whom I met and interviewed were widely read in English, including English translations of works from around the world.
Borrowing from the Hindi aesthetic also enables Kumar to forge a different path from the usual fare for representing dialogue that switches around between languages and dialects. He describes people switching between Hindi and English without using hardly any Hindi words, yet he still manages to retain the flavor of differences in speaking styles and backgrounds. An example I enjoyed takes place near the beginning of the novel when Binod goes to the home of a murder victim to ask her family questions about her life. The family, of a lower class than Binod, is suspicious of his motivations and does not wish to speak with him. Suddenly the victim’s sister switches to English:
The girl, all fury suddenly, spoke up in English. “I think you are a lawyer.”
“Lawyer,” Binod asked loudly, doing his best to look hurt. But he was genuinely surprised. A lawyer? Did they think he was a lawyer, perhaps here to entrap them, and is that why there was such suspicion and anger?
The girl took a step toward him. “You are a lawyer. Get out.”
The thin finger described a ridiculous arc through the air. Binod turned away. It wasn’t till he had reached the bottom of the steps that he realized that she had actually been calling him a liar. (pp. 6-7)
The misunderstanding comes from the tendency on the part of Hindi speakers who know some English, but are not that proficient, to pronounce the English word ‘lawyer’ the same way as ‘liar.’ The confusion that Binod feels is humorous, and meant to be, but is the joke on her, or him? She has switched to English to draw a line in the sand and introduce a tone of formality and distance. To her, the difference between communicating in English versus Hindi with Binod, a stranger who is more well-to-do and educated than her, is significant. Telling him in English to get out, she takes command of a potentially frightening situation. For a character like Binod, however, there is equal comfort in both languages. He is instead listening to her words, and looking for a further opening for discussion. The misunderstanding is subtly described, but speaks volumes about the differences in class and status between the two speakers.
Beyond the level of the word and the phrase, I was struck in particular by the way in which Kumar conveys so elegantly a sense of place. In descriptions of middle class homes, village houses, train compartments, street scenes—gone are the over-the-top forests of excess verbiage that Salman Rushdie turned into the best-selling formula for establishing the mise-en-scène of the Indian novel in English. The air is not dense with aromas of roasting spices, incense and excrement. The characters are not swathed in rich silk stuffs and draped in gobs of gold and precious stones. The descriptions of spaces are spare but evocative, such as this passage, in which Binod walks through the bedroom of his future wife for the first time, in order to use the bathroom:
He had never seen that part of the house before. It was a plain room, a thin mattress lying on a wooden bed that took much of the space, two metal wardrobes with new paint on them set against the wall, a desk and chair. On the wall was a poster nailed to the wall, showing a still from Pather Panchali, of the little boy Apu. The poster was for the film screening of Ray’s films organized by the Patna Cine Society. Inside the bathroom, the plastic buckets and mugs were stacked in bright, new colours. (p. 175)
Another familiar feature of Home Products is the prominent use of news stories, which are interwoven with the narrative as reporting assignments undertaken by Binod, or items in the newspaper, or discussion between family members. Most Hindi authors in the forties, fifties and sixties had been employed at one time or another by newspapers or All India Radio. Their intimate knowledge of the workings of daily papers is reflected deeply in the literature of that time period. In numerous canonical novels, the protagonist is a reporter, or at least an editor or a translator at a daily newspaper. This device is used to incorporate detailed descriptions of historical events, politicians and political movements within the narrative of the novels. Because a progressivist aesthetic dominated Hindi letters at that time, political events were integral to the narratives.
The news stories incorporated into Home Products don’t just set the stage (set against the backdrop of the Civil War!), they are part of the novel’s larger preoccupation with the truth, and how it is portrayed in writing and in film. While Binod is a journalist, his father is a documentary filmmaker. Their motivations and concerns and the stories that they record are contrasted throughout with discussions of actual Bollywood movies and with Binod’s, and later Rabinder’s, attempts to come up with a film script to attract the attention of a prominent Bombay director who has taken in interest in Binod. While Binod and his father attempt to embrace the truth as fully as possible in their journalism and documentary filmmaking, Binod finds himself again and again unable to truly grasp what is needed to create the right mixture of ingredients for a Bollywood script, where the truth is the least important factor.
This distinction between realism and fantasy is underscored in a fascinating scene in which Binod, his cousin Rabinder, and their childhood friend Neeraj Dubey, who is now a successful Bombay star, sit and watch the classic 1979 Yash Chopra film Kaala Patthar together. Kaala Patthar is based on the 1975 Chasnala mining disaster in Bihar, and the three men sit down to watch it for the umpteenth time on the anniversary of the event, coincidentally the same day as the 2004 Tsunami disaster. As the film progresses, Rabinder and Neeraj are totally engrossed in the film, reciting vast tracts of dialogue along with the stars. Binod becomes increasingly disgusted at the careless liberties that have been taken with the historical facts, as he compares the film to the actual events that had taken place at Chasnala. Along with most other wholly inaccurate aspects of the story, he is bothered that the main character, played by Amitabh Bachchan, is not supposed to be Bihari, as if this would make him less appealing. In fact, most of the main characters are not meant to be Bihari in this film supposedly dealing with a tragedy that claimed the lives of 372 Bihari miners.
When the film is over, Binod says sarcastically:
“A Hindi film version of the tsunami disaster will begin with the animals sensing the disaster and leaving for higher ground. Our hero will notice this, even though it is the middle of the night. He will begin to walk back to the shore and start singing a song about the wind. People will wake up to the music and join him in a dance. Thus, they will be saved. But the people in the next village will not be so lucky. The hero will have to go there next…”
Dubey spoke without cynicism. “You are speaking as a writer. How would you do it differently?”
Binod said, “I’d be less sentimental. More honest.”
But Dubey misunderstood him. He thought Binod was saying to him that Hollywood would do this better. That India always needed to learn from the West. He said, “as in Titanic?”
“Why Titanic?” Binod asked. “Because there is water?”
Dubey said, “Because in that film the hero drowns.” (pp. 270-1)
Dubey does not understand what Binod means when he says he is looking for ‘honesty’ in the telling of the Chasnala disaster. Binod sees the Bollywood production of Kaala Patthar as a story distorted beyond all recognition by its telling in a fantasy mode. What he wants, for justice to be done to the tragic story, is realism, which he sees as the narrative style best suited to bringing forth the truth. But Dubey understands realism differently. To him, realism is Hollywood’s courage to present a lavish fantasy such as Titanic, and then rain on everyone’s picnic by killing off the hero. Bollywood is pure fantasy (and therefore more enjoyable) and realism is Hollywood—a narrative style that brings you to the theater and then makes you feel depressed by the darkness. Of course Dubey’s understanding of what Binod is saying is completely off the mark, and he doubtless would only have the dimmest understanding of what realism is. But the exchange brings out an important point about the tension between the realist mode of narration in literature and film and what genres are able to reveal ‘the truth’ about life in India.
Authenticity vs. Realism
In an article in the Boston Review called “Bad News: Authenticity and the South Asian Political Novel,” Kumar, who is also a critic, discusses a number of recent South Asian novels that showcase the so-called ‘dark side’ (another recent article also discusses this supposed new dark side trend) of life in India and Pakistan. The dark side is crime, corruption and poverty, as opposed to previous Indian novels in English, which are now considered more frothy (itself a dubious point, in that the frothy novels, which do depict the privileged upper middle class lives of their characters at length also throw in vast sections on social ills—think, for example of A Suitable Boy and The Inheritance of Loss). Besides offering incisive critiques of several newer novels, such as The White Tiger and The Case of Exploding Mangoes, Kumar also offers us insight into his own struggles with writing Home Products, and the anxiety experienced by the NRI or upper-middle-class South Asian writer attempting to write authentically about the ‘real’ India.
In his discussion of the Booker Award-winning The White Tiger, Kumar worries about his own negative reaction to the novel’s stereotypical and demeaning depiction of Biharis (the state of Bihar itself is referred to as ‘Darkness’ in the novel):
I was anxious about my response to The White Tiger. No, not only for the suspicion about the ressentiment lurking in my breast, but also because I was aware that I might be open to the same charge of being inauthentic.
For years, in the wake of Rushdie, I imagined magical realism to be the last refuge of the nonresident Indian. If you were dealing in invented details, it hardly mattered when you mixed up names and dates. But now, more than magical realism, it is the painstaking attempt at verisimilitude that clearly betrays the anxiety about authenticity. This condition is more subtle. It has limited fiction’s reach, keeping writers to what they know. Look at Jhumpa Lahiri, who has assiduously mined the experience of Bengali immigrants of a fixed class. She is one of the better ones, writing about what she knows; lesser writers have been content to churn out what we all know: arranged marriage, dowry, saris, and spices.
Kumar goes on to discuss and quote an oft-cited article that also appeared in the Boston Review, “The Cult of Authenticity,” by Vikram Chandra. In that article, Chandra argues against charges of inauthenticity leveled against him and other Indian writers of English.
For the sins of their advantages, the gods visit upon some of the comfortable in India a powerful guilt. Those who are comfortable and speak English are burdened by a double guilt. Convinced that they are marooned by their comfort and their language, these good burghers are assailed by a constant, oppressive sense of unreality. If you’ve spent any time in Delhi, or read much Indian critical writing, you will have met the FabIndia-kurta wearing gentleman and the ethnic-bindi wearing lady who will wave their Scotches in your face and tell you that the “Real India” is anywhere but where you are, that the “Real India” is in the urban slums, in the faraway villages of Bihar, in the jungles of the tribals. So if you write in English, and are improperly contaminated by the West, if you’ve travelled across the Black Waters and lost your caste, then the “Real India“ is by definition beyond your grasp. “Real India” is never here, it is always there. “Real India” is completely unique, incomprehensible to most, approachable only through great and prolonged suffering, and unveils herself only to the very virtuous.
To Chandra’s call for the freedom to choose one’s subject matter and one’s own ‘real India,’ Kumar counters:
Chandra’s argument against the impossible-to-satisfy and hypocritical demand for purity is liberating. Yet I wonder where that leaves criticism. Does Chandra’s injunction to writers–“Be fearless, speak fearlessly to your readers, wherever they are”–not also apply to critics?
His opponent in the essay is an academic critic; Chandra shrewdly graphs himself as the street-smart writer. There is a lesson in this. Such is the impurity of our enterprise, as writers or as critics, that even in the act of proclaiming our freedom from the demands of authenticity, we are never free from brandishing it.
To my mind, the so-called “authenticity debate” is a red-herring. Authenticity is a slippery quality that seems better suited to descriptions of food (“that restaurant serves a truly authentic Paella”) or artisanal crafts (“her wall-hangings are made with authentic Native American wools and dyes”) than for characterization and dialogue in fiction-writing. What seems to me to be at stake, beyond the upper class guilt of his accusers that Chandra cites, or the exile’s distanced perspective that troubles Kumar, is the art and craft of creating a realist narrative. Kumar seems to move just shy of this conclusion when he continues:
Unlike Chandra, I don’t think there is freedom at hand from the entire question of authenticity, largely because there is no escape from the yearning for the real. The painfully real, the brilliantly, euphorically real, the emphatically real. Either in our lives, or in our writing.
Realism is not reportage, and even in a novel such as Home Products, which is told from the narrative perspective of a reporter, the inclusion of Binod’s journalistic assignments, his reactions to them, his interviews with subjects of his stories is a form of realistic (meaning in the realist mode) writing. In Kumar’s critique of Adiga’s stereotyped portrayals of Biharis in The White Tiger, he is not saying that these portrayals are ‘inauthentic,’ he is saying that in their obvious cartoonishness, they are unsuccessful (and in their de-humanizing stereotyping, also offensive) in the art of realism.
Writing realism set in India is a special challenge, and the arguments about authenticity as well as ongoing discussions about whether or not an author has ‘captured’ (as a snapshot) a particular slice of life successfully seem more to do with the endless obstacles in using one language spoken by a relative few to create the illusion of even just one small corner of a society that is deeply multi-layered in terms of language, culture and class. Like a bas-relief sculptor, an author must make us feel that we are seeing multiple dimensions while using what amounts to a possibly limiting single layer of language. Even if words from Indian languages are thrown in, there are limits to how much this can be done before the narration gets bogged down under the weight of too many words from other languages.
I don’t wish to end on a note that implies that one kind of story-telling, or one kind of aesthetic, is objectively better than another. Reading literature is not running a science experiment and ultimately we will read whatever books subjectively please us. On the other hand, a novel like Home Products is not only an excellent read, but it also avoids reifying the dehumanizing and possibly dangerous stereotypes about an under-privileged area, while simultaneously opening up for readers all around the world the complexities of the every day lives of people living in the flyover country that is Bihar. If you like that sort of thing.
*Astute Hindiwallah reader VJ has pointed out to me that the word ‘aanchalik’ is derived from the Hindi word ‘anchal’ (beginning with a short ‘a’), meaning ‘region,’ and not from ‘aanchal,’ which means ‘sari border.’ The two words do, however, share a common Sanskrit root, and so can be assumed to have some relationship, and it is more than likely that Renu chose the title “Maila Aanchal” for his Aanchalik novel in order to invite fuse the connotations of the homophonous and related words. Always the language learner, never the learned.