Via moorish girl, comes another gripe about the literary quality of Indians writing in English about India – again on their “authenticity”. I covered earlier the historian’s spat around the same issue of who has the right to write about India – only pure-bred and indian-raised and indian-living Indians or these westernized diaspora hacks who come back to visit the grandparents and get a book deal to sponsor the trip because selling the exotic East is so much easier if the salesman is brown.
Roy critiques these foreign-desis thusly:
Bajwa, Suri and Swarup appropriate the lives of people whom they do not understand; unlike Bibhutibhushan, who lived Apu’s life of deprivation in the city and the village, unlike Mulk Raj Anand, who saw at first hand what the humiliations of an untouchable encompassed, they are at a remove from their subjects. And I do mean subjects.
The fact that an appropriation is benign, or well-intentioned, does not make it any less of an appropriation. Monica Ali does a more sophisticated version of the same thing, using a journalist’s techniques and a ham playwright’s voice when she employs pidgin English to convey the pathos of a Bangladeshi woman’s letters from the village to a luckier relative abroad.
This does not make their novels any less entertaining, in the cases of Bajwa and Swarup, or any less well-written, in the case of Monica Ali and Manil Suri. But it does set up a constant, low-level interference that prevents an astute reader from engaging with their novels at a deeper level. I would call it white noise, were it not so very clearly brown.
They don’t truly understand. Because comprehension is tied to the local – the land, the people, the language. If you are one of us, you will write for us, in our language. The gripe is not new but has an interesting history. In most cases, it comes from the gateholders of litrary culture – the critics. The popularity of the author in or out of India does not really matter. In fact, if the author gets lots of sales or good press in English, it further dooms them to the gallows of authenticity. Allow me to elaborate the broader charges made by critics. By adopting English, as opposed to Tamil or Bengali or whatever, the Indian author is said to alienate his Tamil or Bengali or whatever audience who do not speak or read English. This is either a pseudo-distancing that takes the author out of one category (family, native) into another (interloper, colonizer) or a real-distancing if the author is only of Indian origin and resident in the West. Concurrently, by adopting English, as opposed to Tamil or Bengali or whatever, the Indian author chooses the metropole, or native elites, as her audience. This is either self-superiority that enables her to speak to them on behalf of us or it is self-inferiority that makes her choose the colonial language and idiom for self-expression. Such accusations of elitism or opportunism are never raised against those that write in vernacular language even though the literacy rate hovers at the bottom for everyone.
One of the first to face these charges was Kasi Das Prasad Ghosh (1809-73). In 1830, when he published his volume of English verse, The Shair and Other Poems, he was branded “inauthentic” for his mimicry. Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay’s (1838-1903) nationalist Bengali poetry was also seen by Indian literary critics of the time as too heavily indebted to Shakespeare and Byron to be called Bengali, yet that did not hinder his popularity as the foremost imagineer of a united India. Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s 1885 The Young Zamindar was the first prose work in English to come out in India to widespread acclaim and accusations of inauthenticity. Tagore’s 1913 Nobel Prize for his English verses in Gitangali is the obvious highlight of this trend. Mulk Raj Anand’s novels of the 20s and 30s dealt with societal ills of India. Yet, at that time, he was accused of speaking only to the elite to whom the issues of untouchability etc. were only of academic interest. In the 40s and 50s and later the same charge of elitism was leveled against R. K. Narayan, Ruth Jhabvala, and Anita Desai among many others. There was some moderation given to the careers of V. S. Naipul, Salman Rushdie, and Ashish Nandy who were heralded with both critical and popular acclaim during the 70s and 80s but the tide turned with the newest crop of writers led by Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize. The rise of hot publishing sensations chronicling India’s inner and external monologues has produced the predicted backlash. Mango fiction made them mad.
Pakistan has a lag of about 30 years in terms of writers writing in English but the recent crop of Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie is already facing the same criticisms.
Uh. I need to get to work. Damn you blog.