The Write Stuff

Posted by sepoy on January 26, 2005 · 6 mins read

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.


Amardeep | January 26, 2005

I agree with your point about the "gallows of authenticity" -- the futility of those discussions. But isn't Roy being quite careful, before she gets to Monica Ali, not to mention the language question? Perhaps that is what she is really talking about throughout... BUT: Another reading of her column is to take her point about "distance" quite literally. Certainly, Rupa Bajwa can't be accused of 'inauthenticity' along the Indian/Western axis, since Bajwa has spent nearly her whole life in Amritsar. The problem in Bajwa's novel, if anything, is its blindness regarding the class-positioning of her characters. In short, maybe what we're talking about here fundamentally is social class, and only secondarily acculturation and language-choice.

desesperanto | January 26, 2005

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. This is untrue. I don't know why you're generalizing across Indian languages, and I'd be surprised if it were even true for yours.

Ajju | January 26, 2005

I have experienced both ends of this argument in some way - firstly having read books by Indian authors living in the west. There were some parts that made me think - this is just wrong, someone (a character) in this position/situation would never really act like/say this. But that was true for THAT author. I think the argument that only someone who has lived and continues to live in India can write well about it is flawed. A story is the sum of an author's views and imagination. Not having lived a life in India or not having seen people like his characters first hand would not necessarily limit a good writer from writing well. Conversely having seen things first hand in India does not mean you can write well or even accurately about it - at least I can't, yet.

sepoy | January 26, 2005

amardeep: class could indeed be Roy's measuring stick. She promises another column so we shall see. desesperanto: ok, I will bite. If you have examples of vernacular writers being hit by the authenticity stick, I look forward to hearing about them. At least in Urdu or Punjabi or Sindhi literature, I cannot think of any examples.

thabet | January 27, 2005

What I find more galling is that those who write in English are heralded by others, usually critics in Western countries, as the 'new voice of X' (where X = the Subcontinent, India, Pakistan etc). It's as though these people are voiceless until someone from among them uses English (an Urdu Marxist poet made a similar point, but his name alludes me, but I don't think it was Faiz).

desesperanto | January 27, 2005

It wasn't bait to bite. On the contrary, I find these "woe is the lot of the elite anglophone so cruelly accused of being an elite and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous unadoration after the very new york times appointed him authentic voice of the subcontinent" to be bait. Two immediate examples: Kalki v. Manikodi re: populism/elitism, or Geetha's writings on using Dalit speech in children's books. Developing a generally accessible literary language, which community's speech that privileges, purifying vocabularies, avant garde techniques in literature etc have all been debated in terms of elitism, populism, authenticity.

sepoy | January 27, 2005

if i am a rich spoiled brat from ny and i write a shitty novel about the slums of rio de janeiro, then tell me that my novel is shitty on its literary terms - with or without the new york times' endorsement. i just don't suffer the fools who'd rather question my "right" to "represent" the favelas.

Sin | January 27, 2005

I'm working on bringing Pakistan up to speed. I think that the big gay expose novel may help that. But, you're right, I feel. Novels--and I speak as a critic, which is part of my profession--are evaluated almost solely on their contextual terms; on how well they incorporate disparate elements, how meta and self-referential they, how "real" they are, versus how real they "sound". It's a shame, because the entire theory and praxis of literary criticism is taking a nosedive into textual nitpicking, versus honest evaluations and appraisals of the merits of a story. What people may also sometimes forget is that occasionally, the reason for writing in English, despite being desi, is that as a whole, the language is the most accessible. I'm Punjabi, but I wouldn't write in Punjabi because as a writer, I'm looking to target a demographic that goes beyond purely linguistic barriers; I want as many people as possible to read as much of my work as possible, partly because of royalties, partly because of recognition. The fact that I also happen to be more comfortable in English than I am in Punjabi/Hindi/Sindhi/Urdu is an unfortunate side-effect of my education and up-bringing, but my no means should it invalidate the merit and quality of my work.

desesperanto | January 27, 2005

Strange for a historian to get faint at the notion of patterns of culture. I mean, it would be awfully generous if people were to take the imaginary brat's novel seriously enough to consider it on its own terms, but perhaps people who have endured any number of brats with similar kinds of shitty novels will not be in the mood to be so generous. Especially when the imaginary brat who screams for artistic liberty when his bona fides are questioned will also, when he thinks he can get away with it, pimp his authenticity for all it's worth. I wonder if there is some literary scholar who has connected all of this to Benedict Anderson's work on long distance nationalism.

Eteraz | January 28, 2005

Dear Mr. Historian, I am in need of your research prowess. I am looking to find as much information about Muslim mirasies in Pakistan (Punjab) as I can find. There is nothing on the internet and there are interesting historical gossip in my family about which I'd like to learn at the earliest. See my email address. Thank you for your kind help.

sepoy | January 28, 2005

Eteraz: Unfortunately there is not much recent scholarship on the Kaniachi or Marasi caste. If I were you, I would turn to the Ibbetson's The Races, Castes and Tribes of the People in the Report on the Census of the Punjab, 1883 who postulated that the Gypsies of Europe are descendants of the north Indian Mirasi or Dom castes (Dom gave the Rom or Romany terms). thats in brief. i might put up a post on this next week. no promises, though.

ayan | January 28, 2005

But does it matter that the fools who question your ability to represent the "favelas" are actually the ones that represent them? It is based on a broader detachment with the subject that these critics base their criticisms on - and often times these critics are in the same position as the author. An elite "literate" intellectual looking out for his ethnicity's appropriation (although he may have already done it using a more advanced and standardized version of his own vernacular).

v | January 29, 2005

Actually, the Gitanjali was written in Bengali, and the English translation of it was what won the Nobel, though the original was in Bengali (which probably no one in Sweden could read). I don't really what authentic means, however, there is a difference between Indian writers in local languages, or even English (like R.K Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand) and writers like Salman Rushdie. I do think the quality of literature by people like Rushdie is really good but they all seem to be informed by a very different set of concerns than those that occupied someone like RK Narayan, or Mulk Raj Anand etc.

Nilanjana | January 29, 2005

Wasn't very sure if it was polite to jump in when it's my column under discussion... but thought I might try to make a small distinction? I'm not interested in where a writer is located geographically or his/her "right" to represent x or y or z. Writers write. About anything and anyone they choose to. In the language that they're most comfortable with. I'm interested in what happens when a character becomes unconvincing, or a narrative forces me to segue away from the text, for the wrong reasons. Sometimes this happens when the writer literally doesn't know his or her subject. This is clearly not the case with Ali, who sees Brick Lane in a certain way, or Bajwa, who lived in Amritsar, or Swarup. I'm saying that their characters don't work for me in literary terms: they don't live for me the way Mr Biswas does, or Yossarian does. I don't know whether Naipaul "lived" Biswas's life; I have no idea whether Yossarian was drawn from Heller's experience of war; and I don't care. Those characters, they're alive for me. Bajwa's attendant, Swarup's beggar turned quiz contestant, and yes, Hasina in Brick Lane--they don't work for me, as literary characters. Why? I should be able to answer this. The closest I can come to is to suggest that these authors haven't made the imaginative leap into their lives. Is Bajwa's India authentic or not, is Brick Lane an accurate reflection of Bangladeshi immigrants in London or not? How would I know? And as a reader, not a critic, it's irrelevant. As a reader, what matters to me is that these books don't work for me, that they are unsatisfying--not as reflections of the real world, but as works of fiction. That's a minority opinion. But it's mine. As for language, you use what comes to hand, what is yours. As for authentic India, I live in this country, but I haven't the foggiest idea whether I would qualify as an authentic Indian. When you find one, let me know.

sepoy | January 29, 2005

Nilanjana: I entirely agree when you write that these works should be judged "not as reflections of the real world, but as works of fiction". That is exactly my point. In your column, you successfully question the debate on authenticity but then condemn "the books about India and by writers of Indian origin that come to us on an ocean of advance publicity" and that such books form, "a body of writing by authors of Indian origin, about India, that forms a library of hollowed-out books." My emphasis is to point that you are referring to more than Ali or Suri. Why are they all ringing untrue and hollow to you? why the constant low-level hum? my reading of your column was that it is because you don't buy the [indian] world these writers are constructing for you. I read it as a decrying authenticity and Amardeep as distance from the subject. This lack of "imaginative leap" could be either or neither. But why is it prevalent? also related to this discussion: Wendy Shalit's thoughts on outsider insiders fiction in this sunday's NYT.

thabet | February 03, 2005

"I entirely agree when you write that these works should be judged "not as reflections of the real world, but as works of fiction"." If "literature" (works of fiction) replaces the role of religion, as some contend, then this "literature" will neccessarily be a "reflection" of the "real world" because it will involve some form of ethical criticism (previously the duty of religious leaders). Further how far can "it's just a story" hold up to scrutiny when the authors themselves publically defend particular readings of their own text? It appears that when they do this the "work of fiction" becomes part of the "real world".

Kankana Basu | May 13, 2005

Dear Ms. Roy I've been following your views and opinions for quite a while and was very impressed by your svelte presence at the Crossword Awards ceremony. I would be very grateful if you give my debut book of short stories 'Vinegar Sunday', a read. Vinegar Sunday is a collection of 13 short stories which revolve around the Probasi Bengali families living in a ramshackle old building called Halfway House. Their mindsets, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities constitute the flavour of the book. If you find the time and the inclination to go through the book, Id be simply delighted. I'd also value any comments that you might choose to make. Yours sincerely Kankana Basu

Anil Menon | August 22, 2005

Authenticity is one of those essentialist ideas; it is as if there's this substance in the liver that can differentiate person X from person Y. If Modernity is the idea that identity is a matter of choice, then Authenticity and Modernity are natural enemies. It's not a coincidence that the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's seminal book was titled "The Malaise of Modernity" in the French version and "The Ethics of Authenticity" in the American one. In its crudest form, authenticity is held to be a matter of one's genes, one's corporeality. These days, it's more acceptable to say that authenticity is a matter of direct experience. Thus, Shakespeare is inauthentic when he wrote about Ceasar or Hamlet. It does not suffice for Shakespeare to have read books by people who've had direct experience with Ceasat and Hamlet. Direct experience is not transmissible as text, just as one cannot become a Brhamin by merely reading the vedas or leading a scholarly life. Authenticity is ultimately a reactionary ideal. That Roy is otherwise an ultra-liberal is one of those banana-peels that the Universe likes to scatter around. --Anil Menon

Qalandar | April 06, 2006

Interesting post and comments thread. The unspoken assumption of those who would criticize "Indian writers in English" FOR writing in English is that these writers are to be held culpable for their reception as "authentic ambassadors" by some of their audiences (in the West? not necessarily, or not only in the West; the Sundarbans of Amitav Ghosh's "The Hungry Tide" are, I suspect, almost as unfamiliar to his audiences in India as to audiences elsewhere). Certainly they are complicit, in that they are aware of the manner and mode of reception, but that doesn't make them culpable in the way that Ms. Roy's piece appears to me to suggest. I'm certainly not taking the position that we retreat from the essentialism of "authenticity" to the essentialism of "literary merit"-- but I am suspicious of attempts to impose some sort of litmus test on Indian writers, or any writers, because they write in English. Undoubtedly, the fact that they write in English is the legacy of, and encodes, a certain history (of colonialism, of elite vs. "popular" culture, of class, of-- to use Mahmood Mamdani's schema-- the "citizen" who inhabits the metropolis versus the "subject" out in "the countryside"), but many of the writers-in-English themselves are conscious of, and attempt to explore, these themes. As well they might, for the histories cannot be denied (the criticism might stand on a different plane if the writers we were speaking of were blithely unaware of and oblivious to their position). I agree with Anil: "authenticity"-- or more accurately, the policing that authenticity necessitates-- runs the risk of falling prey to a reactionary politics (why stop at those who write in English? What about those who don't DRESS in the traditional manner? Or those who don't worship? And what is the writer who is born and raised in India, or who merely visits occasionally, but is more comfortable writing in English than in any other language, to DO?

Ritwik Banerjee | May 17, 2007

I was extremely surprised, and pleasantly so, to see names like Shoshee Chunder Dutt in your article; names that have been forgotten by the non-academic reader today. I also entirely agree with you when you say that a work of fiction needs to be 'local'. Simple examples should suffice as support for my view here --- the image of a mother putting her child to sleep cannot be evoked in a language that is alien to the relevant socio-cultural canvas of the fiction; the anger or frustration of a jobless young man in Delhi cannot but express itself in colloquial Hindi. I haven't read Brick Lane (I generally avoid Indian English literature for other reasons), but this alienation is what sprang up when I read Naipaul, Arundhati Roy and even Jhumpa Lahiri. Exactly as you put it succinctly, these books don't work for me! Jhumpa's case should be treated differently though, because, she quite consciously writes about such alienation.

Begam Samru | June 22, 2010

To the ubiquitous "black-turtle-neck-wallahs /is" of the Inauthenticity-of-Indo-Anglian-Lit. camp. Two Questions: Is the ANGLO-Indian writer Irwin Allan Sealy a colonizer and inauthentic, because he writes in English, his native language...In India? Secondly: If *only* South Asians living in South Asia (preferably in 'subaltern' situations) can write authentically about South Asia; the logical corollary occurs to your humble correspondent: Therefore, South Asian writers living in South Asia can ONLY write about South Asia. Which to me renders their 'discursive location' once more, little better than quaint, native informants... I stand with Sepoy and thabet. Judge on literary merit; not on always already subjective points of 'authenticity'.