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The nation and the novel
As the season of literary festivals get under way, it's time to ask some big questions. If the European novel was born out of a crisis of religious faith, what were the impulses that launched the South Asian novel? And how faithful a mirror has it been?
Last week, I appeared on a platform with David Davidar at the Mumbai Literature Live Festival to discuss 'South Asian Writing in the International Context'.
David is a doyen of the publishing world and probably has very many statistics at his disposal. He's probably read all the books which the exponentially expanded English book publishing industry of India has put out in the last few years. I have to confess I have only picked up a few and those mostly the poetic, narrative and historical, or polemical output of friends or interesting writers I have shared conversations with.
I suppose an international context could imply or call for some critical appreciation of the popularity of Indian, Pakistani, and now Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi fiction in the West. Since Salman Rushdie's appearance on the prize stage, no year goes by without one or more new author, some of them with their first published novel being entered for and perhaps winning prestigious literary prizes.
It's a phenomenon that may indicate a globalisation of interest to include South Asian slum dogs and the redemptive reassurance in their triumphs. It may also indicate that apart from the contrivances of historical fiction, British writing has little to say as it fades into provincialism and fantasy - though J K Rowling has proved that both these may not win prizes but can certainly sell copies.
The very proliferation of 'novels' and published pap in India makes it necessary to have some yardstick, personal or publicly discussed, to be able to distinguish the worth of one piece of writing from that of another.
This critical yardstick can't be a scientific measure or a once-and-for-all formula. It has to take the form of an expansive and continuous dialogue and it has to have some severity of judgement.
I know whereof I speak. Between the age of 11 and 19 I read, indiscriminately, any and everything I could lay my hands on. In Pune, where I spent most of that time there was a decrepit library on East Street called the Albert Edward Institute, a faded relic of the Raj. It had four or five virtually abandoned rooms of bookshelves and on the veranda there were wobbly wooden tables with the day's newspapers spread on them for the regulars, old men who cycled or ambled up for a free read.
I borrowed books furiously one after the other: the complete works of Thomas Hardy, of Marie Corelli, of Eric Linklater and Paul de Cock among others.
From the pavement bookstalls and from enthusiastic neighbours I picked up the works of Earl Stanley Gardner, V I Lenin, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Jean Rhys, Bertrand Russell, the Readers' Digest abridged editions and a hundred others. Someone called Kant and someone called Joyce which was also the name of the daughter of 'Uncle Frankie' who sold contraband liquor in our neighbourhood alleys. I devoured these books making some head and some tail of them but had no way of distinguishing between the worth of one and the other. It was all reading to me - the print between covers which opened fictional and other intellectual worlds.
It was only when I went to University in England that I became aware of a critical tradition and of the fact that writing only becomes 'literature' when it undergoes the critical scrutiny that a culture supplies. It was finally forced upon me that one poem is better than another, one novel or even one writer superior to the next. I found out why D H Lawrence was in many senses valuable and why Earl Stanley Gardner or Marie Corelli were perhaps not.
No such critical criteria emanate from or have been extracted from Indian culture. One cannot expect publishers, who are after all in the business of selling copies, or reviewers who are navigators without a map, to supply such criteria. The academics who seem to have tried speak a recondite language with its 'subalterns' and 'hybridisations' which only secures American university salaries and makes for profound confusion.
So where to start? How is South Asian writing in a universal human context to be evaluated? Perhaps as all literature has ever been? The European short story was born of the parable and the fable. Check Chaucer. The novel in England, France, Russia and Germany was, in an important way, born of a crisis of religious faith. It would take a whole critical book to explain, but in summary, one may say that when a culture ceases to live and assess itself by the laws of Moses or Jesus, when Dorothea of Middlemarch or Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary feel what they feel and do what they do, they can call upon no strictly biblical justification. It takes George Eliot, Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert to construct a form which captures those nuances of feeling and brings an inclusive sympathy to the possibilities of human and social behaviour.
The novel in the European context was called upon to supply in narrative the definition of 'love', 'faith', 'loyalty', 'generosity', 'compassion', 'priggishness', 'snobbery', 'war', 'peace' and every other abstract noun in the dictionary. It took up where faith left off and did the opposite of what heroic myths used to do. Some European writing, the novels of Dostoevsky and the philosophical works of Nietzsche took this crisis of faith and the death of myth head on, asking and explicitly answering questions.
And South Asia? Of which necessity was South Asian writing in English born? The obvious answer is nationalism and the struggle for Independence.
It was V S Naipaul who, ignoring the output of early Bengali novelists, identified the most important English writing of the early twentieth century as the prose of Gandhi and Nehru. The autobiography of Gandhi was an internal diagnosis of an individual such as had never been attempted before. Nehru's work, feted and flawed, was the part of the process of a nation carving out a history for itself.
The influence of the writing, though widely translated, suffered from the limitation of being in English.
At the same time as this contribution to nationalism was formulated, a far more influential media was coming into its own. Film became the lingua franca of India and it exclusively dedicated itself to the various purposes and themes of nationalism, asserting India's great past (Raja Harishchandra), and following a Gandhian agenda in attacking untouchability (Achhut Kanya) and elevating the status of women (Razia Begum).
The cinematic definitions created and were bound by myth. Modernity, the urbanisation of India, new institutions, industrialisation, global imports, rampant capitalism and corruption (whew!) were changing India and though the myths persisted, were modified and increasingly seen to be fantasy or escapism. How can one take a thousand milkmaids in dazzling costume gyrating to perfect choreography seriously?
The task then of the new cinema and of South Asian writing was to distance oneself from the myth and describe and dissect the personalities and possibilities of existence that emerge. Undoubtedly some South Asian writing does this. Not all. Fiction in English has in some instances fabricated new and outlandish myths - of tough super-rich ladies who speak in an argot closer to second-hand Bronx and suffer dilemmas redolent of those of American high-school children rather than any segment of Indiansociety.
One can't pretend that any critic is going to come up with a magic formula or prescription of what South Asian writing should be doing and whether one book or other is fit for that purpose. Literature and culture are by definition diverse.
Even so, I look forward, if I am allowed to be prescriptive at the end of this polemic, to three essays: the first will assess the contribution to the transliteration of Indian dialects and to the description of Indian types and landscapes in Rudyard Kipling's work. The second will assess the truth and insight of the four books and two novels about India by V S Naipaul. The third will consider, using whatever criteria the critic chooses, the usefulness, truth and, indeed sometimes masterful technique of
Midnight's Children and its imitators. Come on, rush in where angels fear to tread!
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