My article (cover story) on word portraits of India, published in Asian Age, 2 Dec 2012. Here is the link http://www.asianage.com/cover-story/inking-india-946
The recent Girish Karnad-V.S. Naipaul altercation reignited the debate on how authentically can the realities and complexity of India be portrayed through words. Writing on or about India is not unheard of — E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India; M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavilions; Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Jungle Book; Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India; Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram, Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to list a mixed bag of names. To comment upon the accuracy or authenticity of books discussing India is never easy. Yet surprisingly the books that work don’t try to understand India’s complexity — they reveal it. They don’t impose a world view but they have a point of view. Writers who share their personal experience and look out from that, seem to grasp more than those who have readymade explanations or impose viewpoints to simplify complexity. Works that pile detail on detail work very well, such as Shantaram or Kim.
Recently, these word portraits on India have gained momentum, especially in nonfiction. The frequency with which these books are being published is astounding. For instance, Akash Kapur’s India Becoming; Oliver Balch’s India Rising, Patrick French’s India: A Portrait; Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857 edited by William Dalrymple and Yuthika Sharma.For writer Tabish Khair, “It is not a question of portraying India ‘correctly’, as India is too complex and changing a reality to be portrayed in a handful of approved or ‘correct’ ways. But it is a question of engaging honestly with the discourses employed by anyone to portray India: for instance, if someone sees historical India as torn between the two opposed and segregated ‘nations’ of Muslims and Hindus, then he is subscribing to a dubious colonialist 19th century discourse, and I think this should be pointed out.”
Raja Rao, in his preface to Kanthapura, talks about the need to develop a new kind of English to describe the complexities of India. “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own, the spirit that is one’s own… We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression, therefore, has to be a dialect which will someday prove to be in as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.”
Amandeep Sandhu, whose recently published Roll of Honour is about Punjab, comments that a word portrait on India “demands that the writer rid oneself of one’s own prejudices and learns to stand in the shoes of the villain in the text. That is a tough call and is compounded by not wanting to write for a market or for money or for a constituency. I feel it is necessary to portray ourselves in a way that the readers can focus on us not for our being exotic but for our being human.”
Academic and critic Mohan Rao said in a recent review of Siddharta Mukherjee’s The Emperor of Maladies, “I am curious about why some books get international recognition and awards and others don’t… The Indian elites and middle classes celebrate whatever the West acknowledges. Why the West acknowledges mainly Adigas and Vergheses says something about imperialism and the economics and politics of publishing. It also says something sad about the Indian elites and middle classes who believe these don’t exist.”
Shauna Singh Baldwin’s new novel The Selector of Souls has an Indo-Canadian character. She feels, “How can there be any correct way to ‘portray the realities of India’ or more importantly Indians? If I thought about that, I’d be completely discouraged from writing stories and just stick to pithy comments from the sidelines. Rarely are stories written from a multi-point of view (like a play or a film) or a group point of view. Most stories ask, Why did this happen? and, Why to this person? Fiction usually follows one individual at a time, asking the reader to put him/herself in another point of view.” Janice Pariat, whose anthology Boats On Land focusses on khasis, says it very well, “It’s most important to keep in mind that the nation is our biggest, toughest construct and all writers can do is offer a re-imagination of a small part of it — whether the place is where he or she comes from or chooses to live in.”
The acclaimed writer N.S. Madhavan feels most Malayalam writers of the past were zeitgeisty, in the sense that they flowed with time rather than holding up a mirror to realities of the day. He says, “O.V. Vijayan’s celebrated Legends of Khasak was essentially a 1960s novel that through sheer good writing outlived the decade. Fiction these days has more reality connect; it took more than 40 years of Malayalis’ Gulf experience to produce Benyamin’s novel Goat Days or their tryst with Naxalism in Santhosh Kumar’s Andhakaranazhi (Vortex of Darkness). Surely this ought to have something to do with instant history churned out by individuals in social media.”