Hanif Kureishi’s What Happened? is a collection of essays and stories that were published in various literary magazines and newspapers in recent years. The publications may be recent but it is an interesting mix spanning a few decades of his life. The essays are mostly autobiographical revolving primarily around his desire to be a writer, his determination to achieve his goal and once a published writer, inhabiting a literary world which was predominantly white and seemed to constantly sideline writers like him who were of a different colour.
The British creativity I grew up with – in pop, fashion, poetry, the visual arts and the novel – has almost always come from outside the mainstream, from clubs, gay subcultures, the working class and from the street. Many of the instigators might have been white, but they were not from the middle class, a group that lacks, in my experience, the imagination, fearlessness and talent to be truly subversive.
The truth is, the conservative fear of other voices is not due to the anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge, but that they will be outstanding and brilliant. The conservatives willhave to swallow the fact that despite the success of British artists, real talent has been neglected and discouraged by those who dominate the culture, deliberately keeping schools, the media, universities and the cultural world closed to interesting people.
The essays that stand out are those that describe Kureishi’s awakening as an author, his descriptions of inhabiting the literary world and his firm opinions about racism. These have been consistent themes in his essays over the years but in this collection they are stand out as being extremely relevant. What really hits home hard is that Kureishi was writing about these subjects much before it became fashionable to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the creative industry. He was writing what he saw, experienced, and analysed. He made it his trademark to write about various subjects particularly the racial discrimination he saw daily. It is a perspective that was quite literally being whitewashed in mainstream media and literary platforms though chinks had begun to be visible. Hanif Kureishi is of Asian origin but he was born and brought up in UK. So he was like any other British child except he was made acutely aware of the difference because of his skin colour whereas he did not see himself as any different. But in his very moving essay remembering his friend David Bowie it becomes apparent that to some degree even colour does not matter, but the socio-economic station that you inhabit does. Bowie and Kureishi were a decade apart, they went to the same school in Bromley, but become firm friends later, probably when they joined showbiz.
From the time Kureishi began writing in the early 1970s till now, he has always been comfortable with who he is and his voice has never changed. His style of writing is predictable but never boring, if anything it has become sharper with age. What comes through extraordinarily beautifully in What Happened? is that Hanif Kureishi has not changed but the world has to a certain degree — the horrors of sectarian violence and racism that he was alerting us to over the years have only intensified. So commentators like Kureishi who speak confidently, sharing an opinion, continue to be relevant.
Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.
With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)
Allahabad in the ’60s was home to
some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left
Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around
(Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and
Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi,
VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was
Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and
Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or
domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The
very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their
literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced
judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was
only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a
sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and
contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded
world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.
Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the
small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic
literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small
wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low
self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by
writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned
to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets
that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of
culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its
definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas.
Political correctness has a lot to answer for.
Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.
Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.
Naturally, the serialised novel
had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to
Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or
when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative.
This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the
intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My
sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik
Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out
Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment
so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines
jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and
siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was
delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could
share it among themselves.
What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.