R.K. Narayan Posts

“Indian Literature in English” by Dom Moraes

( Here are some extracts from an article published in the IIC Quarterly. It is based on a talk delivered  by Dom Moraes at the Centre on April 17, 1976. )

I recently met an exceptionally interesting man. He told me that he was a historian, and that he had a theory. According to the Hindu scriptures, he said, ancient India was full of winged machines in which the gods flew from place to place, showering the earth with blessings as they passed over it : I suppose this was the Vedic equivalent of a Presidential plane. Anyway, my historian said, as the gods flew around, paying state visits, they acquired a lot of knowledge from other countries, though I personally would have thought that if they were gods, they already knew it all. However, I do not want to be too carping a critic. My friend then told me that amidst the other titbits of information brought home in these divine aeroplanes was an English grammar. He was very serious about it. He said that that was the reason Indians today spoke such excellent English : they had been speaking it since the days of the Mahabharata. I would acccept this more readily if it were not a fact that in the days of Mahabharata, English as we know it did not exist. No. I think we must accept, however reluctantly, that English first came to India with the British.

What we must come to now is the fact that all colonial literature, written in the language of the colonist, is bound to be provincial. A kind of Indian literature in English started at the same time as a kind of literature started in the other colonies of Australia and Canada. It cannot be said that the literature produced by any of these three colonies was any better or any worse than the literature produced by others. Indeed, they all resemble each other to some extent. One of the facts about colonies, especially in the days when ship under sail from England to the outposts of Empire were, considered the quickest and most reliable carriers of news and mails—there was no alternative but pigeons—was that the colony was always some weeks or months behind the mother country in the receipt of pure news. This being the case, the colony was usually some years behind the mother country in the receipt of new literature. The lonely writers of Australia and Canada, and therefore of India, for those who chose to write in English, were always some years behind contemporary literary movements in England.

In the 1930s three Indian novelists, all of whom are still alive, emerged. These were Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, and Raja Rao. Mulk Raj Anand is an old and dear friend of mine, yet to much of his writing, as writ ing in English, Yeat’s criticism applies. He writes as though he was trans lating from his native Punjabi into English, hence the recurrent phrases in his work which may sound ridiculous to the reader—for example—”He waved his head in silent assent,” or “O thou raper of thy mother ! Thou raper of thy sister !” Anand started to write his novels at a time when the English book market was (a) empty of exotica and (b) when the intellectuals in England were mainly leftists. He wrote of India, which made him exotic, especially since, unlike Kipling, still alive then, he was an Indian. He wrote of the deprived and poor from a Marxist standpoint, which made him popu lar with the intellectuals. But his work still demands respect, especially his latest work. R. K. Narayan was a very different figure. While Anand lived in England, Narayan never strayed far from his own Mysore. While Anand never seemed to have taken breath in pouring out his sentences, Narayan was a very careful novelist, with a perfect sense of time and place. The town he created, Malgudi, has a truth of its own, drawn from observation and sympathy. Narayan had no political bias, but an intense awareness of people and a sense of sympathy with their predicaments. Anand wrote of huge pre dicaments, Narayan of small ones. But a lot of novelists, like Forster—and Narayan is a sort of Indian Forster, dryly witty, though never cynical, always watchful, and able to construct wordlessly upon his words—have described huge events through small ones. Narayan is incidentally the first Indian writer in English to have shown himself to be a rider of that strange beast, a sense of humour. Mr. Khushwant Singh, the other day, described Narayan’s style as “too simple”. I think his style is very complex. Anyone who is able to be simple is far more likely to be complex than a person who  is striving to be complex in thought and style. This is my main criticism of Raja Rao, and perhaps this is why I find his books utterly unreadable. But an interesting common denominator between these three writers is that all of them achieved some reputation abroad, and that until they had achieved this reputation, they were uniformly without honour in their own country. Mulk Raj Anand lived abroad for a number of years, Raja Rao still lives abroad. R. K. Narayan has always lived in India, though since the 1950’s he has travelled a lot. Apart from the obvious differences between them as writers, there are differences between the degree of each one’s success. Narayan, for example, is probably the most successful in America : on the European continent, where they still entertain the myth of the mystical Oriental, Raja Rao is a coterie figure : Mulk Raj Anand is mainly read in Russia and the Eastern European countries, where the roubles pile up around each of his books. Yet for the normally literate reader of English in India, all three are the same. They are all equal in splendour, because they have made names for themselves abroad—abroad being a term that embraces Connecticut as well as Kiev, and assumes both to be the same. Since the war, of course, there has been a flood of Indian novelists who produce in English. They are all fairly competent and fairly unremarkable. The exception is G. V. Desani, who is a kind of freak. Desani in 1948 produced one book, All about Mr. H. Hatterr, which seems to me a prose master piece. T. S. Eliot was one of those who praised it when it first appeared, but it was then forgotten for more than 20 years.

Desani, like all the others I have mentioned, won a reputation for himself in England, and he was accepted in India because of this. One reason for this uncritical acceptance of English critical praise seems to me the complete absence of any Indian criticism of English writing. This in itself is due perhaps to the initial fact of Macaulay’s system of education. The English told one, in the textbooks, what should be read and what shouldn’t. Ours not to question why. Naturally, therefore, it appeared to college instructors and school teachers that if and when Indian writers received the imprimature of an English publisher and the praise of English critics, they were OK. This lasted for a while, and then the tide turned. As with Professor  Iyengar, so with most other Indian critics; every writer who was able to hobble as far as a printer’s shop and pay to be published was assured of a decent review, so as to enable the homegrown product to flourish.

This has led to a really dramatic fall of standards in Indian literature written in English.

…there have been others of promise, when they lived overseas, whose promise seems stifled when they come home. One of them is Adil Jussawalla. His first book, Land’s End seemed to me, and to many other poets in England, one of the most brilliant first books published since the war.

I have talked tonight about the fact that no proper criticism of Indian writing in English exists in India. There is no real literary magazine : there are no really professional critics. One reason, it seems to me, is that there are few really professional writers. Until quite recently, I lived purely on my earnings as a writer : in a sense I still do, since the function I perform for the United Nations is that of a professional writer. But very few writers in India have ever been professional in that sense—that is, that they exist and support their families on what their pens spit out and their typewriters cough up. Thus one has an enormous number of what could be called Sunday novelists and Sunday poets, and such writers deserve whatever criti cal appreciation is available : i.e. that of Sunday critics. Poets of potential like S. Santhi and Arvind Mehrotra have often spoken to me of the difficulty of obtaining proper criticism in India, and I would say this is one of the most gigantic drawbacks for any writer who works in English in India.

India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (April 1976), pp. 143-156

16 March 2017 

Vikram Seth, “Summer Requiem”

Vikram SethVikram Seth’s poetry is exquisite. Always was and is. Years ago I recall my mother being handed a copy of The Golden Gate by a friend, a journalist, who had interviewed Seth. Mum received an autographed copy of a paperback edition. It had a boring blue cover with a photograph of the Golden Gate but the excitement about reading a novel in verse by an Indian was far greater than nitpicking about the ordinary production quality of the book.  It was the nineteen eighties when Indians were barely recognised globally for writing original fiction and poetry in English. Literary discussions were still confined to the legacies of R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and the emerging “St Stephens School of Writing” to which male writers such as Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan belonged. Arundhati Roy’s Booker success with her debut novel, The God of Small Things, was still a few years away. Since then Vikram Seth, his aforementioned contemporaries and a handful of others have been elevated to the literary elite of the subcontinent and for good reason too — their creative ingenuity in making literature that is a pure delight to immerse oneself in for its craft and its gravitas.

Vikram Seth’s new collection of poetry Summer Requiem validates his status as being a well-deserved member of Vikram and Davidthis exclusive club of writers. In this slim offering of poems published by Aleph Books Vikram Seth experiments with the poetic form. Try scanning the lines and you will be constantly surprised by what you glean. From the traditional form to blank verse of the title poem to translations of poems to creating an extraordinary sonnet in No Further War. The latter poem is not only technically sound but is absorbing to read for its devastating critique of modern day politicians who create mayhem with war, destroying Nature and the beauty of earth, leaving artists a wasteland. In this collection of poems Vikram Seth touches upon a range of issues — commentary, reflecting upon his own body of work including working on a novel ( a reference perhaps to the work-in-progress A Suitable Girl? ), engaging in literary criticism such as discussing the importance of translations  and discovering new writers. Coincidentally when I was reading Summer Requiem I had T. S. Eliot reciting The Wasteland in the background. ( Here is the link:  http://www.openculture.com/2009/11/ts_eliot_reads_the_wasteland.html ) . It is a powerful experience. Two poets, writing decades apart, commenting on the deeply disturbing man-made catastrophes.  A couple of toxic madmen sting mankind. (Vikram Seth “No Further War”) .

With the permission of Aleph Book Company, I am reproducing some lines of poetry from Vikram Seth’s new collection Summer Requiem.

 

The liberated generation lives a restrained youth.

Memory is a poison; it has sickened my body.

The cleavage of attachment has frayed my mind.

( Summer Requiem)

 

Abstractions have their place, the concrete too.

(A Cryptic Reply)

Two oval portraits, prints in black and white,

Lean on a shelf; one of them, Pushkin, who

Never stepped out of Russia in his life,

Let alone roamed around this town, but who

Belongs to you who know his works by heart

And, yes, to me, who, though I cannot read

A word of his by eye, know him by soul.

I wouldn’t be here, we’re it not for him.

He gave me me….

Translation though it was, though every Russian

Yes, you included, when I met you first,

Before the concert in that cavernous room 

Shakes her head slowly when I mention this 

In wistful sympathy ( ‘What can they get 

From Pushkin who can’t understand our tongue?’),

Yet what I got, I got — and it got me

Out of myself, into myself, and made me

Set everything aside I’d set my thoughts on,

And grasp my time, live in his rooms and write

What even today puzzles me by its birth,

The Golden Gate, that sad and happy thing,

Child of my youth, my first wild fictive fling.

(In a Small Garden in Venice)

 

Vikram Seth Summer Requiem Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp.66. Rs 399

Interview with David Davidar, 6 December 2014, The Hindu

With David Davidar

(In December 2014 David Davidar’s A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, published by Aleph Book Company will be released. I interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Review. My review of the book is forthcoming. The online version was published on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/not-so-tall-tales/article6667709.ece . A shorter version will be published in the print edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 7 December 2014.)

David Davidar on his fascination with short stories and how he put together “A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”

Apart from being a well-known publisher, David Davidar is also a novelist, editor and anthologist. He has been an attentive reader of Indian fiction from the time he was a teenager. His latest anthology, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, has 39 short stories from across Indian fiction selected by Davidar. From Khushwant Singh, Munshi Premchand, Chugtai and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Ruskin Bond to new voices like Shahnaz Bashir and Kanishk Tharoor, the volume covers a spectrum of Indian fiction. In this interview, Davidar talks about the short story and the making of the anthology.

Excerpts:

What makes a short story?

R. K. Narayan, one of the world’s greatest writers, tells an amusing story about creative writing in general and the short story in particular. He writes: Once I was present at a lecture on creative writing. The lecturer began with: “All writing may be divided into two groups—good writing and bad writing. Good books come out of good writing while bad writing produces failures.” When touching on the subject of the short story, the lecturer said: “A short story must be short and have a story.” At this point I left unobtrusively, sympathizing with the man’s predicament. The story is amusing but when you come down to it, the short story is devilishly difficult to define if you exclude length as a criterion. Dictionary definitions are banal in the extreme. Here is one example: “A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” A creative writing class instructor may say your story would need to have the following elements — exposition (the setting up of the story, its backdrop, main characters etc.), conflict, plot, theme, climax and so on. If s/he was of a Chekhovian bent of mind, s/he might tell you to write a ‘slice of life’ story that was relatively loosely constructed when compared to tightly plotted stories that hinged on events and turning points. There are many other categories that short stories are classified under but I think one should never be too prescriptive or didactic. Great literary short stories should have an electrifying impact on the reader because of their complexity, mystery, layering, and special effects. And because they can usually be read at one sitting, their impact is different from that of a novel, which usually immerses the reader in a world which it has created. William Boyd, the British writer, provided one take on the form: “Short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more ‘than in real life’.” That’s as good a description as any.

What was the principle of selection?

I decided to pull this anthology together on the basis of a very simple premise: it would only include stories that I loved, stories that had made their mark on me in the 40 years or so that I had been attentively reading serious Indian literature. Like the Chekhov quote I’ve used as an epigraph to the book, the basic criterion for featuring stories in this book would be whether I liked them or not. I decided to leave out commercial fiction because there would then be no focus to the anthology. There would be no other exclusions. It wouldn’t matter to me whether the writer was Dalit or Brahmin, old master or 21st century star, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Parsi or Sikh, man or woman, straight or gay, Tamil or Kashmiri, Punjabi or Malayali. Nor would it matter if the writers wrote in English or in any of the other Indian languages, whether they lived here and carried the blue passport with the Ashok Chakra, or plied their trade in foreign lands… no, the only thing that would influence the selection would be whether or not they were — in my subjective view — breathtakingly good Indian stories. What did I mean by Indian? Either the stories would have to be about India or they would have to be written by an Indian or someone of Indian origin. Necessarily, they would need to possess an ‘Indian sensibility’.

Now, there are learned tomes on ‘the Indian sensibility’, a sensibility that is rooted in Indian culture, history, society, language, but that is not what I am trying to get at here. No, what I am trying to define is that elusive, ineffable quality to ‘serious’ poetry and prose that is unmistakably Indian. If you learn this quality from books, or by over-flying the subcontinent, all you will be able to produce is a variant of the Inspector Ghote mysteries — entertaining but shallowly-rooted writing and without any great insight into anything of consequence. I do not think an Indian sensibility is to be found only in writers who are Indian by nationality or domicile or language. Rather I think it is inherent to writers who were born here, or have lived here for enough time, for distinctive aspects of this country, this civilisation, to shape their view of the world, their creative consciousness, and their style. Their writing, whether about India or elsewhere, is informed by this ‘Indian sensibility’ — when their subject matter is India, they tend not to exoticise, but deepen our understanding of the country.

Having figured out the basic qualifications any story would need to have in order to be included, I refined the criteria for selection. Every story that made the cut would need to be a proper short story. (Vikram Seth’s ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’ is a short story, although it is told in verse.) This meant I wasn’t going to be able to include any extracts from novels, or works in progress. It was also important that none of the stories had dated, or appear quaint to today’s reader. And, finally, every story would need to work perfectly in English, as the anthology was aimed squarely at the reader in English. Other than these qualifications I wouldn’t be excluding any writer.

Are you creating a canon of literature with this collection?

I don’t think any single anthology can canonise a writer. Not that the majority of these writers need ‘canonising’; they are already among the greats of Indian literature. I am hoping that these stories will whet the appetite of readers to explore more of the work of these writers, and other Indian fiction writers.

Do you think there is a “return” to the short story with technological developments?

I don’t think so. We have always had accomplished literary short story writers and novelists and I’m delighted to see new stars working in both these areas.

Why did you commission new translations of well-known stories that were already available in English? Does the flavour of translation change with every generation of readers?

Two reasons. The first is because, as you point out, the great classics do deserve a new translation every generation (20 years) or so to make them work for contemporary readers. The second reason was because, to be honest, a number of the existing translations were appalling. I believe this anthology features some of our greatest ever translators.

 What do you like about a short story collection?

In terms of anthologies that range across multiple genres and languages I like the fact that you are transported to different destinations with every story — the voices, subjects, the styles all change. It’s quite overwhelming, rather like taking a slow train through a variety of breath-taking landscapes.

How was this anthology arranged?

We decided to adopt the simplest possible arrangement, and ordered these stories according to the date of birth of the authors, because it was difficult to find the date of first publication of many of the stories, which would have been the other option. As a result of this arrangement, there were a number of unexpected and delightful pairings and juxtapositions — a mystery story from Bengal would be followed by a darkly comic story set in the cow belt, followed by a poignant story about a dog trapped in floods, followed by a ghost story, for example. The reader will be surprised and delighted at every turn I hope.

Why do you call it a “clutch” of Indian masterpieces?

No particular reason, except it sounded nice when you spoke the title out aloud. Also, it seemed an unusual and apposite collective noun for this particular bunch of stories.

What were the stories you excluded?

Stories that fell into four categories: Stories I didn’t like; great stories from Indian languages other than English that didn’t travel well into English; stories that were not literary; stories that I didn’t know about. Given that Indian short stories have been written for over 100 years in 30 different languages (a lot more if you include the less ‘major’ languages and dialects), I think we should all agree that, no matter how well read we are, we are all ignorant to a greater or lesser degree about aspects of modern Indian literature.

Many readers say short stories are ‘easy to read’? Do you agree? 

No, I don’t think so. Certainly, most of them can be read at one sitting, but to absorb and appreciate their richness, complexity and brilliance, it is incumbent on the reader to engage deeply and as fully as possible with them.

6 December 2014

Vivek Tejuja’s recommendations, 25 Books by Indian authors ( Nov 2014)

Vivek Tejuja’s recommendations, 25 Books by Indian authors ( Nov 2014)

The Other Side of Silence( Vivek Tejuja posted this list on his Facebook page on 26 Nov 2014. I am reposting it on my blog with his permission.) 

In his post, Vivek Tejuja writes “25 Books by Indian authors that Everyone should read , according to me. This is just my opinion of these books which I have loved and enjoyed over the years. I know there are way too many more which can be added here.”

1. All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani
2. Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi
3. In Custody by Anita Desai 
4. Collected Poems by Eunice de Souza
5. In A Forest, A Deer by Ambai
6. The Book of Destruction by Anand
7. Hangwoman by K. Meera
8. All for Love by Ved Mehta
9. A Life in Words by Ismat Chughtai
10. The Music of Solitude by Krishna Sobti
11. The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia
12. Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal
13. Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash
14. Seven Sixes are Forty Three by Kiran Nagarkar
15. The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
16. Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
17. The Guide by R.K. Narayan
18. Rasidi Ticket by Amrita Pritam
19. Selected Short Stories by Kalki 
20. Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla
21. Randamoozham or Bhima by M.T. Vasudevan Nair
22. Divya by Yashpal
23. Suraj ka Saatwan Ghoda by Dharamveer Bharati
24. Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant
25. Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra

27 Nov 2014