Raja Rao 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

An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture and Society

20150526_131129At a time when a law is expected to punish the polluters of river Ganga, an anthology of writings about the river is timely. An Anthology of Writings on the Ganga edited by Australians, Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson is a collection of extracts from the epics — Mahabharata and the Ramayana; poetry and the Will and Testament of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; extracts giving a historical perspective such as by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Iranian traveller Ahmad Behbahani to contemporary travel writers like Eric Newby, Raghubir Singh, Vijay Singh. The editors have even managed to make an eclectic selection giving a bird’s-eye view of how the river has caught the imagination of Indian fiction writers such as Manik Bandopadhyaya, Raja Rao, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and interestingly enough translation of a scene from a Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood film – Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The collection concludes with a handful of specially commissioned academic essays on the Ganga on topics as varied as culture, religion, Hinduism and the river economy.

The Central Government of India has established the National Water Mission for the “conservation of water, minimizing wastage and ensuring its more equitable distribution both across and within States through integrated water resources development and management”. ( http://wrmin.nic.in/forms/list.aspx?lid=267) Apart from this there are two projects for river Ganga — Namami Gange project and National Mission for Clean Ganga.  According to a newspaper article published on 19 May 2015 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/draft-law-to-curb-ganga-pollution-in-final-stages/article7219922.ece ) “the Rs. 20,000 crore Namami Gange project is spread over five years and covers 41 tributaries of Ganga. The National Mission for Clean Ganga that has been assigned the task of cleaning the river, is focussed on abatement of pollution and has designed its interventions around this. However, it is seeking partnerships and is tailoring its projects so that state governments, local municipalities and panchayats have a stake and take ownership of the projects for sustainability. To speed up the process of cleaning the river, the Mission has sought the participation of institutions, donors, overseas Indians, business and corporate houses to donate their might and money for projects or sponsoring projects to clean up the river . Already pilot projects have been launched in eight cities. The challenge is to set up a drainage system in thickly populated cities. The urgent need is to bring down lean season BOD levels in the river to 10 mg/litre/day, the Total Suspended Solid levels to 10 mg/litre/day and Total Faecal Coliform to 100 mg/litre/day. These levels run into over lakhs at present.

The Indo-Gangetic plain created by many years of sedimentation is the most fertile agricultural land in the subcontinent. The flat plains Gangastretch for miles till the horizon and are mostly covered in fields. So apart from the cultural and religious associations with the river the economic considerations are equally important for its preservation since India continues to be heavily dependent upon an agrarian economy — it is estimated to contribute at least fifty percent to the national economy. Given this scenario, it is handy to have an intelligently devised anthology tracing the history, cultural significance and contemporary views plus challenges on the maintenance of this river crucial to the socio-economic and cultural capital of India. The only quibble I have with this anthology is that when we have plenty of photographs of the river, including some iconic ones taken by Raghubir Singh, why was the book cover design inspired by Australian aboriginal art work?

Even so, read it.

Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture, and Society Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 380 Rs 895