Salman Rushdie Posts

Inking India, Asian Age

Inking India, Asian Age

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.”

<strong>Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?</strong>

Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 did not slink by unnoticed. It is a literary extravaganza which reaches out to the masses, rather than being reserved for the upper echelons of society or the intelligentsia. Everybody is welcome to mingle and rub shoulders with the glitterati of literature. It is easy to spot Gulzar, along with Tom Stoppard or as this year proved, even Oprah! The one event that overshadowed the entire festival and its rumbles continue to be heard even now, was the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s presence — will he, won’t he come was the question on everyone’s lips. What were the legal repercussions for the four writers—Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzro and Ruchir Joshi — who attempted to read out passages from Satanic Verses? When it was finally announced that Rushdie will not attend in person, but will address the gathering via a video conference, it was little consolation. But then that too was scuttled, leaving a fuming Rushdie having to address a television audience later that evening, via a link up with NDTV.

Curiously the ban on Satanic Verses is a customs ban that does not allow the book to be imported into the country. The larger question then left for everyone to tussle with – was this a form of censorship? Are we not at a liberty to read what we like? Do we have the freedom to read what we like? Or shall there be those who sit in judgment upon what we can or should not read? Questions that are not always easy to answer. It has spawned various forms of protests, signing of online petitions to most notably “flash reads” which included reading passages from works on 14 Feb – the day, 23 years ago, when the fatwa against Rushdie was announced. Plus a day in that has in recent times become synonymous with the harassment inflicted upon young lovers by vigilantes, based upon the absurd argument that Valentine’s Day is a Western intrusion upon Indian culture. According to Salil Tripathi, one of the participants of flash reads, it was organized “at different locations in five cities, Bangalore, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, about a hundred people—readers, writers, artists, engineers, lawyers, professionals, students, and consultants—came with sheets filled with words and ideas that someone somewhere wanted suppressed. We were at Lodhi Gardens, on the bridge overlooking the duck pond, in the shadow of the ruins of another era, where writers who defied the state and those in power often met a ghastly end.”

But bear in mind the reception to a book in different countries. In Germany, more than sixty years after World War II is over, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a banned text. It is not available in bookstores. If anyone wishes to read it, it can only be accessed by special permission, providing a valid reason, from a library. Unlike in India, where for many years it is a bestseller. It is always amongst the most popular titles in pirated editions, and only recently has begun to be visible in bookstores. It is available in English and other regional languages.
Today, India is the largest democracy in the world, but it is also considered to be a large book market, with a voracious appetite in print and electronic formats and in any language, not just English. Controversies like those surrounding Satanic Verses open larger debates like pertaining to censorship, how far can one go without hurting the religious sentiments of another group, the impact of such an action on institutions and of course being responsible for the consequences of one’s action — is it to be those who are the catalysts of such change or the festival that inadvertently provided a platform for these readings? With the Internet, many of these bans become counter-productive as exemplified by Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar who uploaded his latest film, Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror, on 26 Jan 2012, within 24 hours, he struck 50,000 views. In Dec 2011, it was estimated that India is the third largest Internet user population in the world, with over 120 million users. So it is ironical there is such a hullaballo around Satanic Verses being read in public, since the entire text is available online.

(This article was first published in Books & More, April-May 2012, p.58

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com Her twitter handle is @JBhattacharji

Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason: Salman Rushdie

Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason: Salman Rushdie