Sunil K Poolani
When the commissioning editor of this magazine called me at 11am asking me to write this piece, after reading a news report mentioning two Indians have been included in this year’s Man Booker shortlist, I was fast asleep: after a night-long, neck-wracking work. I said, Yes, slit-eyed. When I woke up, I cursed myself, Oh! Why did I ever commit to do that? But promise is a promise, and here I go.... And, readers, you asked for it.
Convent-educated I am, as my parents were somewhat affluent; and I learnt a language that is now spoken and written in most of the civilised world (whatever it means). The Brits conquered most of the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thrust this language, for their own benefit, down the throats of the gullible, especially those people, dumb in most cases they are, who did not have the luxury of weapons or any other means. So we learnt this great language, with great pomposity and glamour and people like the bhadralok Bengalis and Madrasi Brahmins took it as a status symbol, a feather in their cap, to escape from their the then-existent despondent lives.
Then the worst happened. We (now, I only include Indians in this category) started writing in this foreign tongue. And, the ever-grinning firangis wanted this: someone to lap up what they had shat behind. Thus manufacturing Macaulay’s Children. Nirad C Chaudhuri was one of the firsts to believe that the English way is the best in the world to live by. Not all were, to be frank, subscribed to that theory. R K Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and Kamala Markandaya did break the barriers to write in and write to the western audiences in their own language, without breaking away from the very Indian psyche and spirit.
So far, so fine. Then? Then came Salman Rushdie. He wrote — with tremendous success — Midnight’s Children. A path-breaking work, no doubt. Destroying the till-then norms of how not to write the Victorian, stiff-upper-lip, politically-correct English, and, to the Brits’ bafflement, chutnifying the English. The book did wonders and spawned hopes among thousands of aspirants in the Indian subcontinent. Till today there are few successful writers from this part of the world who could match Rushdie’s oeuvre. What did he achieve? Fame. Money. Fatwa.
No one could emulate Rushdie’s success story. Then descended a dame called Arundhati Roy, writing a mediocre novel called The God of Small Things. Hello, by then the global geopolitics had changed, for good or bad. India was no longer held a pariah. In India existed a great market; one of the biggest English-reading markets where the West can peddle their wares. (Why do you think India got so many Miss Worlds and Miss Universes? Is it because all of our damsels suddenly started looking sexy? No, dummy, just because here was a market for multinational fairness creams.)
Same thing happened in Indian writing in English. So, how do you get attention and reap in profits when the massive book publishing from the US and the UK has to be unleashed in this country? By awarding Indian writers, of course. Suddenly this over-inflated Man Booker Prize started short-listing or/and occasionally awarding their ‘great’ award to some of our mediocre writers. Kiran Desai, one to get celebrated recently, is an example. And mediocrity cannot stop there: a Pulitzer award to Jhumpa Lahiri, too.
It is all about market, honey. So when Rushdie, though he won the Booker of Booker for the second time this year for Midnight’s Children, has been dumped now, Amitav Ghosh and Aravind Adiga have been included among themselves in the final six novelists this year.
To give their respective honours, both Ghosh and Adiga write well and their works are good by any international standard. Should we complain, then? Shouldn’t we rejoice? Pick your choice. Some questions crop up, nevertheless. Why should we be overjoyed by some western award that is thrust upon us? A Ghosh or Adiga would not have been in our vocabulary if they were not promoted (for all the materialistic reasons) by the firangi critics. When will we improve? We will not.
Why? Giving Rushdie and Ghosh their due credit for the way they effervescently write in whatever language they might have imbibed, one thing is straight: we, Indians, have a rich literature which is still unsurpassed by any new-fangled European language. We should be, and have to be, proud of the great literary traits some of our stalwarts in Indian languages have left behind: be it in Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalam, Hindi or even Konkani.
We do not need any recommendations from and by any ex-colonialists and neo-imperialists. They, today, depend on us. But, we still think ‘good’ is better only if it comes from the west. What a pity.
Sunil K Poolani is Executive Director and Publisher, Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, Mumbai. Write to him at: email@example.com
-- Sahara Time