Sunil K Poolani
One has to realise that this is one discussed-to-death issue: how to portray India by Indians writing in English. And over and over again, this crops up: when some rookie wins a ‘coveted’ award by showing the ‘real nature’ of India. Recently, this argument got augmented when one Aravind Adiga won a Booker, and critics, mainly those who are jealous of his success, crying wolf, vivifying, in their dawned belated wisdom, not only the book was badly written but it portrayed our ‘great country’ in bad light.
Cry, thy beloved country. Before that, let’s do some soul-searching, ahem, looking back at the Indian writing for the English-reading, western masses, an introspection. Yes, the Vedas and other puranic stuff were all available in English translation by eighteenth century to the Western public. And the bhadralok Bengali did get some of their books in print in British India. Then came Tagore. His writings were one of the lucid ones that I have ever read. But look at the tragedy: the Nobel was awarded because the Committee could lay their hands only on an English translation of Gitanjali, a mediocre work by any standard, and thank W B Yeats, Tagore’s great well-wisher, for that.
By then the English-reading and -writing intelligentsia in India had grown voluminously. But the path to get noticed in the West was not that easy. R K Narayan (thanks to Graham Green) and Kamala Markandaya (due to her British journalist friends) had to literally slug it out to get their voice heard. They portrayed a great India, of townships and non-interesting people; but the beauty was in the writing. Then came Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand. All had their respective stints in Britain, without which even I would not have quoted their names in this article.
I believe there is one man who rewrote the whole script of Indian writing in English: Rushdie. He chutnified it for the bewilderment of the upholders of the British English. Then, like fairness creams, the West started smelling a great market and to keep up the demand, one could never write about the huge multiplexes in Bangalore or Bombay, not even about a strange country where “tigers roam around in the streets”, but you have had to talk about the filth in your background — amidst all the beauty one has to show to the world, there, and in detail, the murky, incestuous world of slime and grime.
Arundhati Roy, that today’s great whiner, did try to portray a twisty and charming world of Kerala backwaters. That was a decade ago. And then the economic shift changed to China and India. And people in the US and Germany started losing money and jobs. And the Muslim fundamentalists, afraid of the so-called great success story, started planting bombs in every Indian city you could imagine in. The Bombay terror attacks were the final straw on the camel’s back. So they think.
Like in a role reversal (and I hate the phrase, “the Empire Strikes Back’), even Bollywood movies are showing where one should invest their money to cater to a wisdom for the West’s amusement. So why should literature take a backseat? For good or bad, there are some good writings emerging out of India. And frankly I give a fig whether how India is portrayed or not. If you are disturbed about the way the West is looking at us, well, that is pseudo-secularism. Literature has no boundaries and all it matters is good writing. Not the markets.
Two good examples come to my mind. Recent books by Richard Crasta and Murzban F Shroff. Shroff penned Breathless in Bombay, a collection of brilliant short stories. The period Shroff retells of Bombay is contemporary. Gallons of water have embraced the sea from Mahim Creek, and it is not the city of Salim Sinai any more. No soothsayer might have guessed when Rushdie wrote his magnum opus (thus immortalising Bombay in world literature), that it would, one day, instead of disintegrating, will become one of the most happening, prosperous and trendy cities in the world. But Shroff did show the murkier side of Bombay life: Aids patients, the bhelpuriwala, the prostitutes, the downtrodden…
And now about Crasta: The Killing of an Author is funny, sad, and eye-opening. Like others who are dependent on psychiatric drugs, Crasta has to have them for his depression and anxiety. He knows he needs them to function, but does not know the side-effects. The book presents how most innocent civilians like him get caught up in drug enslavement without the slightest inkling of what could happen if you take this, that and the other. It is also a warning to those who are plagued with mental problems to learn more about what they ingest, even if it is prescribed by their loved ones.
Do you find all these funny and “selling-India” types? Well, I do not. Say it the way it is, said some joker. I could not have agreed more.