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Plot against Literature

Nations make terrible readers, and nationalism is a blinkered guide to literary works, writes Nilanjana S Roy.

india Updated: Oct 16, 2006 00:03 IST

Here are two of the more curious phrases you might Google for: ‘insulting being a Turk’ and ‘Kiran Desai sari’.

In February 2005, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk said in an interview, “Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody dares to talk about it.” To say that Turkey is sensitive on this subject is an understatement. Anti-French protests erupted in the country this week after France’s lawmakers passed a Bill making it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during World War I amounted to genocide.

Some months after Pamuk’s 2005 interview, Turkey’s Parliament introduced a new penal code. Article 301 made it a crime for any citizen to insult “being a Turk”, and Article 301/3 stated: “Where insulting being a Turk is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country, the penalty… shall be increased by one-third.” Pamuk, who had been forced to leave Turkey briefly because of the vehemence of the protests against him, was charged retroactively for “insulting being a Turk” and returned to face the charges. Thankfully, the case was dropped before it came to trial in January 2006.

For those of us who had followed Pamuk’s writings from the early days of The White Castle and The Black Book to the more recent My Name is Red, Istanbul and Snow, the trial played out like scenes from an absurdist drama.

In many ways, Pamuk exemplifies the ‘rooted’ writer. He speaks fluent English, but writes chiefly in Turkish. His first novel, the monumental Cevdet Bey and His Sons, traces the history of modern Turkey through three generations of a wealthy Istanbul family, and on Pamuk’s own request, has never been translated into English.

In Istanbul, his dense and rather beautiful biography of the city, he writes: “… I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets and neighbourhoods of my childhood… Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul — these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilisations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness; mine, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”

And yet, this most interestingly ‘Turkish’ of writers, this man who has explored his country’s history with passion and curiosity and its present with unflinching openness, elicits complex reactions at ‘home’. Reading Turkish newspaper reports about Pamuk over the last year, I was struck by how often he was castigated for his “arrogance”, admonished for coming across as “superior” — even when the reporter was sympathetic to him. Long before the genocide controversy, his success had made him suspect. “When my sales went up, my welcome from the Turkish literary scene disappeared,” he told The Guardian once. He cannot be accused of being less than Turkish; but he is often accused of “belittling national values”, of “writing the wrong things”, in short, of insulting Turkishness.

Anxiety, suspicion of an author’s success, the urge to ‘correct’ an author who is giving the ‘wrong impression’ of his country, accusations of ‘arrogance’ or of ‘distance’ — but surely none of this could sound familiar in the Indian literary context? Consider the fascinating case of Kiran Desai’s sari.

When Kiran Desai won the Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss, it didn’t occur to me to question what she wore to the ceremony. I’m in the minority. Fox News and several other agencies reported, erroneously, that Kiran Desai wore “a traditional Indian sari”. Desai mentioned that her mother — writer Anita Desai — had told her to wear a sari, a family heirloom, but it was too transparent, so she settled for a dress instead.

On net forums, the symbolism of the sari-versus-the-dress was ruthlessly deconstructed — as indeed it was in this paper on Saturday. Surely, this was a signal that The Inheritance of Loss was meant not for a local, Indian audience, but for a wider, Western audience. I found both Fox’s reaction (Indian woman wins, ergo she must have been wearing a sari) and local reactions (what message was she sending out, by not wearing a sari) telling in their assumptions.

Desai’s book shifts between locales — the Kalimpong of the Eighties, the grim underbelly of immigrant New York, a racist, inhospitable England dealing with its first flux of educated immigrants, the Indian village of Piphit adjusting clumsily to its first Western-returned local boy.

Desai, who still holds an Indian passport, once said that she cannot help seeing everything “through the lens” of her Indianness. She chose to write about the Eighties, she said in an interview with The Hindu, because that was the India that was most familiar to her, the place where she lived until she was 14 or 15: “I find myself at a disadvantage because India has changed, moved on. I go every year, yet the subject belongs to Indian authors living in India.”

Just as Pamuk is questioned about whether he is the right kind of Turkish writer, Desai’s Booker win has raised a kind of anxiety in India. Is she writing as an ‘outsider’? (Hell, no.) Is her win a triumph for the ‘diasporic’ writer at the expense of the local, Indian kind?

Among a small group of NRIs, I hear what you might call the Pather Panchali complaint, in memory of those who excoriated Satyajit Ray for making films about the ‘wrong’ India. And why, when India is, as we all know, shining so brightly you can barely see what lies behind that hard, brassy light, would she write a passage like this, from the perspective of an Indian cook’s son struggling to survive as an immigrant worker in New York’s restaurants?

“From other kitchens, [Biju] was learning what the world thought of Indians: In Tanzania, if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda. In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.

In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out. In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.

In China, they hate them. In Hong Kong. In Germany. In Italy. In Japan. In Guam. In Singapore. Burma. South Africa. They don’t like them.

In Guadeloupe — they love us there? No.”

Nations make terrible readers, and nationalism is a blinkered guide to literature. To read Pamuk through the lens of nationalism, you must discard his beguiling imagination, the merciless clarity of his prose, the feverish intensity with which he blends the everyday with the fantastic, the complexity of his characters, the subtle nuances — tension, repulsion, fascination, tenderness — that hold east and west together and apart. In fact, you would lose everything that is essential about his writings.

If you see Kiran Desai through a set of applied labels — Plain Vanilla Indian, Diasporic Indian, Alienated Diasporic Non-Sari-Wearing Anti-National Indian, Good Little Prize-Winning Successful Indian — you miss the generous spirit, the humour, the sharp dissections of globalisation, the deep understanding she brings to the figure of the outsider, the subtle crafting of her prose.

Writers belong to nations by accident and by default. But the only country that can really hold them is the borderless country of the imagination. We diminish ourselves as readers every time we forget that.

Nilanjana S Roy is a literary columnist and reviewer based in New Delhi.