Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Water, based on Deepa Mehta’s film, is a great example of how distance seems to lend poignancy and interest to writers helping themselves to current events and real people for their plots. (And we’ll ignore for a second that Bapsi’s plot is really Deepa’s plot). For, there’s also the slight matter of writerly craft, of passion conveyed with skill.
Is that why several Indian Writers in English (IWE) fail to cut the mustard when they try to be ‘relevant’ and ‘contextualised in reality’? And why Bapsi’s girl-widows matter so dreadfully to us and leave us ‘feeling bad’ long after, in ways many other novels by IWE don’t?
In Water, Gandhi’s radical views intrude in the world of the widows, but only as a background hum in the West Bengal of the 1930s. Bapu makes a cameo appearance, addressing the people of the widows’ town from his railway carriage and Bapsi’s heroine, little widow Chuyia, is bundled off on that very train, hopefully to real-life moksha.
The cause does not overwhelm the characters and Bapsi’s people go straight to our capricious heart. Moreover, the political resonances are long past, which adds value to the important readerly business of re-discovery and I-never-knew-that.
Do you need that historical distance, anyway, if you are a writer, especially a self-conscious IWE oppressed by the need to a) sound ‘meaningful’; and b) need help with your plot? Let’s take a look at a random pick of IWE.
So I may as well utter this blasphemy: I couldn’t finish A Suitable Boy. Contemporary history was at a safe enough distance and several interesting moments happened. But Seth’s people were boring; I found to my dismay after forking out Rs 500 that I didn’t care what became of them and stopped reading. Two Lives had some horrific gas chamber moments but petered out shabbily in family spite — another case of contemporary history and a real-life plot not ‘getting’ you. An Equal Music, without ‘news’, was brilliant though.
Page 2: Shashi Tharoor, Gita Hariharan