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Writings on India

Do we apply different standards to foreigners to those we expect for ourselves? Once victims of Imperialism, are Indians now becoming culturally exclusivist? And what is the future of Indian literature and creativity in an increasingly globalised world, asks Patrick French. Discovery of India: writing down the ages

india Updated: Apr 22, 2012 01:27 IST

In 1931 the drug-abusing poet and painter Henri Michaux travelled in India, resulting in the book Un Barbare en Asie, a barbarian in Asia. His guiding sentiment was that “a passerby, with his innocent eye, is able sometimes to lay his finger on the centre.” Michaux had his fair share of misconceptions, but also moments of insight, predicting against conventional opinion that when India was free of foreign rule, the caste system would no longer be needed and would be destroyed.

People have always written about other countries. Early writings on the subcontinent by visitors like the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang can be revealing. After discussing religion in Ayodhya, Xuanzang is sailing up the Ganga when his boat is intercepted by pirates. They decide to burn him on an altar as a sacrifice to Durga, until at the last moment he is reprieved when his assailants realise he is a famous monk and scholar. The Durga worshippers agree to release their victim, take vows as lay members of the Buddhist community and let Xuanzang go on his way.

Four hundred years later, the Muslim scientist and historian Al-Biruni described Indian life in a way that still has a vivid resonance. He recorded the interest shown in philosophy and mathematics, observed that different communities avoided touching each other, and noted that some men wore a sacred thread “passing from the left shoulder to the right side of the waist”. Once you get to the age of empire, things become more complex: words are loaded. Although Al-Biruni could arguably be called an imperial outrider of Mahmud of Ghazni, his principle aim was discovery — he wanted to describe and understand the utterly unfamiliar. With the arrival of the European powers in India, most exchanges developed a political backdrop. In 1609, William Hawkins visited the court of the Mughal emperor Jahangir and sought to establish a British trading presence. His jottings about the wealthy, mysterious, new country were tempered by the discovery that the English king who had sent him on the mission, James I, was not as powerful as he had thought. Portuguese merchants, wrote Hawkins, “most vilely abused his majesty, terming him king of fishermen and of an island of no importance”. By the 19th century, any such sense of humility or injured pride was absent from British writings on India. A blasé tone of racial dominance can be found in almost all books, which were themselves the result of an explosion of commercial publishing as paper became cheaper.

I remember when I was writing my first biography, about the explorer turned mystic Francis Younghusband, I came across a military memoir written by his brother George. “The low physique and stamina of the class of Indians which supplies menial servants, is phenomenal,” he wrote. “A box on the ear, such as a school-master often gave us at our private schools, might kill him straight away. So might a kick, of only half the value which every English schoolboy gets at football.” This was in 1923, and he was saying it wasn’t a problem if you beat or kicked your servant to death since he was probably weak anyway. I have often wondered about the attitude or tone adopted by Europeans at this time. Was it like soldiers going off to war and behaving as they never would have at home, being photographed, for instance, with the limbs of a dead suicide bomber? Was it like the Japanese in Manchuria, convinced of their cultural superiority over the people they ruled? Perhaps it was closer to a mass brainwashing, a degree of assumption enforced by very powerful social pressure. At around the time George Younghusband was writing, you can see the beginning of a challenge to this dominant ideology. Writers like Michaux, Aldous Huxley, E M Forster and Robert Byron, and later John Masters, M M Kaye and Paul Scott, tried to write about India in way that recognised the opinions of Indians equally. Today these mid-20th century writers can seem quite tedious, fighting battles which have long ago been won, but at that time they were pushing against public opinion.

After independence, the nature of the encounter altered. Indians were writing on their own terms, and debating national issues which had no requirement for an external opinion. By the end of the 20th century, fiction set in India written by foreigners, which had been a mainstay of earlier generations, had dried up. Instead there were travel books, the amateur passing through and catching local colour — scooters, cows, dialogue; occasional masterpieces such as Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God; popular history by the likes of John Keay, Charles Allen and, more successfully, William Dalrymple; reports by foreign correspondents at the end of a tour of duty; books designed to titillate, like City of Joy and later Shantaram; and forays into spirituality — India as a setting for the mystical, in an era of bafflement. The shift was not only about postcolonial pride: it was also a response to technological innovation. A photo or a film could give a level of descriptive visual detail about an alien concept that even the best author couldn’t match. The old kind of descriptive writing — explaining a nautch or a Kanjeevaram sari — was no longer needed in the West.

Not long after India’s economy was liberalised, a further change took place: its literature became globally desirable. This had a catalytic effect on many people who wrote English as their first language. Students tried to convince their parents they should study an arts subject rather than engineering or medicine. It seemed to be the culmination of Macaulay’s dream — readers in Britain, the United States and other English-speaking nations would pay Indians large sums of money to fictionalise their culture in the English language. Novels about spices and identity were duly conceived, and for a time it seemed that India had more writers than readers. You could date the start of this fever to the publication in 1993 of A Suitable Boy, a moment captured in Pankaj Mishra’s travel book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Mishra’s host in Ambala, a Mr Sharma, says he has heard there’s a lot of money to be made in writing books. Mrs Sharma interjects that her friend, Mrs Bhindra, “was telling how this writer… what’s his name?... became a crorepati with just one book.” “Vikram Seth?” interjects her daughter. “Yes, yes, some Seth,” responds the mother. Then Mr Sharma grumbles when Kipling’s name is mentioned: “Yeh saale Angrezon ne Hindustan ke upar kitaben likhkar khoob paisa kamaya.” This remains a common conception, but it is probably less true today than it has been for centuries.

Today, the world of books looks different. Like most literary trends, the tilt towards India was chimerical. After the success of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Indian literature in English entered a creative lull. Foreign attention quickly shifted to writers who could show something about other intriguing societies: Téa Obreht on the Balkans, Mohsin Hamid on different ways of conceiving Pakistan, Ha Jin on Chinese life, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Nigeria and the Biafran War. And the market changed fundamentally. Digital technology in the form of e-books, and online shopping via Amazon, destroyed the business model of traditional trade publishing and bookselling in developed economies. India, with the fastest growing English-language market in the world for physical books, took on a fresh commercial importance. Foreign newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times started India-specific subaltern websites. For potential writers, all of these rapid changes in economics and technology offered challenges and opportunities.

The world itself had also altered. India now contains a lot of rich people alongside the more numerous poor ones. Expatriate Indians are much more influential in foreign countries than they were twenty years ago. While Western economies are stalling, India’s continues to grow, if more slowly than before. Trade publishers, both international and indigenous, sell large numbers of lifestyle books on subjects such as grooming and dieting. A new kind of author has emerged, writing in the colloquial Indian English spoken in countless homes and offices across the nation. They are a direct product of economic liberalisation, and their attitudes tend to be indicative of the new, highly ambitious social class to which they belong. Chetan Bhagat is the best known, but Ravi Subramanian may be more representative. A banker married to a banker, Subramanian turns out aspirational novels which have sold lakhs of copies. Take Devil in Pinstripes, in which the hero is both “an extremely God-fearing and religious person” and the Relationship Manager at the Bombay Fort Branch of New York International Bank. Although it has a fair bit of air travel and what the author calls “foreign bank parlance,” Devil in Pinstripes is profoundly traditional. “Till date, the majority of middle-aged men and women believe that an arranged marriage is the ultimate mark of a respectable family in India.” In Indian literary circles, such books attract scorn both for their shaky English and for their old-fashioned social values.

A rough hierarchy of respectability has formed among Indian critics. At the top of the heap come writers in vernacular languages, who are deemed to be authentic: they are the aam aadmi of Indian literature, to whom lip service is paid. Next come Indian writers in English who live in India, followed by those who live abroad, followed by foreigners who have the temerity to write about India. At the bottom of the pile are the high-selling purveyors of the new economy, with their embarrassing locutions. There is also a subsection — a sort of hell realm — inhabited by second or third-generation authors of Indian origin who return to the land of their ancestors with a view to writing about it. V S Naipaul was the founding father of this genre with An Area of Darkness in 1964. Suketu Mehta pulled it off with Maximum City, but since then most of the carpet-bagging NRIs have been eviscerated by didactic Indian reviewers. They are resented for their phoren accents and for their claim to insight because of their ethnic heritage — a claim which oddly enough is often taken seriously by commissioning editors in the West. In Mihir S Sharma’s words: “The last refuge of full-throated Orientalism is an Indian-American’s big India book.”

Books about India by people like me, who have no ethnic connection to the country, are now comparatively rare. When they do happen, the writing tends to be more direct than it used to be, and engages with current realities rather than spiritual or conceptual ephemera. My own India: A Portrait and Katherine Boo’s recent Behind the Beautiful Forevers both take India head on, in the same way that an author might write, for instance, about the United States. Outwardly, they are quite different: Boo reported from a single Mumbai slum in astonishing detail, using intimate knowledge to build up a picture of how society and the Indian state interact. My book looked at the way in which the country has changed by stretching across the subcontinent’s recent history. Neither book would, I think, have been likely to be written 20 years ago.

Despite this, there is a growing antagonism towards the idea of foreigners engaging with India, a latter-day literary swadeshi predicated on the theory that Indians should be doing it for themselves, rather than listening to what outsiders have to say. It is a view that arises out of a justified sentiment, namely that for too long India had to endure books by foreigners which distorted its culture and history. But today, the denouncers of the foreign hand on the keyboard are more often than not vigilantes in search of a crime. In my experience, the people who hold this view most strongly are those who have studied at universities in Britain or North America, and in some cases still live outside India. The kind of career made by David Frost, Daljit Dhaliwal or Fareed Zakaria in the United States would be impossible in India. Although foreigners are occasionally regarded as entertaining and even interesting, they remain a curiosity. I think it’s fair to assume that when Fareed Zakaria, the Mumbai-born son of the Congress party stalwart Rafiq Zakaria, presents his weekly show on CNN, he is not greeted by catcallers asking him what right he has to discuss American politics. He does not face intellectuals in Washington DC who pose, in all seriousness, the preposterous question: Who should be allowed to write about America? Yet this is precisely the debate that recurs, time and again, in India, spurred by people who would not think of applying the same rules to themselves in an overseas context. The British journalist Edward Luce recently published a book titled Time To Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline. Even those American reviewers who disagreed with his thesis did not think to question Luce’s right to write the book. As Francis Fukuyama wrote about him: “In a tradition stretching back to de Tocqueville, sympathetic foreigners are often the keenest observers of American life.”

While there are millions of Indians in Canada, Europe and the USA, comparatively few foreigners live in India. Immigration is nearly impossible. Under post-26/11 visa regulations, many old-school “Indophiles” have been chased out of the country. The home ministry gives citizenship to about 1,000 people a year, whereas Britain, for example, gives it to around 250,000. I am lucky because I have a UK passport and am also a Person of Indian Origin — the weird bureaucratic designation given to spouses of Indian citizens, which offers the same privileges they have, minus the right to vote. Far from being classic old-school imperalists, many foreigners in India live in a state of polite apology, “joking” about firangs to show they are not like the bad ones. The few who have made a lasting career in India tend to be diligent in parading their respect for Indian culture. They might praise raags and dastangoi and overnight Kathakali performances. They might denounce neo-imperialism, believing that by doing so they demonstrate their sympathy for the pain of colonial grievance especially keenly. It’s a kind of insurance policy. A few months ago I was doing a reading in Kathmandu. The audience asked the usual questions. Did V S Naipaul like your biography of him? Isn’t it Orientalist for a foreigner to write about India? What’s your book about — sorry, I came in late and didn’t hear? Afterwards, a British man came up to me and waited until everyone else had moved away. Then he told me that he had lived in Asia for years and wanted to write about it, but didn’t dare to because he thought he would be criticised for being foreign. Now I’ve no idea whether this man, who worked at the intersection of the aid business and photography, would have written an interesting book. Perhaps not. But it’s a shame he felt too nervous to try.

My feeling is that this shift in mood may have its origins in events external to India. Anger against ‘the West’ imposing its will upon the world has grown since 2001. Who could have foreseen that America would go to war so easily, on several fronts, on the basis of bogus intelligence, or that Osama bin Laden would set a tiger trap into which George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice et al would fall, seemingly unaware of Al Qaeda’s narrative about crusaders? (Who, for that matter, which fiction writer, could have invented the sly, indestructible Cheney?) There is today in non-Western countries an animus against perceived Western arrogance that was not present a decade or so back. It is a complex animus. Dislike for America might, in some cases, be tempered by an admiration for American ideals of personal liberty and social mobility. It is certainly not an inoculation against the desire for a Green Card, or for tenure at a US university. At a conference in Brooklyn last year, Amitav Ghosh told the audience: “Every time you hear a white man talking about freedom, you better run very fast.” Ghosh has made his career in the US; his novels tick every postcolonial box; he is married to a white woman, but he felt no hesitation, let alone shame, in making this generic slur. Perhaps he would not have made it before 2001.

Much contemporary wisdom about writing on India is less than convincing. Wide-ranging books are agreed to be less acceptable than those which celebrate the minor, the peripheral, the marginal. Critics are careful to condemn the globalised, the corporate, the foreign — yet the same people would cheerfully eat their own brains on live TV if they thought it might secure a corporate publishing deal in London or New York, or the services of one of the foreign literary agents who the Indian media has decided to anoint as “influential”. Wanting to be published overseas is an understandable impulse: it is similar to the desire that British writers have to find an American publisher, or that British singers have to ‘break’ America. The difference here is the hypocrisy, and the pretence that this is not what is happening. Envy and excitement among literary types when one of their own gets into print in Manhattan and London is a spectacle to behold. And it is not the prose that is being praised, it is the city on the title page, the fact a foreign editor has said yes. Value is ascribed to the place of publication rather than to the content or the quality of the writing.

If you only work in a pointillist way, you lose any instinct towards ambition and risk — and literature depends upon, thrives upon, risk. Think of The God of Small Things, a book which was not like the books that came before it, even those that appeared to offer a sort of model like Midnight’s Children, another breaker of conceptual glass ceilings. Think of Michel Houellebecq in Atomised, upending the pieties of postwar French literary culture, or Edwidge Danticat using imagined dreams of Hispaniola in The Farming of Bones, or think of the fusing of nerd and dude in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, with its passionately original cross-cultural use of language. India, at present, is not producing books of this kind. Nobody has written interestingly about the new rich, let alone the super-rich. No one has done what Tom Wolfe did in The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the Calcutta-born William Makepeace Thackeray did in Vanity Fair. This may be because India’s writing elite is fundamentally pro-establishment, and dislikes the way the nation has changed. Global power is shifting. It is a different world now, one in which many writers of Indian origin make a living abroad, and the richest person in England is Indian. Contrary to what we are fed, Indian voices are not stifled, but vociferously heard. Literature should not be constrained by parochial rules of engagement, self-censorship or the pious, self-affirming orthodoxies of social media. Creativity should not be stifled by finger-wagging. Let the “Who should write about India?” question be consigned to the dustbin of history. Let Xuanzang go free, to write the books he wants. Let India accept the rest of the world, as the rest of the world accepts India.

First Published: Apr 21, 2012 22:39 IST