Sunday, February 01, 2009

Indians Writing in English and the whole drama

I had to hold myself back from writing a post (I am tilting towards writing less opinion this year) after reading Vijay Nair's article about how great the Booker winners from India are and how the nay-sayers are basically jealous sour-grape-predictors. I found that as sorry an explanation as someone saying that those who doubt a particular baba's Godliness were not devotees in the first place. To deny a person the credibility and capability to question a stance is as uneducated as knee-jerk reactions to any incident.
Today I read Shashi Deshpande's response to that article (both in The Literary Review) and I am glad that she addressed one failing of Nair's argument. Another failing that I had noticed was cleverly brushed aside with her declaration that "As a writer and reader he should know that responses to literature are always subjective". I wonder why we treat that as an absolute. Surely we can read something horrible and realise that it is so without providing a myriad disclaimers? It appears that the most starkly denounceable work of writing (please note, I do not term such artifacts as literature) can be dropped by a majority vote but a representative of beauty cannot. I wonder why that is so. In the world of painting a beautiful painting can also be identified without much coaxing. Perhaps a Picasso with nostrils doing a hoola-hoop with nipples might make one wonder "What on earth is there in this for a million dollars?" There is something valid in that question although the compelled association of monetary tags with the capacity to evoke beauty is what the market wants us to believe. I agree that the fine delineators would be picked and bunched together differently by different people but calling something a work of literature, I believe, cannot be a subjective decision. How much a work of literature touches an individual would vary as much as how tipsy a person gets by driking a goblet of '73 Italian Trebbiano white or how tickled a man gets in his seat when long legs walks past (I read an interesting article about the Playboys collection and how tastes changed over the years). But a work of literature differs from a piece of fiction/nonfiction/poetry as chalk and cheese, and to be "safe" about that is basically the human security of not putting one's understanding, knowledge and taste on the line.
The three Booker winners are not works of literature.
What Nair seems to have missed is that the criticism awarded to Adiga's attempt came from non-Indians as well. I believe the Indians on Literary Saloon have been rather kind to Adiga or merely safe. What then is Nair complaining about? I agree with Deshpande in that most people had a reaction of "So? What's new/great about that story line?" which she writes as "In fact, the complaint of many readers has been: “what is he telling us that we do not know?”
I think the problem with many (and Nair is surely a member of the club) is the undying want to be recognised by "them". We are still suckers to getting our certificates from the US and the UK. Perhaps in matters of technology and science, that might make some sense because rigour and research methodoligies can be measured, but in arts!? We still like to parade an Indian Tanjore painter as having had an exhibition in London and hence, his work being of some repute. This might make sense to a certain extent as far as writing in English is concerned because English is a foreign language. India, for instance, doesn't have a test of English language! But accepting a work as literature is not a measure of English but (hopefully) something beyond the mere academic proficiency of knowing when to use a semi-colon. If the grammar is bad, the book is thrown aside. We are surely going beyond that stage and discussing matters. If the Booker was zealously measuring school-book English in the submissions, then Nair's statement about "English writers vie for the same prize and that makes the victory sweeter" would count. Several non-Indian scholars have translated the Indian scriptures into various other languages and provided deep analysis and insight into the works. Should they consider their accolades greater because it is of a non-English nature? I am glad they don't.
My biggest complaint against the majority of the Booker winners (and I haven't read one of them) is their sheer lack of something brilliant. A story about a murderer from Bihar, or the format of letters to a Premier are not novel and do not make me sit up alert. I did that when I read Herzog and thereafter rarely have found opportunity for that. Similarly, Lolita's trick of starting a novel "before" the novel was tittilating but provided more than mere gimmick. Adiga hasn't achieved anything remarkable than a bunch of short sentences and jarring phrases.
Patriotism is foolish in every form of display and Nair's discomfort with reviews raising questions about that is valid. Deshpande raises valid points to address similar concerns though her example of Pamuk doesn't register well with me. Pamuk writes in Turkish; for him to consider any other geographical locality would not be wise.
Whether Indians react or respond to the Booker winners I think it is vital to look at these works objectively and realise that they perhaps will not count as works of literature at all. Deshpande's works are so much better, I am told (and from the snippets I read, I agree) but there is no point attempting camparisons now as that is not the call of the minute. To accept a particular organisation's verdict of what is good writing can be done by the lazy. Those who are interested in entering the fabric of a written work and seeing what it is truly worth will attempt that with the Booker prize winners and conclude for themselves. Any conclusions that challenge the decision are mere acts of jealousy or stemming from concern over patriotism.
Written works which are only interested in portraying the real world as it is in all its gory details should have been written in the language of that land. Why pick English and make a mess of it? Why pick any language and make a mess of it? Language is not merely a means of reporting these details and the lame tale built on it. Language must be employed to reveal all its vastness and depth and beauty which is not of height and breadth. Adiga's novel doesn't do that. Roy doesn't do that either. Lazy writers of today are satisfied with one or two stray clever words and phrases and they are seduced into thinking that they have contributed to literature. A novel which doesn't bring out the brilliant capacity of a language, the mind-boggling imagination of the writer, the amazing marriage of language and imagination and/or the ability to cater to various levels of consciousness of a reader is but an attempt and any prize recognising attempts doesn't define literature. The latter is what defines the God in a writer while the rest are easier to attain though extremely difficult for writers interested in only making attempts. Nabokov's word for a part of all I have described was shamanstvo and I would love to read a writer who can at least give me that. In the absence of that or something of comparable worth, why bother building a case for any writer, Booker prize winner or not? A reader told me that it would be incongruent to expect classy English lines from Balram Halwai to which I responded, "Why write in English, then?". I don't think anyone will read Adiga's work after having read it once. That which will never be revisited cannot be called literature.
Nair's statement "If the aim of literature is to help us understand the world we live in and lead more meaningful lives then undoubtedly all the three recent Indian books that have won the coveted prize have achieved this admirable objective" leaves me wondering whether he wants novels to become extended journalistic articles. That is not the aim of literature. I read every Nobel prize winner's speech and each one of them has sculpted a particular mission of literature which s/he has catered to. Literature is not about individual missions and creating revolutions and uprisings. It is not for making you love your neighbour more or a God, less. It is not for wiping the lines between geographies and race. Literature is not a tool for politics. Please don't make it that. It is an art of capturing thoughts and beauty in words. It is a want to arrest a thought a fleeting insight. It is primarily a love for a language and for telling a story. It is not for changing nations and creating philosophies. Hence, I think Nair's assumption is inherently flawed in that. None of Shakespeare's works qualify as that. Shall we call him poor literature?


  1. Parvati7:59 PM

    I agree (and I am shocked that I do!).

  2. Dear P,
    And so am I... :-o