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Beyond 'confident'
Amit Chaudhuri on Indian writing
India, fiction, literature, writers, writing, nationalism, nation
Monday, January 30, 2006 19:46 GMT

A great article by Amit Chaudhuri on the anxious, tedious and mostly idiotic generalisations made about "Indian writing". As he points out, these are generalisations made to reinforce the other story of the nation's growing power. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that writers themselves have little interest in them.

From the New Statesman.

Just as there are two creation-myths in the Old Testament - the first to do with the making of the universe ("And God said let there be light"), the second with the creation of the human race (Adam, Eve, the apple, the serpent) - there are two parables about the foundations of Indian writing in English. They move in a direction opposite to the one in Genesis. First, there's the story of temptation, deflowering, exile, retold in the meta-phors of colonialism; the creation of Macaulay's bastard children is the equivalent of Adam's exit from Eden. The triumphal moment, the counterpart to the seven days of creation, comes more than a century later and can be dated: to 1981 AD, when Midnight's Children was published and, more importantly, won the endorsement of the Booker Prize. Both award and awardee were thrown into the firmament like angels we've been contemplating, agog, ever since. Then, inevitably, the other planets, stars, and constellations began to appear.

This is how the parable of Indian writing in English runs for most anglophone Indians, from the academic teaching English in San Jose to the journalist in Delhi. No argument, no appeal to history or fact, toward fashioning an alternative account, or accounts, of the brief history of this literature is going to penetrate the minds of those who feel they've been transformed by the revelatory force of the parable; cults have a particular immunity to history. What passes for discussion is really the sort of semi-paranoiac gossip that breeds inside cults; signs of loyalty and tell-tale marks to identify who belongs and who doesn't preoccupy the discussants. Does the author live in Europe or in America? Do they include a glossary in their work?

The analogy with the cult can be stretched only so far; for cults are fatally drawn to self-destructiveness. The arriviste middle-class Indian, however, who's largely taken over the discourse of English writing in India, is deeply enamoured of longevity, success, and, importantly, power. The literature, then, is described, by both critic and reporter, in terms ordinarily remote from criticism but perfectly sensible to the parvenu: "Indian writing has arrived." Midnight's Children is indispensable to this narrative. Ever since its appearance, "confidence" has been a buzzword in literary chatter: "The new writers have a confidence the old ones didn't." In what way is "confidence" a characteristic of creativity? Self-doubt shapes and even makes necessary the act of creative exploration, an act accompanied, conversely, by self-belief, a very different thing from confidence. I can think of confidence as a descriptive term for artistic endeavour only when it comes to certain kinds of experimentation and risk-taking; John Coltrane's rendition of "My Favourite Things" shows not only confidence, but audaciousness. The word might also be used of Muriel Spark's slender, peculiar, relentless novels; in India, in recent times, it's the Tamil writer Ambai who possesses that quality, in her ability to do very strange things, with a modicum of means, with the short story. It's lightness of touch, not grandeur of ambition, that requires confidence in writing; because it risks being misunderstood, or, what's more common, going unnoticed.

This isn't the sense in which those who speak of "confidence" in Indian writing understand that term. What they mean is visibility, success, proximity to power. This confidence is a general, seamless metaphor for India in the age of globalisation. Indeed, Indian writing in English, since Rushdie, has participated in a subtle but significant shift in register in the way India views itself and others: from a once-colonised nation "finding its voice", to quote from V S Pritchett's review of Midnight's Children, to a player on the world stage with a "say" in the world. A thin line divides post-colonial pride from imperialist ambition, separates the India trying to consolidate its democratic traditions from the India with Security Council aspirations; the story of Indian writing in English traverses, in the past 20 years, this journey, and is located where the dividing line's at its most blurred.

And so the Indian writer in English must be co-opted into this narrative of success and record growth; anything else, during this watershed, is looked upon with anxiety. The writer mustn't cause anxiety; in our family romance, he's the son-in-law - someone we can be proud of, can depend on, who is, above all, a safe investment. He is solvent; preferably settled abroad. He's capable of addressing questions consonant with our emerging prestige. He is not a failure, a daydreamer, a misfit. The anglophone intellectual tradition in India, unlike other intellectual lineages in modernity, has developed no space for daydreaming, irresponsibility, failure, or for the outsider; it has little understanding of the role these play in shaping the imaginative life. It is baffled, if not offended, by an indifference to lofty themes and causes; in the end, it's baffled by an indifference to power.

The triumphal narrative of Indian writing in English bores me; personally speaking, as a reader and writer, I feel almost no connection with it. I find no echo in its values and excitements of the sense of value and excitement that once brought me to writing. I think this sense of alienation (and at least some of us will have felt it, and, feeling it, wondered if it's an illness peculiar to ourselves) is more than vague disgruntlement; it's an important point of departure, a chance to abandon optimistic but invented paradigms in the interests of exploring fresh perspectives. Rushdie himself becomes a more complex and intriguing symbol once we start to look for him outside that story of empowerment - to locate him among his enthusiasms, his memory, his contradictions. For Rushdie's a great and often moving enthusiast; and what he enthuses over - painting, for instance, for which he has an eye; the astonishing Gujarati artist Bhupen Khakhar - makes him seem sometimes like a Bombay writer: not just a writer about Bombay, but, intellectually and emotionally, of it, possessing the gift of curiosity that the Bombay poets Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawalla had, and which, in turn, drew them to the art-world and Khakhar in the Seventies. This sort of writer is at once interloper and observer; he has the air of a student, a learner. We find this writer in the Rushdie who admires a heterogeneity of stimuli besides the fabulist forebears he's associated with; the Rushdie who's quickened by Kipling, J G Ballard, Arun Kolatkar, and who's occasionally drawn irresistibly to an artist with an aesthetic radically different from his own, such as Satyajit Ray. It's difficult to fit this Rushdie into a bureaucratic paradigm. This Rushdie is louche, perpetually open to enthusiasm, incomplete, in the process of being made; we don't know him completely, but he has an odd intimacy, a neighbourliness, that the Rushdie of the other narrative doesn't.

We might say the same thing of modern Indian writing: that its most complex, persuasive, and delighting incarnation lies outside the story of empowerment and, by extension, of power. Both the Sanskrit aestheticians of antiquity and, much later, Philip Sidney, writing in the country that would one day colonise India, conceived of poetry and literature as a realm of radical freedom and autonomy. This, too, is how the site of literature and culture was delineated in modern India, around the middle of the 19th century: a realm of freedom that presaged and predated political freedom by almost 100 years. But artistic and imaginative autonomy differed from the political autonomy that was to be fought for, and which would eventually come, in one fundamental respect: that while the latter necessarily entailed a hardening of identity, of Indianness, and a conflictual relationship with the coloniser, the former - the realm of imaginative autonomy - reserved the right to constantly redefine Indianness, to have no single, exclusive notion of it, and to be related to European culture not only oppositionally, but by creative curiosity. That's why Indian writing, in the last 150 years, represents not so much a one-dimensional struggle for, or embodiment of, power, as a many-sided cosmopolitanism. It isn't enough, today, to celebrate Indian writing's "success", after having identified what its marks of success are (as if a whole tradition must only be thought of as an arriviste would be); one needs to engage with its long, subterranean history (as hard-earned as political freedom itself) of curiosity and openness.