Monday, 16 November 2009

Roberto Bolano- implications for Indglish fiction

Roberto Bolana was a poet/activist with enormous appeal for the older generation of Indglish writers. His homeland was coextensive with the Spanish speaking world and his faith rooted in revolutionary action by and on behalf of the poor. His criticism of great Mandarins like Octovio Paz, a very popular Ambassador to Delhi, whose erudition and culture did not prevent him from writing some of the most shocking poetry of the 20th century, appeals to us in that we too saw the great Leftists of the previous generation co-opted by the Establishment.

Indeed, neither magic realism nor 'visceral realism' nor the thousand and one other revolutionary or reformist literary movements- some founded in Krausismo, which like Indian reform movements of the Nineteenth Century had a basis in Upanishadic thought- saved Latin America from the hell of structural adjustment and the terrible banality of corrupt consumerist politics making the Latin American experience ever more rather than less relevant to India.

There are some differences. Indian labor law, starting during the Raj, has provided stronger defense against capitalist exploitation for women and children in the industrial sector. Thus the central tragedy Bolano chronicles in 2666- viz. the killing of a large number of women workers at a Mexican border town used by American manufacturers- is not something we are familiar with. However, we had the horrendous story of a number of children belonging to the poorest class being abused and killed in NOIDA.

However, beyond a certain point we have to recognize that Bolano's literary culture has a depth and complexity that few Indglish writers share or would consider worthwhile pursuing. After all, in India, journalism- especially of the Tehelka sort- seems a much more powerful tool to change attitudes and 'speak truth to power'.
Still, in the context of a proposed all out war against the Naxalites- an issue on which the PM, quite rightly, seems to be back-pedaling- the Latin American experience (rather than the family sagas of tech savvy N.R.I types returning home to roost) seems more relevant to the future of Indglish literature.

But Bolano, alas, won't be around to help us. He noticed, in his book 2666 the enormous attention received by 'English (or Anglo-Indian)' publishing but could not really point to anything very worthwhile as coming out of it either for literary culture, properly so called, nor for the cause of the suffering poor. 'It's a fair cop, Guv!' would be my response. Tragically, a neglected medical problem led to his early death at the age of 50 just 5 years ago.

My fear is we have Bolanos all over India, but are not listening to them. Injustice and oppression, too, are a sort of homeland- regionalism and loyalty to a dialect have been undercut- talk of caste and creed is just an outdated chauvinism- the Indian Bolano isn't going to sound naive or parochial- we may be ignoring a vital literature precisely because it is bookish and smacks of a cosmopolitan literary culture.

Michael Foucault, in his last years, drew attention to the concept of parrhesia as speaking truth to power.
'The "parrhesiastic contract" – which became relatively important in the political life of rulers in the Greco-Roman world – consists in the following. The sovereign, the ones who has power but lacks the truth, addresses himself to the one who has the truth but lacks power, and tells him : if you tell me the truth, no matter what this truth turns out to be, you won't be punished; and those who are responsible for any injustices will be punished, but not those who speak the truth about such injustices. This idea of the "Parrhesiastic contract" became associated with parrhesia as a special privilege granted to the best and most honest citizens of the city. Of course, the parrhesiastic contract between Pentheus and his messenger is only a moral obligation since it lacks all institutional foundation. As the kings servant, the messenger is still quite vulnerable, and still takes a risk in speaking. But, although he is courageous, he is also not reckless, and is cautious about the consequences of what he might say. The "contract" is intended to limit the risk he takes in speaking.'

In the New Testament, the concept of parrhesia is taken further. Its precondition is the indwelling of Christ. This in turns grants the subaltern the right, or obligation, to testify. Not to testify is to be shamed and the subject of self-recrimination by the Parousia (return of Christ)

Literary culture (adaab/sanskriti) is an indwelling of an ideal model which is caritas-as-communication. One may call this concept Ramrajya or 'Deendar' or 'withering away of the state' or what have you. From that indwelling comes the right and obligation to testify- to fulfill the parrhesiastic contract. 

Because, English or even Indglish have essentially been acquired either as 'family property'- or indeed a type of 'sthreedhan'- rather than as a part of Civic obligation, the question arises, can Indglish function like Bolano's Spanish as a common homeland for rebels and exiles?

In one sense, yes, of course. If even Savarkar wrote English poetry in prison- what more proof do we need?

But where then is our Bolano?

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