Thursday, 7 June 2012

Why Indians write novels in English

As an Anglophone novelist myself, I was somewhat chagrined by a recent editorial in this Journal which speculated 'on why Anglophone Indians wish to produce ‘literature’, especially when they are indifferent to what literature has traditionally been and done. The attraction to become a novelist in the English language is a difficult thing to understand because the financial stakes are paltry.'
  Speaking for myself, I write novels set in India for two reasons-
1) there are some types of plots which will only work in India. For example, I wanted to write a '1984' novel in which the State uses non-violence to rewrite History. This could only happen in India and in fact it did happen to the extent that vernacular language newspapers adopted a sort of self-censorship after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. In another novel, titled Samlee's daughter, a baby girl is taken by her ayah to a Sufi shrine. When they return, the baby has changed gender- the ayah claims that this is a miracle of the Pir. This plot could only work in a specific part of India and at a specific time in history. Whether I succeeded in writing a good novel is a separate issue. Still, I think a plot, an idea for a story, which will only work in India says something about India. However, if you don't have a good plot and are just using India as a backdrop then what you are doing probably isn't literature.
To take an example, the fact that some Indians and English people were close enough in complexion to pass for each other, created a piquant situation, whereby a member of the ruling race, brought up in India, might believe himself to be purely Indian. Both Kipling and Tagore, masters of their respective languages, tackle this theme around the same time but in a manner very different from how such a tale would have been told if set in another country. There is a story by Albert Camus in which a Frenchman who has had his tongue cut out assimilates to the 'savage' Algerian tribesman fighting the Foreign Legion. Similarly Borges has a story where a white girl brought up by Guarani Indians takes pleasure in throwing herself upon the ground to lap up the blood of a slaughtered beast. In other words, loss of the European tongue or culture or religion is equated with a regression to cruel and bestial barbarism. In Kipling and Tagore, however, the White person's discovery of their true identity enables them to rise above their narrow class or caste origin and embrace a higher mission or spirituality without there occurring any fundamental break in their 'life-project'. One thing this shows is that the Indian novel- at that time- was not reducible to 'the narcissism of small differences' nor was it a wish-fulfilling 'family romance' in Freud's terminology.
Kipling's Kim becomes a critique of the narrowness of the Established Church, the callousness of officialdom and the cynicism of 'the Great Game'. Tagore's Gora is a devastating indictment of ritualistic Casteism as well as the wedge he saw developing between Hindus and Muslims. Kipling's book, it could be said, is the antithesis of Meadows Taylor's 'Confessions of a Thug', which the young Queen Victoria had found so gripping, she ordered the Printer to send the proofs of succeeding chapters to her as they came off the blocks. Kipling, uncannily prophetic, shows that, if the Grand Trunk Road is free of Thuggee, it is now the competing Imperialism of the Tzar and the Kaiser-e-Hind which throws a noose around innocence. Tagore's Gora shows how far the Bengalis had fallen away from the syncretic culture of Michael Madhusudhan Dutt's boyhood and that of Raja Ramohan Roy and, his grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore- whom Queen Victoria and King Louis Phillipe had lionized.

As the editorial I quoted earlier says ' It is, paradoxically, the indifference to the past of literature that makes new fiction ‘literary’. It is perhaps the same indifference which erases the distinction between writers and readers. Most listeners - at book readings - appear to have one consideration foremost in their minds and that is how or when they themselves might be writers. Since their novels are ‘personal’, most first-time ‘literary’ writers apparently feel that their ‘persons’ will be of interest to the general reader.'
2) The 'past of Literature' is important to the Indian novel because Indians have very rich and diverse oral and literary traditions and quote poetry in conversation much more than people in the West. This means, in recording meeting with diverse people, one can also include quotations and translations which are full of meaning and which adorn the text and give it a more layered and richer texture. This 'presence of the Past' is especially important in Cities like New Delhi which are re-inventing themselves at an astonishing pace. I am reminded of an aphorism of Elias Canetti- 'in these New Towns the old buildings are the people'. Canetti was writing about England, whose language he didn't know well; had he done so, no doubt, it would have been old idioms and turns of phrase that he'd have remarked upon.

The author of the editorial concludes thus- 'A final factor to be considered is that while English is the language of privilege in India there was already an elite language – Sanskrit – in the exclusive custody of an upper caste when the English arrived. It has been suggested that the British were accommodated at the top of caste hierarchy (7) with the priestly caste as their first servants. If English also replaced Sanskrit as the language of ritual authority there would be one more reason why a novel in English would be an attractive proposition. Producing a ‘literary novel’ - i.e. formally registering one’s person as a user of English - would be a way of staking a claim to authority, somewhat as recitation of mantras in public might once have been for a Brahmin priest. Getting a novel published in English has all these connotations and it may not be a simple instance of being creative.'

My comment is that literary production in 'artificial' languages like Sanskrit and sabak-e-hindi Persian seldom had anything to do with 'creativity'. Indeed, their very artificiality meant that anyone from any part of the country could appropriate them for Credentialist purposes.  Far from being the preserve of Brahmins, Paninian Sanskrit was non-sectarian and free of hieratic associations which is why, contra Prof Pollock, its sudden epigraphic proliferation marks no particular historical watershed. In Tamil Nadu, where I'm from, some Brahmins knew Paninian Sanskrit but so did the Valluvar priests who minister to the Paraiah community. Indeed, Pandit Iyothee Dasan, who first proclaimed the Buddhist origin of Dalits- a theory Dr. Ambedkar popularized- belonged to this community and had the authority of history behind him, at a time when it was important to combat extreme 'Aryanist' Brahminical arrogance. 
The fact is, Jains and Buddhists adopted Paninian Sanskrit independently, precisely because it was not a hieratic language- there was no danger that Secular works would be mistaken for Scripture if written in Sanskrit.  Moreover, for purposes of public debate, the artificiality of Sanskrit meant that people would not be judged on the basis of their geographical origin, or accent or lack of familiarity with elite manners and customs. Thus, Pandita Ramabhai was able to win plaudits from the Bengali elite because she spoke Sanskrit. Shyamji Krishnavarma, though not a Brahmin, gained the title of Pundit from the Priests of Benares because of his Sanskrit oratory. Indeed, Monier Williams invited him to Oxford on the basis of his Sanskrit attainment. Interestingly, Aurobindo, on his return to India, found no difficulty in mastering Sanskrit but had to keep a tutor for Bengali and never considered himself to have mastered that mellifluous tongue. To be frank, Aurobindo has not been accepted as a poet by the Indians precisely because, unlike Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, he did not switch back to Bengali. The suspicion is, whatever his spiritual attainments, he lacked the true poetic afflatus. Who on earth would write poetry in 'lean, unlovely English' when Bengali was his birth-right? 

Though the British produced many best-selling novelists during the Raj, Indians found that publishing in vernacular languages was more prestigious and lucrative. There were some exceptions- Cornelia Sorabjee, wrote sub-Kiplingesque stories, but she was chased out of India for her friendship with Katherine Mayo- of 'Mother India' infamy. Sarojini Naidu's poetry was commercially very successful in the West- she, however, set no great stock by it and endeared herself to her own people by her oratory and Patriotic spirit. True, Nehru wrote in English, but after the death of his father he had to earn money for his family- the alternative was to accept handouts from corrupt plutocrats like Dalmia- and, in any case, his books had a propaganda value for the National cause. 
Interestingly, it was the Gandhian novel which made the Indian novel in English respectable. But Gandhian philosophy placed no value on poetic creativity or 'art for art's sake' euphuism. The English of the English Gandhian novel- like khaddar- was of moral not artistic worth.  In fact, since an Indian writing in an Indian language was bound to wax poetic, English was a properly penitential hair-shirt for the fellow to express his noble sentiments! 
However, even with the Gandhian or Marxist novel, in every case, poets and novelists in the vernacular were given pride of place both by the British as well as the Indians. I recall reading that Guru Dutt- who was caught between vernaculars- originally published the short-story on which his film, Pyaasa, was based in the English language Illustrated Weekly magazine.  Perhaps, if his genius had not been recognized in the film industry, the poor fellow would have had no option but to turn it into an English novel! The theme was certainly good enough- the idea of a Messiah, resurrected from the dead, but repudiated by the Caiaphas custodians of his own Cultus, had great relevance to a country which, if not complicit in the assassination of the Mahatma, lost little time in turning its back on him. However, had Guru Dutt written in English, his book would had little impact. The feeling back then was that people who wrote in English did not have 'genius', they were light-weights. Niradh Chaudhri summed it up when he said that to publish in English was 'a genteel form of clerkship'. Vernacular authors, however, acquired semi-divine status. In Tamil Nadu, though people had affection for R.K. Narayan- whom they believed to be some sort of pet or mascot of Graham Greene- but it was the likes of Kalki, and later Karunanidhi, who ruled the roost.
 However,  these vernacular writers, no matter how successful or 'progressive', were not really models to be emulated because, by the '70's, they had all more or less sold out to some thuggish political party or the other. I recall reading Jan Myrdal's obituary on the 'Mahakavi Sri Sri', S.S. Rao. I was astonished to find that Myrdal considered this gentleman a Leftist even though he supported the Emergency and later on N.T.R's rise to power! If that is Naxalite, then what am I?
The vernacular languages were gold coins which became sullied by their disreputable political usage. Young people of my generation would not accept such coins even as small change because they stank of that brothel.
We were faced with the question- how are we to go forward without going backward? For some time, we could delude ourselves that some other community had the answer- the Tamil Hindu would read Faiz and the Ashraf Muslim would read Zen Haiku- but even that sort of childishness could not go on for ever. God forgive us, we ended up as Market Fundamentalists because the language of that crude type of Voodoo is facilely Mathematical.  

Like Sanskrit, sabak-e-hindi Persian too had this facile Mathematical quality and enjoyed great social prestige, precisely because it was an 'International' language written in a highly artificial style .In Urdu, for example, Iqbal- who was descended from Hindu converts- was criticized for 'Punjabisms' and so took greater pride in his Persian. But, the shameful truth is, it was only his English that was perfect, at least in terms of being logical and not self contradictory! Indeed, his Persianisms, unlike those of Faiz, who was from an elite Persian speaking family, have a somewhat barbarous sound. Nevertheless, he is greatly esteemed by the present Supreme Leader of Iran for his Pan-Islamic views. The fact that Iqbal was knighted by the Brits and that he praises the Babi heroine, Qurratulayn, seems to have escaped that gentleman's attention! 
The great Abdullah Hussain (winner of the Adamji prize for his novel- Udas Naslain) has given up Urdu and writes in English- in his case because Urdu wasn't his mother tongue and the status of Punjabi, Seraiki and other such lyrical languages of the soil has been severely downgraded in Pakistan. What this means is that if Abdullah Hussain is going to fulfill his artistic purpose of forcing the elite to confront the realities of their society and culture, he has to do it in English- or through a film made for the BBC or Channel 4l!- because otherwise a doubt is planted in the mind of the reader that this fellow isn't really 'one of us' but some dehati from the boondocks!

  Persianized Urdu in Pakistan and Sanskritized Hindi in India were able to gain support as National languages precisely because of their greater artificiality and their claim to incarnate the pure spirit of a pre-Colonial golden age. However, complicated, atemporal, impersonal poetic forms like kavya & nazm  remained the prestigious literary vehicles. True, there were exceptions. Faiz and Habib Tanvir (of Charandas Chor fame) loved the nazms of Nazeer Akbarabadi, but that was regarded as their personal eccentricity. What was prized was amphiboly and artificiality and, of course, the masala of sex and alcohol and some orgasmic Revolution which was equally imaginary or insanitary.
  Since, Sanskrit and sabak-e-hindi Persian were artificial languages, anyone could use them without being castigated as being of Provincial or lower class background. To counterbalance the artificiality and baroque quality of poetry in learned languages, previous generations of Indian writers also wrote in a bucolic dialect chosen for its lyrical, female, quality. Sikh savants wrote in Braj, Tamil devotees wrote in Telugu, in fact Maharaja Svati Tirunal even composed some songs in 'Hindi'!

The rise of vernacular literatures, which was encouraged by the Government, opened a lot of doors for talented people and saw a tremendous literary efflorescence but, over time, it also created 'losers' and 'winners'- with people speaking 'dialects'- or coming from more rural areas- being disadvantaged with respect to the elite language which had been chosen by the Govt. to represent the 'standard' version of the language. There was also a 'class' element- those who became Professors were either well-connected or good at academic politics and acquiring political patronage. Others, with more real talent, earned early graves as alcoholics. Through this process, though ancient classical languages like Sanskrit and Tamil and Persian retained their prestige, actual living languages were sidelined. One consequence was that there was a new emphasis on the education of women. It was no longer acceptable for the future mother of one's grandchildren to speak the jargon of the zenana- she must speak with correct diction and use a logical type of language.
The result of all this was that suddenly Indians became doubly self-conscious. Speaking correct English was bad enough, now you had to worry even about your own mother tongue! An American Professor, visiting an Urdu poet in Lucknow, was astonished when her guide suddenly became tongue-tied. He even started blurting out English phrases. It turned out that, though from an Ashraf family, he was ashamed of his Urdu accent! One can multiply such instances with respect to every single language of India. 
In the past, the aridity of the sabak-e-hindi or kavya style was counterbalanced by the cultural legitimacy of appropriating the bucolic language of the people for poetic purposes. Suddenly, this was seen as declasse. Everybody had to pretend that Mum and Grand--mum spoke like Judges and Headmasters! 
This new type of linguistic status anxiety- which was particularly acute amongst those belonging to traditional 'writer' castes- created a demand for Prose literature- Ghalib's letters outsold his Divan because his Urdu was properly aristocratic, you could not go wrong if you formed your Prose style, your conversational style, upon him- and the same was true for novels. The importance of novels is that they depict how, ideally, men and women should converse and what sentiments they should hold for each other. The ladies in these novels of the Raj era Bildungsburgertum are able to use polite, grammatically correct, language to express noble sentiments in a rational manner. They provided a template for the women of the house. As the women began to express themselves in a rational and logical way, using the elite form of the language- though many of them actually went mad under this novel psychological pressure!- the children got a head-start at School. Traditional families, however, remained suspicious of education in English, for girls, till the Gandhian revolution.
I have mentioned how the pressure on women to conform to a new linguistic ideal greatly increased their stress levels. Previously, women were allowed to express themselves in a 'natural' manner- they had their own culture of songs and dances and ceremonies and bereavement rituals and so forth. However, it was precisely this 'prakrit' quality that became an object of suspicion and distaste. Aurobindo's father was a Doctor, but his Mother still goes mad. Dom Moraes's mother was a Doctor- that didn't save her. Niradh Chaudhri's father was a very kind hearted man- his mother appears to have afflicted with some mild form of mental illness nevertheless. One motivation for seeking refuge in literature is to be able to recover the mother, free from the hysteria that afflicted her, as a nurturant factor for the psyche. The Pakistani Psycoanalyst, Masud Khan, who unfortunately succumbed to alcoholism, made his mark in Britain by the excellence of his English. Perhaps the safer course for him would have been to write 'magic realist' novels like Zulfhiqar Ghose or, later, Salman Rushdie! 
Interestingly, Rushdie started off writing a sort of Jungian Science Fiction on the Simurgh theme. But, unlike S.P.Somtow, the Thai aristocrat whose educational background is similar to Rushdie, he couldn't cut it as a pulp novelist. Rushdie's determination to write a Simurgh novel- i.e. one based on the Parliament of the Birds of Sheikh Attar- based in a magical realist version of India caused the status of literary fiction in Britain to shoot up.  An English author who unblushingly appropriated elements from Marquez and Grass would have been considered either illiterate or a show-off. However the sheer verve of the writing, its noisy delight in itself, overbore all protest. In any case, Rushdie clearly was a gentleman. Unfortunately, in letting his anima dictate a best seller to him, Rushdie became alienated from the Sufi purpose of the parable he was expounding. In fact, he simply turned into a prancing ninny. But, prancing ninnies are excellent self-publicists. 
Indians, who supported Rushdie, were puzzled when he chose not to play the Kashmir card against Syed Shahabuddin after the latter demanded the ban of the Satanic Verses. All Rushdie had to do was to say that this former diplomat and Janta Dal Rajya Sabha M.P was an 'Uncle Tom' running dog of the Hindu Imperialists. Thus Shahabuddin was only questioning Rushdie's Religion because the latter had begun to speak out on the atrocities in his native Kashmir valley. Previously the Iranians had given him a prize for 'Shame'- because it attacked Pakistan- this time they would have poured money into popularizing the view that Rushdie's book was a sort of Edward Saidian satire upon 'Orientalism' and Islamophobia. Pakistan would have had to pat Rushdie on the back- because of the Kashmir issue. 
Why didn't Rushdie play the Kashmir card? After all, like Nehru, Indira, Bandarnaike, Bhutto etc he went to Cambridge. People who go to Cambridge write nonsense because they know ordinary people are stupid. However, they become very shrewd when defending their own interests. Yet Rushdie behaved like an innocent baby. Why? Perhaps the simplest answer is that he liked India. His father didn't consult him when he relocated the family to Pakistan. Rushdie playing the Kashmir card as an Indian is one thing. Indian authors are supposed to speak out on matters relating to their caste, creed or native place. Dom Moraes was welcomed back to India though he spoke against the annexation of his native Goa. But, Rushdie mentioning Kashmir as a Pakistani is a different kettle of fish. Actually, the ISI would have quietly bumped him off if he had spoken up on Kashmir because they want to be pulling all the strings on that issue. Thus, though sedulous in writing nonsense, Rushdie, at some deep unconscious level, 'shows more than he knows' and that is the job of the novelist. In this sense, as the editorial I am commenting on pointed out- he was English not Indian and it was after his fading from the scene that Indian 'hysterical realism' took off in earnest.
In this context, we might note that whereas Rushdie's conflict was with his father- an Oedipal, a Western thing- the Indian English novel, more typically, arises out of a narcissistic injury deriving from the child's dependence on the mother.

It may be that one motivation for seeking mastery of a 'foreign language' is because one feels that the mother tongue has become 'foreign' because the mother has become alienated from herself- she no longer has pyschic integrity. In Arundhati's Roy 'God of small things'- which appears to be based on Aeschylus's 'the return of Orestes'- the brother and sister are saved from having to deal with their mother because the mother goes mad by herself!  Interestingly, a Japanese Psychoanalyst, Heisaku Kosawa, claimed that Oedipus is not really relevant for Asian cultures. Instead, we should speak of an Ajase (Japanese for Emperor Ajatashatru) complex- it is that King's cruel punishment of his mother which sheds light on the primal trauma for people from Asian cultures where 'amae' (dependence elicitation as normative for all social relationships) predominates, rather than the will to power through individuation and autonomy.
The involution, obsession with extended family ties, and note of incipient hysteria which distinguishes the Indian English novel arises out of some failure of 'amae'- i.e. of (primarily) maternal care. In Vikram Seth's case, it appears he may have felt vulnerable at boarding school by reason of his small size; also the issue of his sexuality may have been difficult for his father to deal with, and the result is a very very long book which initially appears to be taken from life until we reach a point where, in half a sentence, we suddenly learn that a Hindu is having a homosexual love affair with a Muslim whom, nevertheless, he will later attempt to murder! The Muslim, of course, is trying to have an affair with his own half-sister, the daughter of the courtesan the Hindu is having an affair with! All this is presented to us as quite routine and undeserving of any special comment or authorial elucidation. This abrupt departure from psychological plausibility and historical versimilitude damns the whole book and reveals it to be an exercise in suppressed hysteria, lacking any grounding in reality and  hopelessly dependent on trashy melodramatic tropes from the worst sort of Hindi films.
Still, this sort of 'hysterical realism' does express something, it is 'creative', but the important point to note is that if such authors wrote in their mother-tongue they couldn't get away with such childish plot twists and self-aggrandizing posturing. Roy's incestuous Elektra and Seth's bisexual sari-shop owner would have been met with gales of laughter. Seth and Roy can get away with presenting such unusual events because they come from exotic places- maybe their part of India really is like that. Kipling, on the other hand, wrote for his own people. What he published in the morning, he was judged on at the Club the very same evening. That was the discipline which permitted the flowering of his genius. More importantly, in the case of our 'hysterical realists', the mothers of these geniuses would have smacked them on their behinds and sent them to bed without their supper if they had written such absurd nonsense in the vernacular language. 

Sir V.S, Naipaul, however, had the opposite experience. His mother was a strong-minded woman of excellent psychological health who took a business course after her kids left home and did well for herself. Not even her son could turn her into literature in a manner which didn't make nonsense of his self-pitying posturings.
His father, on the other hand, had a nervous breakdown after being forced to perform an animal sacrifice ritual as a way of repenting of his Arya Samajist critique of the Trinidad Hindu society of his day. Naipaul resolved to forget his ancestral Hindi- he says it happened while watching a Hindi film where a blind beggar sings a doleful dirge- and even his sister, who came to Benares Hindu University on a scholarship, resolved to have nothing more to do with a language in which buffaloes and lathis featured so prominently. The Naipauls were ahead of the curve. Their father had been humiliated by a type of thuggish noveau riche Casteist Hinduism which had no interest in Social Reform, no interest in Spiritual Religion, no interest in ameliorating the condition of women, but every intention to grab money and political power by every and any means. Back in the Sixties no one would have suspected that self-pity prone, Naipaul clones, like Pankaj Mishra, were gestating in his ancestral Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. But, the truth is, we should have predicted it. The imposition of shuddh Hindi by a bureaucratic State is a sort of linguistic genocide. People who don't speak shuddh Hindi, but who are classed as Hindi speakers, internalize a sort of violence against themselves, their culture, their poetry, their art, their Religion. These are not illegal immigrants or two legged cattle. I have heard of linguistic majorities trying to destroy the mother tongue of minorities. But a majority which destroys its own mother tongue is beyond my comprehension.
It is no wonder that Indians are gravitating towards English to gain a voice which will not automatically be dismissed as either 'uneducated' or meaningless bureaucratese. Vikram Seth was not pleased when a publisher proposed to bring out his 'A suitable boy' under the title 'Ek suyogya var'. Gopal Gandhi stepped in and translated the book as 'koi accha sa ladka'. The odd thing is, 'Suitable boy' is a phrase that has entered Indian languages. 'Koi accha sa ladka' means something different- 'any nice boy will do'- people may say that to show their humility, but when negotiations begin in earnest, the word 'suitable' will be emphasized. Why? It has a multiple meanings- 'suit' as in compatibility having regard to family status, standard of living, type of employment, qualifications, astrological sign and so on and so forth. 
To my mind, an interesting aspect of Indian prosody- at least in the hands of master-poets- is its delight in 'false friends', words which sound the same but which originate from different languages. The oral tradition tends to assimilate the two but learned people are aware of the aesthetic possibilities arising from their juxtaposition of incompossible universes of discourse. One step up from 'false friends' are terms which have a special meaning in a particular discipline or specialized context. To use them in this sense in one's own prose is to derive a particular pleasure of 'tadmin' allusion, it is to create a special sort of 'dhvani' suggestiveness, and in this sense could be said to be 'creative' rather than credentializing merely.
My own feeling is, to some extent, English had this property for Indians. Words have a secret doubleness precisely because, till recently, Indglish had more words than things and the ongoing project of translating everything into English enriched the semantic scope of the foreign tongue. Thus, Roosevelt spoke of a 'rendezvous with destiny' because, by the 1930's, sophisticated people thought it terribly smart to use the French term. Nehru however prefers to say 'tryst with destiny'- which the older generation of Whites thought 'Babu'.
Yet today, most people would acknowledge that Nehru was right. Suhuni did not make a rendezvous with Mahiwal. The viyogini is not pining away because her beloved stood her up for a date. If the English and the Americans used the word 'tryst' and 'swain' to jokingly refer to the courtship rituals of their butlers and maid-servants, so what? Rendezvous is just ugly Maitre d' French. Tryst is elemental and universal.

Some people, like Chief Justice Katju, may want to revive Sanskrit- but the task is hopeless. People firmly believe that it was a monopoly of the Brahmins who destroyed India by imposing an obscene caste-system. Sabak-e-hindi too is a non-starter because the younger generation of Mullahs reject Persian in favor of Arabic- this trend is changing pronunciation and syntax in a manner the older generation finds bizarre.

But, if the vernacular languages can't be 'standardized' or 'elevated' by recourse to Classical models, how can novel writing be a vehicle to upward social mobility? To use out of date slang or a provincial idiom is to brand yourself as some sort of 'hero from zero'. 
Furthermore, from the late Sixties onwards, there have been two parallel developments in Vernacular literature-
1) the proliferation of advanced literary theory together with the attainment of a sort of scholarly 'critical mass' is such that the ordinary reader feels alienated and even the middle level knowledge worker feels at a disadvantage to express him/herself, especially because of the politicization of the Academy and the cliqueishness of the literary magazines.
At one time we might have tolerated this situation by saying to ourselves- ah! if only we all had Doctorates from the Sorbonne we too would be able to appreciate what is being written by these great luminaries. Recently, Prof. Gopichand Narang was accused of plagiarism. Far from really having engaged with and digested Structuralist and Post Structuralist thought, the eminent Professor had simply translated relevant passages from standard textbooks to make a grand display of a spurious erudition. Prof. C.M. Naim, whose suave intellectual nullity saved him from writing nonsense of that particular stripe, lent his prestige to the attack on Narang. However, the truth is the Indian reception of European Literary Theory- even if based on genuine scholarship- was always entirely fatuous. But so was the British or American or Patagonian or French reception of that tripe. The subject was inherently foolish. Ceaseless mention of Bhratrhari or al Jurjani is equally foolish. They tell us about the idiotic doxology of their times- just as post-modern monkeyshines tells us about the sorts of paranoid ideation characteristic of different drugs-of-choice.
 Nowadays, thanks to the internet, we can easily find out for ourselves that all these Emperors or Commissars were completely naked. Since most Indian knowledge workers, nowadays, are from applied maths backgrounds, we can easily see that their pseudo-mathematical language and pretense of philosophical rigor was all simply eye-wash. But, what is the alternative? C.M. Naim's smugness? No. The truth is, Literature oughtn't to be taught at Universities any more than Love should be sought in the Brothel. 
However, high-end, supposedly Left Wing, Eurocentric 'Lit Crit' still rules the roost- in fact it has got stronger- by claiming to be 'Secular'. Thus, people can write about Ghalib and Mir without mentioning the Quran Sharif. They can pretend that Bhagwan Valmiki did not understand that Lord Rama loved his wife. In fact Professor Sidney Pollock has written ''Rama's 'true feelings' will remain secret, properly so, for they are quite irrelevant to the poem's purposes.'  
I am certainly not endorsing the thugs who claim to speak for Religion, but this sort of Secularism is a bad joke. It tells young people that the lyrical poetry of their own country does not deal with real emotions. It was all some sort of heartless game or mindless pastime for the elite.  Love may exist, but it has no place in Literature. The proof is that all the great poetry and stories of India were written by people we revere as Saints- that is they have Religious standing. But, Religion is just a cheap trick played upon the toiling masses by evil misogynists

2) The  rise of protest movements like the 'Dalit Panthers' who wished to shock the  middle classes out of their Puritanical complacency ended up dis-empowering vernacular literature as a vehicle for Social Upliftment. Nowadays, English has been declared a Goddess for Dalits and Lord Macaulay an idol! Why? The Dalit Panthers failed their own people. The use of foul language and the depiction of nihilistic hedonism and transgressive sexuality, meant that reading such literature did not permit one to rise up in terms of cultivated speech, good manners, ability to express noble sentiments and so forth. English, on the other hand, is seen as a great leveler.  Not only is it a route to advancement it also acts like a ratchet preventing a steep fall in status consequent upon a political change. A further contributing factor to the rise of English has been the shocking fall in the quality of English teaching in Government Schools and Vernacular Medium Colleges. This means that your only chance of learning English to an employable level is if you start in childhood and increasingly crowd out the mother tongue from your consciousness!  When I was young, we used to make fun of families who tried to make their children speak English at home in the belief that this would give them a leg up academically. We thought this was funny because the toppers in the Civil Service, in Medicine, in Law and so on, came, more often than not, from Vernacular Medium Schools in small towns. But, in those days, an English teacher could really teach English- maybe not the posh accent of Doon School but correct written English. It is tragic that very bright young people, supposedly being taught English, are actually receiving no such instruction. One can't blame them if they force their children to make English their main language. 
Amongst the middle class, as the vernacular languages embraced sexually transgressive and politically nihilistic concepts and ideas, the elders started to discourage kids from reading vernacular literature- they were happier if the children read Enid Blyton or Alastair Mclean, because the West was a less dangerous source of 'spiritual pollution' than what was happening on their own door-steps. The revival of English amongst third or fourth generation Anglophone Indians, many from traditional families, has to do with a retreat from Politics as 'the Gandhian novel' ceased to be relevant. I am tempted to use the word 'neoteny'- the evolutionary strategy of prolonging childhood- to describe the way the Middle Class turned against the vernacular languages, which had been their own vehicle to class power, once those vernacular languages became more revolutionary and 'post modern' than good old Agatha Christie, P.G. Woodhouse, English.
Classical Music and Dance were still safe for young people- the excellent character and spirituality of the great Artistes ensured that this was so- however, it is noteworthy that when you look at PhD thesis written on Musicological topics, the same type of Politically Correct nonsense appears.
One final point, in my own personal experience, the urge to write novels about India has to do with trying to rise above one's class or caste background and build up a picture of how India, or a small piece of it, coheres as a whole.
But this begs the question- does India still cohere?
In the past, the Indian novelist would have done some little bit of research, or engaged with a traditional art-form or genre of literature and sought to make that relevant to the lives of his or her characters.
Is that still happening? 

Unfortunately, as the author of the editorial previously mentioned points out, there is a strong factor militating against this hoped for outcome- the fact is the Media is now hooked on advertising money, paid-for news, hyped up controversies- 'as the English language media in India gradually transforms itself into an agent of publicity, the distinction between ‘publicity’ and ‘opinion’ has also been made wafer thin. Celebrities (often created by the media) are asked to pronounce on matters in which they have little expertise'- in other words the infantile narcissism of the wannabe authors matches up with the Media's need for 'idoru' - idols of the moment- ready and willing to parade their puerile opinions under the pretense that this contributes to 'Public Discourse' or 'Civil Society' or other such faddish nonsense. 
Though I'm an English speaker myself, the English of the 'talking heads' on TV sets my teeth on edge and, if only for a moment, I find myself agreeing with Ram Manohar Lohia- truly agrezi boli worked a worse mischief upon India than the angrezi goli!


  1. "Kipling's Kim becomes a critique of the narrowness of the Established Church, the callousness of officialdom and the cynicism of 'the Great Game'."

    Possibly I was taken in by the young-adult packaging of the book, but I'd like to hear more about this, as I didn't find Kim very cynical about the Great Game or British imperialism.

    Sorry to make such a poor comment on such an interesting and wide-ranging post.

  2. @FredR,
    certainly Kim is a great adventure story as well as a sort of bildungsroman showing a young adult shaking off childish things and acquiring discipline and a sense of purpose.
    In so far as the Great Game was an adventure, Kim glamorizes it but two pretty cynical points are being made
    1) This stuff is not worth a Third Afghan War. The Game is not worth the candle. A handful of secret agents playing hide and seek is all its worth- and even then the players are only going through the motions for some Stoic or Fatalistic reason. The Rooskis are stupid and simply can't help being beastly so they might well fight over a worthless tract of land if they think we really want it. Thus, there's no point goading them in to a militarily conflict. Just frustrate their machinations and leave it at that. Britain had already been threatened with war, quite senselessly, by the Americans over Venezuela and the French over Fashoda. Well, Fashoda might matter so that Rhodes gets his Cape to Cairo railway, but Britain really oughtn't to be fighting with Civilized countries like France and the U.S. As for uncivilized countries, why fight them when you can outwit them. There's back door ways to settle this sort of thing.
    2)the British Empire, like British Society back home, is deeply divided along class, colour and creedal lines. Still, rational self-interest is sufficient for it to field a successful team in the Great Game. This is because the peoples of this deeply divided society, all busy scheming against each other, see value in postponing an expensive confrontation with any other Empire. In other words, here you have an effective esprit d'corps based on a sort of grudging mutual respect for professional competence in the field, but there is neither provision, nor need, for a unifying idea or cause.

    This is the opposite of genuine Imperialism. The Pathan and the Bengali and Kim (a 'country bottled' White whose instinct is to shirk the onerous, indeed unsavoury, duties incumbent on him by reason of his lowly birth) are not animated by love for the Empire or even a belief in its Civilizing mission. The lower class Whites dream of a return to the days of the Mutiny when a man could get rich by loot. The Pathans dream of an Islamic resurgence, or at least a return to the days of the Pindari. The Bengali, no doubt, hopes to inherit the entire Empire by besting the others in Competitive Exams or by high flown oratory in the law Courts or the Legislative Assembly. But, for the moment, they all have to get along.

    Kipling is perfectly happy to depict very low caste people as showing exemplary courage and self-sacrifice in British service. However, he never makes the mistake of saying that they are doing it out of a belief in the Empire or even a belief in the Providential nature of British Rule (which was the slogan constantly on the lips of the Indian loyalists).
    Kipling knew from personal experience that Indian soldiers were happy to die for the King Emperor. They just weren't enthused by the notion of Empire. In fact, no one was except Joseph Chamberlain, but the guy was a turn-coat from the Radicalism familiar to Kipling from his Aunty's house back in Fulham.

    Both Kipling and Tagore- the latter because of his long experience of managing his family's vast estates- understood the shortcomings of the British Raj, its strength was all surface, it had no deep roots. Thus both Imperialism as well as anti-Imperialism were suspect in their eyes. True some Imperialists were sincere and some Revolutionaries weren't crooks. But the claims both made of being able to lift up the people of India were self-deluding lies. The truth was the Imperialist, in the name of creating a partnership with the subject races, just wanted an official position and an ever increasing bunch of worthless bureaucrats to oversee.

  3. (contd)
    Similarly the Revolutionary talked of creating an Utopia, while carefully embezzling or stealing everything he could lay his hands on and also, of course, slitting the throat of his rivals whom he condemned as traitors or police spies.

    This is not to say that Kipling wasn't an English patriot or that he wasn't an early prophet of the German threat. But Imperialism as an ideology finds its voice in Gandhi's favorite author- John Ruskin- not Nehru's favourite book- Kipling's Kim.

  4. 'Thus, Roosevelt spoke of a 'rendezvous with destiny' because, by the 1930's, sophisticated people thought it terribly smart to use the French term. Nehru however prefers to say 'tryst with destiny'- which the older generation of Whites thought 'Babu'.'

    Nehru originally wrote 'date with destiny'. His secretary, Mathai, pointed out that 'date' was American and vulgar. Having consulted Roget's, Mathai suggested tryst or rendezvous- but pointed out that Rooselvelt had already used rendezvous. That's why Nehru chose 'tryst'.