Susan Chacko on the recent NETSAP south asian literary festival in Washington DC
The tidal wave of diasporic Southasian writing is no longer news. What a surprising is that the first literary event bringing together a host of south asian writers took place in 2000. in November, about a dozen authors and acedemics and an excited audience of about 200 thronged the South Asian Literary festival organised by the network of south Asian Professionals (NETSAP) in washigton DC. While the authors were well known from their books, many in the audience also got their first taste of the academic approach to literature. The introductory panel included three professors: Sara Suleri of Yale, Ambreen Hai from Smith College and Sangeeta Ray from the University of Maryland.
Post-colonial literature is the writing in English that emerged out of the former European colonies, and Suleri is one of the cornerstones of the “po-co” academic world. Her memoir, Meatless Days, was first published in 1987 and blends a description of the Pakistan in which she grew up with her own reflections and interpretation. It was novel in that it made no attempt to ‘explain’ the culture or society to a non-subcontinental audience. Its importance to the recent wave of South Asian writers is evident from the fact that three of the authors at this festival named Suleri and her book as their primary influence.
The language of academic postcolonialism can be mystifying to an uninitiated audience, however; some of Suleri’s sentences like, “Postcolonialism needs to be addressed with considerable irony” meant nothing to those of us who read South Asian literature for enjoyment and for yet another fascinating connection with our own culture. Still, everyone enjoyed her anecdote about how her first paper about Rushdie, written before the infamous fatwa, was rejected because the editor was of the view that “Rushdie is unknown”.
Does diasporic literature mainly present an upper-class, heterosexual, Hindu vision of India to its readers? Sangeeta Ray felt so, and the background of many of the well-known diasporic authors would seem to bear her out. Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Shyam Selvadurai, however, are examples of authors who write from a non-Hindu or non-heterosexual perspective.
Shyam Selvadurai, the Sri-Lanka born author of Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens (http://www.interlog.com/~funnyboy), shared the first panel with Mira Kamdar, an international affairs specialist who has recently published a memoir and exploration of her Gujarati grandmother’s life called Motiba’s Tattoos (http://www.motibastattoos.com/). Her grandmother Motiba had mysterious tattoos on her face and forearms, and years later Kamdar traced Motiba’s migrations from Kathiawar to Rangoon to America in an attempt to find out what these tattoos signified. In the process, the story of her own family became the larger story of the Gujarati and Indian diaspora.
Selvadurai read from Cinnamon Gardens, his second novel set in 1920s Ceylon. It features Annalukshmi, a young schoolteacher, and Balendran, her uncle who lives a respectable married life while hiding his own homosexual past. The first question was about the historical accuracy of the books. Selvadurai discussed his research in Colombo where he had discovered an old newsclip about an Englishman being prosecuted for having sex with Ceylonese men in a railway carriage. The newsclip had the names of the Ceylonese, who were all from “good Cinnamon Gardens families”. He had also found another document which described the close friends of a Ceylonese labour leader, one of whom was a famous British gay activist, so that Balendran’s secret gay life in the book had a corresponding historical reality.
When Mira Kamdar was asked about the role of nostalgia in her book; she said “nostalgia is an expression of loss”. She talked about how the world was now so different from the one of her grandmother Motiba; the commonality between urban cultures across the world today was something that the older generation could neither comprehend nor imagine.
Sangeeta Ray moderated an energetic panel called “Voicing the Unmentionable” about sexuality, featuring Ginu Kamani and Tahira Naqvi. Kamani read an excerpt from Junglee Girl, her book of short stories about Indian women and sexuality, oppression, societal and cultural norms. In this story, a young girl is taken to see a ‘lady doctor’ because of her overt sexuality. It made for a forceful and dramatic reading.
One of the loveliest readings of the day was Tahira Naqvi’s; she read most of ‘Love in an Election Year’, a longish short story that appears in her Attar of Roses and also in Dragonfly in the Sun, an anthology of Pakistani English writing. (See http://www.monsoonmag.com/interviews/i3inter_naqvi.html for Gayatri Devi’s interview with Tahira Naqvi.)
One young man asked why so many women writers wrote about oppression, and complained that it gave an unfair impression of the culture when in fact most women were not oppressed. The moderator’s response was, “You speak from experience?” and the audience dissolved into laughter. Tahira Naqvi said that she wrote about men, women, young people, and the culture as a whole, and also that her stories were not representative of ‘the culture’. Ginu Kamani felt that the state of a culture is described by the state of its women, and that the sexuality of women is feared in many cultures, not just South Asia. She thought it shouldn’t be seen as a binary issue where one culture was ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. One audience member suggested that nostalgia for an imagined past was a large reason for the repression of women’s sexuality in the diasporic communities.
‘Why do you write about abnormal sexual experiences?’; a question for Kamani. She replied: because it’s emphasised by its abnormality, writing class taught you to go for the drama, and lastly, that anything sexual is abnormal for some people.
“Had sex talk become more open in India?” Kamani was of the view that the US was the most verbal country on the planet, and that the culture of talking was not as indigenous to other countries such as India, where, according to her, 90 percent of communication was non-verbal. Tahira Naqvi, in response to the same question, agreed that parent-child discussions about sex were uncommon in Pakistan, but women talked extensively to other women about sex. Cousin-marriage is permitted and encouraged in Pakistan, and kids grew up flirting with their cousins in an atmosphere of parental indulgence. Also, there was no dearth of sexual material in the form of books such as Ismat Chugtai’s, but the modern South Asian women writers were only now beginning to write about it.
The panel ended with a short digression into Islamic culture, where Naqvi made a distinction between ‘Islamic’ (i.e. Koran-derived) and ‘culture’ (i.e. which was derived from the community). She also mentioned class differences which meant that women in her own urban educated community had a lot of freedom while growing up, while women in villages were involved in ‘honour killings’, but pointed out that neither was ‘Islamic’; it was the ‘culture’.
The panel on “Gender and Nation: Voices in Transition” featured Bapsi Sidhwa and Shauna Singh Baldwin, who read from Cracking India and What the Body Remembers respectively. Both novels are set in Lahore during Partition. It was a contentious panel as the two authors appeared to (politely) disagree on most topics. Sidhwa’s gentle voice counterpointing with Baldwin’s dramatic reading.
This panel was very different from all the others— many of the questions were really comments from audience members who had a strong personal interest in Partition. I’ve heard that this is typical for Baldwin’s readings among South Asians because of the topic of Partition. Audience members often got very emotional when speaking or asking questions. Judging from the age of the audience, most of them would have had parents, or more probably grandparents who were Partition migrants, but clearly it’s an intensely emotional subject for many of them. Some audience members narrated stories about their own family experiences, and, as the moderator observed, they had the material to write their own books.
“Why hasn’t more been written about the Partition?” Sidhwa thought it was too immediate and close to the participants, while Baldwin pointed out that it takes money and leisure to write a book, a luxury which was not available to most Partition migrants.
Sidhwa made an interesting point: she said that people in the Punjab had mostly forgiven the horrors of Partition and learnt to live with each other’s communities again, while the hatred lives on in places like Gujarat/Maharashtra that were mostly untouched by Partition. Baldwin said the reaction to her novel was “gendered”; that male reviewers had generally not “got” the book.
“Why is there no fiction about the other Partition, i.e. E. Pakistan/Bangladesh?” Sidhwa thought the scale of violence in Punjab had been more horrific. Baldwin promptly disagreed, throwing out some numbers in support, but said it was a question to ask the Bengalis.
Panel: Ancient Voices: Mythology’s Living Influence, starring Jonah Blank (Arrow of the Blue-skinned God) and Manil Suri (Death of Vishnu, coming this January).
Jonah Blank’s book is a retracing of the path of Ram and a retelling of the Ramayana. The passage he read was about his experience in Colombo during the violence, and was not very impressive.
Suri’s novel, which I had assumed was mythological from its title, turned out to be quite modern. The Vishnu of the title is a drunken bum who lives on the landing of an apartment complex in urban India. This section alternated between two middle-class women in the complex arguing over what to do with Vishnu, and Vishnu’s own childhood in a slum. Judging from this excerpt, the book is worth looking out for.
Blank, in response to an audience question, said that people tried to interpret the Ramayana in a local context, so – for example—in Hampi, Ravana was seen as a hero. The Doordarshan version of the Ramayana for the first time gave all of India a common vision of the Ramayana, which had “serious political implications”. He works for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and seemed to be somewhat restricted from fully expressing himself.
Suri was suitably short-winded, as befits a mathematician. Someone asked about ‘magical realism’, the phrase usually used to describe Rushdie’s writings, and he said that in his book, anything that seemed magical had a logical reason.
‘Was the name Vishnu important? how would the story have been different if he had been called Phil?’ Suri: it would have been a short story.
‘Was there a divine hand turning the short story into a novel?’ Suri said that right after he had finished Chapter 2, his hard drive crashed and he lost all his other short stories, so that he was forced (by a divine hand?) to work on this novel.
‘Which Indian concepts are likely to influence the West?’ Blank hoped that some would. He gave examples, of Mother Teresa, who said she was who she was entirely because of India. And of Gandhi’s influence on the US Civil Rights movement.
Vikram Chandra read from his latest work in progress in the final evening session. This novel features Sartaj Singh, who appeared in his book of short stories Love and Longing in Bombay. Anybody liking Love and Longing, will probably like this new novel as well. Sartaj Singh is a Bombay policeman, and the novel involves salty language, corruption, brothels, murder and the Bombay mafia.
David Davidar was well situated to talk about the history of Indian English publishing. As the head of Penguin India, he has been an integral part of its growth in the last 20 years. In an amusing anecdote, he described his shock when, invited by Vikram Seth to read his new book, he first saw the 1400-odd pages of A Suitable Boy. He thought Indian English writing would be fully realised when it included science fiction, mysteries, romance novels, and memoirs.
The wrap-up panel was moderated by Chitra Ragavan (see http://www.saja.org/ragavan.html)
An audience question about what sort of novels to expect in the future brought a diverse set of responses. Ginu Kamani hoped more people would write about sex so that she wouldn’t have to be the representative author on sexual issues in future panels. Jonah Blank expected more regional diversity. Shyam Selvadurai said there were two diasporic Canadian novels about politics coming out soon, including his own. Baldwin wondered if critiques of North American society would be accepted by readers? Bapsi Sidhwa thought young [diasporic] people craved more stories about their roots. Sangeeta Ray expected more writing from the diaspora in the Caribbean and Guyana, and more diversity from within the Subcontinent.
A provocative question from the audience was whether Jhumpa Lahiri’s (http://www.sawnet.org/books/jhumpa_lahiri.html) recent Pulitzer Prize was justified, and if not, why it had won. Davidar thought the book was significant, but also mentioned that the criteria for such prizes was always mysterious. Vikram Chandra said he had liked some of the stories very much, but that he had been fascinated by E. Annie Proulx’s competing novel at the time. In his experience judging was a complicated issue, and sometimes the best compromise book won if the judges were divided. And lastly, that prizes were meaningless in terms of the longevity of the book. Ray felt strongly that such accomplishments should not be reduced to tokenism.
“What were your influences?” Sara Suleri said “Everyone I’ve ever read”, while Mira Kamdar, Shyam Selvadurai, and Ambreen Hai all said that Suleri’s Meatless Days had been a major influence on their own writing. Tahira Naqvi cited Manto, Chugtai, and other Urdu writers while Jonah Blank went as far back as Valmiki.
Now the rumour has it that the festival will be repeated next year—many can’t wait for that.