In Vidia’s India: A Million Mutinies Now there is little landscape and hardly any weather. There is no smell, no heat or dust, no sweating men, no lisping saris, no honking traffic, nothing except the sound of yakking Indians.
Paul Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow
In the summer of 1998, India—and then Pakistan—suddenly exploded on the front pages of the newspapers around the world. The nuclear bomb tests were a culmination of a heady season of self-assertion, a year during which the 50th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence came to life in a flurry of literary acclaim. By December, it was clear that the South Asian demonstration of literary force in the West rivalled the power of the other Third World product of the year, El Nino. Breathless, magazines like the New Republic almost begged for mercy: Macaulay, who had said that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India”, has been pelted with masterpieces for this ignorant denigration of Indian literature. His punishment has taken a form which he could not have imagined, the vivid prosperity of an Indian literature, and a Pakistani literature, written in Macaulay’s own language.
In the ice-cream parlours of New Delhi, a lot of Indians were happy to receive so much notice in the pages of the New Republic and The New Yorker. I was happy that Granta magazine sent a reporter to my own hometown, Patna. He found Conrad’s Mistah Kurtz there in the figure of our Chief Minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav. In the story, Yadav was called by his first name, just like Saddam. But the reporter must have made an impression on the Patna leader. Yadav took him for a walk through his vegetable garden and offered friendly dietary information: “This is satthu,” he said. “Very good for wind.” Such characters also made their appearance in the fiction by Indian writers, published in the same magazines around this time.
As these publications were all in English, the ordinary person in the West could be forgiven for believing that all Indians wrote only in English. Some Indians almost believed this too. Salman Rushdie weighed in at that time that the writing in English in India far exceeded in quality the writing in all other Indian languages. He admitted that he didn’t know those other languages, and there had been a genuine problem with translations, but, of course, nevertheless, given that, and regardless, an instance of magical realism, and, in the end, as we all in the West know, et cetera.
One novel that Rushdie believed was “welcome proof that India’s encounter with the English language continues to give birth to new children” was Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. It has plenty of yakking Indians who populate a landscape filled with heat and dust, sweating men, lisping saris, and honking traffic. In order to escape them, the novel’s daydreaming hero, Sampath, climbs a tree and finds himself suddenly transformed into a holy man. Salman Rushdie, meet Deepak Chopra. Sampath wants to escape the “ugly sea of humanity” and find refuge in a world “where there was not a trace of civilisation”. He duly offers mindless platitudes, some of which were culled by the author from Bhargava’s Standard Dictionary of the Hindi Language: “Dab your mouth with honey and you will get plenty of flies… Sweep before your own door… Many a pickle makes a mickle… Talk of chalk and hear about cheese.”
Eccentrics are equally numerous in the novel and all events remain odd but harmless. Like the reporter from Granta in Patna, the reader of Desai’s prose finds in those pages an absence of folks who might have any reason to think. No poets or historians, union leaders, women doctors, teachers, people filled with purpose. They lead closed, walled-off lives. You couldn’t imagine them protesting, say, the arrival of Kentucky Fried Chicken in a million years. Largely inoffensive and mildly cretinous, the Indians in Desai’s novel pose no threat to anyone, least of all to the West. The novel never quite escapes the moral economy of the pleasant.
Consequently, the reader is forced to inquire what the hullabaloo around the novel is all about. Even without having published this novel, Desai (along with her mother, Anita, and Rushdie, of course, commanding the centre) was among the eleven writers presented as “India’s leading novelists” in the group-photograph in The New Yorker’s fiction issue on India in 1997. But, there is nothing here that exceeds the quaint fabulism of R.K. Narayan that had charmed readers for the past several decades—before Rushdie gave it the poison of history to drink and, overnight, it grew a tail and claws.
In spite of the Narayan-like fidelity to the pastoral, Desai, like Rushdie, does betray an instinct for the more troubling aspects of the social. She is able to zero in very well on Sampath’s mother, Kulfi, her flowering neuroses and her private, unsettled grief. We expect a moving report on gendered existence in India. The novel even offers a couple of remarkable passages on the institution of marriage and the demands it makes on many women in India. In its two or three best pages, Desai mocks at once Jane Austen and the Manu Smriti, the reactionary Hindu code of law. Yet, like Rushdie, lacking any powerful sense of social engagement, Desai is quick to pathologise Kulfi’s non-conformity. Like Sufiya Zenobia Shakil in Rushdie’s Shame, Kulfi is quickly condemned to a murderous zeal and madness. It is soon revealed that she belongs to a family plagued by mental illness. The narrative finally tames the woman by giving her a stove of her own. Don’t worry, cook curry.
The Moor’s Last Sigh
In Rushdie’s novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, although his attention to fundamentalism is fascinating, Rushdie’s fear of ‘the masses’ comes to the fore in his portrayal of a rural populace thirsty for blood. The writer treads a fantasy landscape of fear in which all outside the city’s familiar walls is condemned to barbarity. Thus, the villagers of India are portrayed as Hindu worshippers of the god Ram, and only superficially secular, when, in fact, all recent riots in India have been largely concentrated in the urban quarters. (One wonders whether, with the quote below as evidence, Rushdie has sacrificed secular ideals and fairness in the interest of a pun.) In The Moor’s Last Sigh, Rushdie had written:
In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram. And they say Ishwar and Allah is your name but they don’t mean it, they mean only Ram himself, king of Raghu clan, purifier of sinners along with Sita. In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.
This could be understood as a distant cosmopolitan’s dread and ignorance. Desai avoids this problem, but only by evading the issue entirely. As Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is too serene to touch on riots, nothing more raucous than a tamasha caused by drunken monkeys on the rampage, it is a bit too sanitised not to raise suspicion. Where have all the people gone? In any case, will language, delicate and lyrical, building an inventory of spices and fauna, provide a retreat from the driving forces of social upheaval? Perhaps it can.
But, to what are we to return from there? Desai’s language is unable to map that space. Perhaps it can’t. When Sampath, at the novel’s end, feels cornered, he pukes on his cot. And, then, like the man in the story about the Indian rope trick, he disappears into thin air, while his mother Kulfi keeps cooking, bent on the quest for finding a monkey to put in her pot.
There is another character in the novel who demands attention, the “atheist” who remains sceptical of Sampath. At the novel’s conclusion, he meets his end by accidentally falling into Kulfi’s simmering cooking pot. The critic, in effect, is shown to be a monkey. This was the only lesson I could retrieve from the novel: when it comes to deciding the fate of critics, even
genteel plots can take a surprisingly chilling, brutal turn.
The Mistress of Spices
Let me now turn to the outpourings of one Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a poet and novelist who lives in Sunnyvale, California. The New Yorker, in its very brief review of her novel The Mistress of Spices, noted that “Divakaruni’s prose is so pungent that it stains the page…” Remarks like these help you understand why Indian writers based in the West fall prey to the grand themes of spices and cooking. To his credit, Rushdie had used his tale of the Indian Sub-Condiment to provide a punchy narrative about colonialism. Divakaruni sets her sights firmly lower. In her story, Indians are postcolonial chicken coming home to roost—as spicy, well-barbecued tandoori.
As the following passage shows, Divakaruni is only in the process of “bringing news” to the West. This is a Kashmiri man’s account of how he came to leave his birthplace and settle in America, very early on in The Mistress of Spices:
One day the fighting started, and tourists stopped coming. Rebels rode down mountain passes with machine guns and eyes like black holes in their faces, yes, into the streets of Srinagar, the name which is meaning auspicious city. I am telling father Abbajan we must leave now but grandfather said, Toba, toba, where will we go, this is the land of our ancestors.
I have yet to meet a Kashmiri who talks like this. When in an opening discourse on Kashmir,instead of discussing extra-judicial killings by the Indian army or the factionalism and the treachery of the Kashmiri leaders, one is provided a linguistic glossary for the meaning of “Srinagar” and “Abbajan”, we receive all the tell-tale signs of goods marked “For Export Only”. But, more than that, we need to ask what is it that is lost in this act of literary and cultural short-changing, when a people are cheated of the complexity of their lives, and their voices. Let’s return to the novel for our answer.
Divakaruni’s narrator, Tilo, is an Indian spice-girl in Oakland, California. From her grocery store, with the help of her magical spices, she carries out her divine aid-agency for diasporic Indians in need. And there are many of them. Our narrator, suffering from a rare bout of self-reflexivity, does remark on her narrow focus on the pedagogy of the depressed: “You must not think that only the unhappy visit my store.” On the next page, however, the ones who are without suffering are pushed out of the frame by this Mother Teresa of the San Francisco Bay Area. “But already they are fading from my mind, already I am turning from them to the others. The ones who I need because they
This feeling of being needed, which is only the desire on the part of the writer to not continue to be marginal in the new country in which she has settled, is the reason why people appear so helpless in The Mistress of Spices. The cabbie who has been assaulted, the battered woman in a brutal marriage, the young woman who wants to marry a non-Indian, the young Punjabi boy who has joined a gang—their real need is for a novelist they can call their own in this strange land. That is the underlying myth of the novel, and like all myths, it has a grain of truth in it. Though I cringe at the sentimentality that Divakaruni introduces even in her depiction of a racist attack, or the maudlin pathos that she injects into a purchase of even a pack of cinnamon sticks, my spiritual inner-child smiles in repose. I calmly await the future.
Divakaruni’s melodramatic prose reminds me of nothing more than those earlier figures who animated the immigrant fictions of Israel Zangwill and Anzia Yezierska at the turn of the century in the US. The Mistress of Spices is an addition to an Indian history and presence that has been fairly brief in the US. I remind myself that this ventriloquism will soon end. Here is one of Divakaruni’s diasporics: “No one told us it would be so hard here in Amreekah, all day scrubbing greasy floors, lying under engines that drip black oil, driving the belching monster trucks that coat our lungs with tar.” This is not the speech of immigrant Indian labourers in London or Los Angeles, but their children in the ghettoes of England and America, who if they are lucky enough to garner both literacy and leisure, will soon make Divakaruni redundant. These future writers might also, of course, have their addresses in the well-to-do homes and middle-class suburbs of Western nations. We see it already beginning to happen here. That’s how I understand the reach and the assuredness of a writer like Hanif Kureishi across the Atlantic, and, in this country, the recent arrival of young talents like playwright Aasif Mandvi of Sakina’s Restaurant.
Video Nights in Kathmandu
But, what of all the other writers born in India and settled in the West? (In The New Yorker photograph I spoke of earlier, almost all of those novelists live and work outside India.) Am I implying that the best we can do is await their progeny? No. But, I am indeed suggesting that these writers should admit into their writing those concerns that I am yakking about here: who are they writing for? and with?
At the end of Divakaruni’s novel, Tilo offers her American lover a lesson in Orientalism 101: “Don’t you see why it would never work? Each of us loving not the other but the exotic image of the other that we have fashioned out of our own lack, our own—”. But, such openings remain clumsy exercises in bad-faith if they have been built precisely upon orientalist, not to mention despotic and unfeminist, fantasies:
I could make them empresses. Oceans of oil and honey to bathe in, sparkling palaces of rock-sugar. Leaf of water-hyacinth laid on the palm to touch to gold. Unguent of lotus root touched to the nipples for men to lie enslaved at their feet. If I wished.
I have nothing against flawed fantasies—I indulge in them regularly myself—but a point needs to be made here. An awareness of who we share these fantasies with, that is, how collective they are, can lend insight into their formation and their limits. And this takes us beyond the landscape of orientalist fictions to the terrain of oppositional politics. The voices raised in protest by Indian writers—who because they use English are also recognised by the West—allow us to ask what the limits of their fantasies are. As far as fantasies are concerned, Pico Iyer writes in Video Nights in Kathmandu that India “suffers from a kind of elephantiasis of the imagination”.
Love and Longing in Bombay
Iyer approvingly cites John Russell yakking about yakking Indians: “Indians are prodigious, irrepressible, never-tiring talkers.” For Iyer, this national trait is emblematised by its loud, vulgar, masala films—the 800 or more “epic concoctions” made in In dia each year. He writes: “When it came to the production of dreams—or gods—India had the biggest, busiest, noisiest industry in the world.”
In the set of stories collected in Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Chandra inflects his stories with the—uh—spice of Hindi films. Chandra, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, makes no pretence of producing radical fiction. In shedding that middle-class impulse to always speak in the voice of the underclass, he, paradoxically enough, produces writing that is radical in the sense that it bares the bones of India’s urban elite. The only drawback with this approach is that, swayed by the delusions of the ruling class, Chandra can reach conclusions that are rather vain. He ends a story with the dramatic announcement that it was a marriage among two leading families that by itself determined the flows of transnational capital and the longevity of governments in India.
Perhaps because Chandra narrates these stories from the position of the secure, fairly independent, Indian bourgeoisie, they convey a confidence that is lacking in the fiction that addresses itself to the lives of Indians living outside the national borders. Additionally, in some of the better stories like “Kama” and “Artha”, there is a quality that can only be called contemporary. The lucid ease of a female software engineer cleaning the syntax of her computer programme, the names of the city’s bars, the register of a gay relationship, the untranslated bits of Mehdi Hassan ghazals. There is a bold ordinariness to this presentation that was hitherto lacking in Indian fiction in English.
The India of these stories is one in which neither tradition nor modernity hold unchallenged sway: its urban centres have been irredeemably altered by migrations and industry, slums and high finance, crime and films. And, in these tales of love and longing, the irruptions of urban speech carry that newness which is at once more crude and complex.
Like the Hindi films which provide this book its dramatic backdrop, Chandra’s stories paint the fantasy of urban glitz, heartbreaking romance and petty intrigues. And, like some of the contemporary Hindi films, their surface too is rent by the explosion of fundamentalist violence. The stories attest to the fact that, in the course of their daily life, people lead lives that are unavoidably mixed: Hindus and Muslims do live as lovers, Christians and Hindus help each other as workers, one Hindu is different from another…
One Indian writer, however, I am very happy to report, understands that fact very well. This writer, rather than sticking with Bollywood, chose the best and brightest produced by Hollywood. He is none other than the very ordinary Dinesh D’Souza. Sir Dinesh of the American Enterprise Institute, long feted by his conservative Republican supporters, has produced another banality, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. It is a thick book.
There are a lot of non-Indians yakking at length on the dust-jacket about the book’s worth. Rush Limbaugh tops the list. Lower down the page is Tom Wolfe. He writes: “This marvellous book will drive the intellectual establishment—the conservative cadre as well as the liberal legions—straight up the wall. It convincingly demonstrates Ronald Reagan’s moral, political and—yes! I’m afraid so!—intellectual superiority to the entire lot of them.”
I bought the book but have been unable to read it. I stopped many times, but after page 40 I could not go on. On page 40, however, where my adventure with the book ended forever, D’Souza cited a poem by Reagan to illustrate his “gift for hope”:
I wonder what it’s all about, and why
We suffer so, when little things go wrong?
We make our life a struggle
When life should be a song.
Believe me, dear reader, I would not have inflicted this jaunty ditty on you if I didn’t have a moral: bad writing, like good writing, is not limited to any nation alone. It is not a national trait. If it were, I would have asked Dinesh D’Souza to wear a large sign around his neck saying: “I’m Indian, and I write in English, but I’m not talented.”