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Harish Trivedi

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Indian English Writing: Harish Trivedi



Gond Tribal art work. Courtesy- amanafontanellakhan.com




Indian Writing in English 2004-14: Democratization – and Lumpenization

Muse India is apparently not the only English-language publishing phenomenon (which indeed it has become within such a short time) celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. For there is also Chetan Bhagat. In the 'Acknowledgements and some thoughts' in his latest novel Half Girlfriend (2014), he tells us, just in case we may have egregiously failed to notice the fact, and in a confiding tone, as if we were his bosom friends: 'I want to share something with you. With this book I complete ten years as a writer.' He goes on to reveal further that when he started publishing novels with Five Point Someone (2004), he just 'wanted to make it,…to prove a point.' (That he, even he, could write a novel?) But now, six novels later, he declares, 'I write for change. A change in the mindset of Indian society.'

Please don't laugh. I for one take Chetan Bhagat very seriously. I've made it my business to read most of his novels, and I must say that there is a scene or two here and there which I have actually enjoyed and admired. To give just one example, there is, in his fourth novel 2 States: The Story of My Marriage (2009) a proposal scene in which the hero takes the heroine out as well as her family – father, mother, brother – to dinner in a fancy restaurant, and at the appropriate moment, goes down on his knee, produces not one but four rings, and proposes marriage to the whole family: 'I, Krish Malhrotra, would like to propose to all of you. Will all of you marry me?'

This, of course, hits the Indian matrimonial nail bang on the head, for we all know that whether it is an arranged marriage or what used to be called a 'love marriage' (the distinction is now erased for parents have regrouped to absorb and assimilate love marriages within the old custom of arranged marriages, rather like fathomless Hinduism absorbing back recalcitrant Buddhism), one ends up marrying the whole family nevertheless. I was so taken up with this scene that I even cited it in a wider discussion of love, marriage and the Indian novel in a volume of essays edited by two German academics and published in 2013 by Routledge, New York.

Not that Chetan Bhagat would give a damn. In fact, his unique and unprecedented strength as an Indian writer in English lies precisely in the fact that so far as he is concerned, the West may as well go hang. Not for him the seductions of the Booker or the Pulitzer as the shimmering objects of ultimate writerly desire, nor for him the often ignorant and patronizing acclaim of the New York Times and the Washington Post, nor for him the huge advance royalty deals cut in London. (That did not prevent the New York Times from describing him as 'the biggest selling English language novelist in India's history' – i.e., ever since Harappa?) For Bhagat writes in and about India, and he sells in India on a scale that should be the envy of all our Rushdies and Roys, and Ghoshs and Seths. And he is not the only one. Amish Tripathi of the Meluha saga comfortably outsells Bhagat, and writers like Anuja Chauhan and Durjoy Datta are not far behind.

In fact, each one of these writers probably sells more than most of the well-known novelists in any of the Indian languages. This is an entirely new phenomenon that even the wildest supporters of Indian English could not have dared to dream of ten years ago. This proves for me, more than anything else, that English has now become an Indian language, with novels written in it which are exclusively of, by, and for India. English is not like Persian any more, a language of the rulers who came from elsewhere and used that foreign language to lord it over us, but rather more like Urdu, a language which evolved in India and is used only on the Indian sub-continent and in no foreign nation. It is true that an American or an Englishman could, if he wished, pick up to read a novel by Bhagat or Chauhan. But chances are – and the sales record so far is – that he will soon put it down again, upon discovering that these novels have not been written with him in mind, as the novels by Rushdie and Ghosh and Roy had been written, constantly displaying exotica and then solicitously glossing it. The 'addressivity' of these newer novels (to use Bakhtin's succinct term) does not encompass the Western reader. When a retired judge in Anuja Chauhan's third novel Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013), who has a wife and five moody daughters living under his roof, bemoans his fate by exclaiming, 'Why is my house full of Meena Kumaris?', no explanation is offered to the reader of who Meena Kumari was. Nor is any translation into English or paraphrasis forthcoming when a bitchy aunt tells the mother of the youngest of these five daughters who is bringing disgrace to the family: 'Aur bhejo Modern School!'

In fact, these novels seem to be walking the extra mile to meet the indigenous vernacular India on its own turf. Half Girfriend bears the only too explicit dedication: 'For my mother/ For rural India/ For the non-English types.' This would seem to be a triumph of the non-English types. The hitherto haughty English language, which had so far looked down its long diasporic nose at them, is finally going down on its knees before them. And it would seem to be an even greater triumph of democracy, and of the demographic ratio in our population of the English-types to the non-English types. This may even be seen to mark (in that much abused phrase) a paradigm shift in the whole mode of production and consumption of Indian writing in English.

Viewed historically, the Chetan Bhagat generation marks the third and newest phase of Indian writing in English. The first began in the 1930s, with Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao publishing their first novels within a couple of years of each other, between 1935 and 1938. These novelists were all published in London, with publication made possible by a patronizing helping hand from famous British authors such as E. M. Forster and Graham Greene, and were content for long to remain confined to a small and precarious niche in the West, with the Indian editions of their novels coming out decades after their original metropolitan publication. In the second phase, inaugurated by Midnight's Children and the award to it of the first of the several Booker prizes that would thereafter go to Indian writers as if according to a fixed postcolonial 'reservation' quota, the Indian novel in English won visibility and respectability in the West as never before, while the writing became more and more brattishly or anthropologically 'Indian.' Though Anand earlier had lived for long in the West and Raja Rao continued to live away from India until he passed away, it was only with Rushdie that such self-selected exclusion claimed glamorous victimhood by calling itself 'exile' or (Biblical) 'diaspora'.

But now, with Chetan Bhagat and company, the Indian English novel has come home to roost. The urban middle class in India has risen to become allegedly 300 million-strong in number, and is to be distinguished from the majority of the yet unrisen Indians in two vital respects: a tiny fraction of it knows or claims to know enough English to read novels in the language, and it has enough money in its pocket to spend on non-essentials like books of fiction. Bhagat was a very well-paid investment banker in Hong Kong before he quit to come back to India to start a second career as a novelist which pays him even better. Uncannily, or perhaps cannily, Amish Tripathi too is, as he puts it on his page on Facebook, 'a boring banker turned happy author.' Anuja Chauhan had risen to be Vice-President of the top advertising company, J, Walter Thompson, and had written immortal lines such as 'Yeh Dil Mange More' before turning her hand to somewhat longer compositions. (Both she and Chetan Bhagat went to the Army Public School in New Delhi, but one had better not make too much of that.)

Anyhow, all of them were already doing very well financially, thank you, but could perhaps see that the grass was even greener in Indian English fiction. Viewed conversely, it was they who, with their shrewd sense of money and market, proved yet again that English could be the language of opportunity in any sphere of activity. In the 1980s and the 1990s, in Rushdie's wake, several bright young scholars and researchers, some of them gone abroad to do their Ph. D.s such as Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Allan Sealy, had pushed their dissertations aside to turn instead to writing fiction, but now it is seasoned bankers and highly 'creative' copy-writers who too are taking this turn.

But money and market often come at a price. All over the world, it is 'cheap' pulp fiction which makes big money as a rule, with only a few 'literary' novels gate-crashing from time to time into the big league of best-sellers. In Hindi, for example, romances and mystery novels have been selling in lakhs of copies for decades, by authors publishing under real or syndicated fictitious names such as Pyarelal Awara, Kushwaha Kant, Gulshan Nanda, Ved Praksh Sharma and Rajesh Kumar. Hindi pulp fiction peaked in the 1990s, with Vardi vala Goonda, a novel by Ved Prakash Sharma, which was published with an initial print-run of 5 lakh copies and eventually sold about 15 lakh copies. Hindi always had the numbers and the non-literary readership that Indian English is just beginning to acquire.

But as Indian English stoops to conquer, it sometimes stoops too low. Amish's rendering of Lord Shiva in his trilogy of novels follows an adventure-seeking mythology of his own, and he has Shiva use the kind of vulgar language that will disgrace a street-smart gang-leader; it had to be toned down at places in the Hindi translation. And the leader of the new Indian English pack, Chetan Bhagat, has recently plummeted to depths of crassness which could well be called obscene. In many Indian English novels, words such as 'shit', 'fuck' and 'suck' are routinely used as proud badges of belonging to the elite smart-sounding Anglophone club, signaling that if you don't use this vocabulary as a takiya-kalaam or verbal tick, you are not cool. But in Half Girlfriend, Bhagat goes much further or lower. He has a male student of St Stephen's College cajole the eponymous young lady into his hostel room, and when his distinctly unsubtle attempts to seduce her fail, tells her: 'Deti hai to de, varna kat le.' Bhagat himself translates this Hindi sentence as 'Fuck me, or fuck off,' but admits that even that 'sounds way better' than the original Hindi. It does; the Hindi is unspeakable.

But Bhagat's clever and superior ruse here is that he makes a Hindi-speaking boy from Bihar utter this obscenity to an English-speaking girl from the heart of posh New Delhi. In this still-posh English novel, which has some parts set in Bihar but some others in London and New York too and has Bill Gates and 'Chetan sir' himself making guest appearances as minor characters, it is Hindi that is represented as being the pits. This way, the English-language writer can utter his obscenity and retain his virtue too, by blaming the Hindi-speaking guy for it. If this is how Bhagat sees the 'non-English types' and if this is what he thinks of them, as worthless sex-fiends to be cynically exploited for causing shock and titillation to his readers, his dedicating this book to 'rural India' and to 'the non-English types' must be thought to be worse than lip-service. (It's not clear why Bhagat here brings in his mother too as a co-dedicatee, but we shall let that be.)

The new heights of popularity and the new depths of vulgarity by subterfuge that this latest hit among the new crop of Indian English novels encompasses mark a sharp contrast from the exclusivist hauteur that attached to the 'suited-booted' older generation of Indian speakers of English, such as regularly read the pre-Khushwant Illustrated Weekly of India, that dowager of pedigreed respectability from decades past. It's good that the Indian Novel in English has washed off the starch and been democratized, but one wonders why it must lumpenize itself too, by using the kind of language and sentiment that is not used even in the pulpiest of fiction in the (other) Indian languages.

Beyond this best-selling fiction in English, which is clearly the phenomenon of the decade (just as The Fiction of St Stephen's, so called in the title of a book published in 2000, was the phenomenon of the 1990s), there are of course lesser known local novelists both old and new with moderate language and modest sales, such as Shashi Deshpande, Geetha Hariharan, Neelum Saran Gour, Devapriya Roy and a fair number of others, who still happily plough the old literary furrow, while Anuja Chauhan of the new breed has shown how it is possible to sell well without selling out. In all literary systems, fiction is written and published at all levels, and as the literary culture in any language evolves, it keeps arriving at different points of equilibrium between the high and the low. It could be said that the older and larger Indian languages, from Tamil and Telugu and Kannada to Bangla and Marathi and Hindi, have a place for the high literary, the middlebrow, as well as the lumpen non-literary without any one stratum comprehensively overshadowing the others. It may be hoped that the Indian novel in English too will find its own maturer bearings in the decades to come.

In conclusion, a word may be in order about the other genres of Indian writing in English, which too are equally overshadowed if not more so by the Bhagat syndrome. Drama still languishes, with Mahesh Dattani in relative eclipse – he won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1998 -- being still the one name with wide recognition. Poetry may be said to be even worse off. It appears that no significant publisher in English in India is willing to publish poetry, again because of the same market factors that make Indian English fiction boom, except one publisher who apparently already has a list of acceptances so long that it will last it for the next five years. This leaves English-language poets with no option except what is in effect self-financed publication from imprints such as the Writer's Workshop and the Authorspress (both aptly named as attributing the publication to the writer/author herself!) It is an indication of the dire straits in which Indian poetry in English finds itself that the Sahitya Akademi bent its rules some years ago to publish volumes of poetry originally written in English, while its brief in general is to publish creative writing only in translation. But when the 23 other languages found out about this exceptional grace-and-favour dispensation, they objected and the scheme had to be discontinued. Incidentally, in these 23 other languages, poetry is not half as hard to find publishers for; their literary markets obviously run along different principles. It was once asked whether it is possible for Indians to write poetry in English; one may now modify that to ask whether it is possible to publish it.

There is, as I write, a kind of small return to poetry, a sort of resurrection, with the veteran Adil Jussawala winning the Sahitya Akademi award for the current year, for a recently published volume, Trying to Say Good-bye, which however appears to comprise poems written 50 years ago at the beginning of his career but so far lying unpublished. The only other English-language poet to win this prize over the last decade, in 2012, was Jeet Thayil, a new kind of performative poet whose well-wrought and ironically modulated ghazal on Malayalam in his volume, These Errors are Correct, is I think one of the best English ghazals written by anyone, including the late lamented Agha Shahid Ali. And his sequence of interwoven sonnets in that volume is so nicely complex in its anagrammatic syntactical permutations as to compel admiration for his sheer virtuosity.

Commenting on the new contours of Indian Writing in English as they have emerged over the last few years, Jussawala once complained that there seemed to be 'A two nation theory in Indian Writing' (-- meaning of course 'Indian Writing in English,' which is all many Indian English writers have eyes for). There were the diasporic writers, Jussawala lamented, and the stay-at-home writers, with the former cornering all the attention and the honours. But this is strange and surprising. The formulation earlier would have been, following famously Rushdie, that if there are indeed two nations in Indian literature, one comprised those writing in English, whether located at home or abroad, and the other comprised those writing in all the vernaculars put together. It is odd and ironical in a way to see that some writers even in English, the epitome of unfair privilege in the eyes of all other writers in India, are now feeling discriminated against by some of their own even more privileged ilk. Maybe this will bring the non-diasporic Anglophone have-nots somewhat closer to the ever-at-home non-Anglophone have-nots, and make bedfellows of them in common adversity.

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