As an Indian writer living in New York, I find myself constantly asked a question with which my American confreres never have to contend: “But whom do you write for?”
In my case the question is complicated by both geography and language. I live in the United States (because of my work at the United Nations) and write about India; and I do so in English, a language mastered, if the last census is to be believed, by only 2 percent of the Indian population. There is an unspoken accusation implicit in the question: am I not guilty of the terrible sin of inauthenticity, of writing about my country for foreigners?
This question has, for many years, bedeviled the work of the growing tribe of writers of what used to be called Indo-Anglian fiction and is now termed, more respectfully, Indian writing in English. This is ironic, because few developments in world literature have been more remarkable than the emergence, over the last two decades, of a new generation of Indian writers in English.
Beginning with Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, they have expanded the boundaries of their craft and their nation’s literary heritage, enriching English with the rhythms of ancient legends and the larger-than-life complexities of another civilization, while reinventing India in the confident cadences of English prose. Of the many unintended consequences of empire, it is hard to imagine one of greater value to both colonizers and colonized.
The new Indian writers dip into a deep well of memory and experience far removed from those of their fellow novelists in the English language. But whereas Americans or Englishmen or Australians have also set their fictions in distant lands, Indians write of India without exoticism, their insights undimmed by the dislocations of foreignness. And they do so in an English they have both learned and lived, an English of freshness and vigor, a language that is as natural to them as their quarrels at the school playground or the surreptitious notes they slipped each other in their classrooms.
Yet Indian critics still suggest that there is something artificial and un-Indian about an Indian writing in English. One critic disparagingly declared that the acid test ought to be, “Could this have been written only by an Indian?” I have never been much of a literary theoretician — I always felt that for a writer to study literature at university would be like learning about girls at medical school — but for most, though not all, of my own writing, I would answer that my works could not only have been written only by an Indian, but only by an Indian in English.
I write for anyone who will read me, but first of all for Indians like myself, Indians who have grown up speaking, writing, playing, wooing and quarreling in English, all over India. (No writer really chooses a language: the circumstances of his upbringing ensure that the language chooses him.)
Members of this class have entered the groves of academe and condemned themselves in terms of bitter self-reproach: one Indian scholar, Harish Trivedi, has asserted (in English) that Indian writers in that language are “cut off from the experiential mainstream and from that common cultural matrix . . . shared with writers of all other Indian languages.” Dr. Trivedi metaphorically cites the fictional English-medium school in an R. K. Narayan story where the students must first rub off the sandalwood-paste caste marks from their foreheads before they enter its portals: “For this golden gate is only for the déraciné to pass through, for those who have erased their antecedents.”
It’s an evocative image, even though I thought the secular Indian state was supposed to encourage the erasure of casteism from the classroom. But the more important point is that writers like myself do share a “common cultural matrix,” albeit one devoid of helpfully identifying caste marks. It is one that consists of an urban upbringing and a pan-national outlook on the Indian reality. I do not think this is any less authentically “Indian” than the worldviews of writers in other Indian languages. Why should the rural peasant or the small-town schoolteacher with his sandalwood-smeared forehead be considered more quintessentially Indian than the punning collegian or the Bombay socialite, who are as much a part of the Indian reality?
India is a vast and complex country; in Whitman’s phrase, it contains multitudes. I write of an India of multiple truths and multiple realities, an India that is greater than the sum of its parts. English expresses that diversity better than any Indian language precisely because it is not rooted in any one region of my vast country. At the same time, as an Indian, I remain conscious of, and connected to, my pre-urban and non-Anglophone antecedents: my novels reflect an intellectual heritage that embraces the ancient epic the Mahabharata, the Kerala folk dance called the ottamthullal (of which my father was a gifted practitioner) and the Hindi B-movies of Bollywood, as well as Shakespeare, Wodehouse and the Beatles.
As a first-generation urbanite myself, I keep returning to the Kerala villages of my parents, in my life as in my writing. Yet I have grown up in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi, Indian cities a thousand miles apart from one another; the mother of my children is half-Kashmiri, half-Bengali; and my own mother now lives in the southern town of Coimbatore. This may be a wider cultural matrix than the good Dr. Trivedi imagined, but it draws from a rather broad range of Indian experience. And English is the language that brings those various threads of my India together, the language in which my wife could speak to her mother-in-law, the language that enables a Calcuttan to function in Coimbatore, the language that serves to express the complexity of that polyphonous Indian experience better than any other language I know.
As a novelist, I believe in distracting in order to instruct — my novels are, to some degree, didactic works masquerading as entertainments. Like Molière I believe that you have to entertain in order to edify. But the entertainment, and the edification, might strike different readers differently.
My first novel, “The Great Indian Novel,” as a satirical reinvention of the Mahabharata inevitably touches Indians in a way that most foreigners will not fully appreciate. But my publishers in the West enjoyed its stories and the risks it took with narrative form. My second, “Show Business,” did extremely well with American reviewers and readers, who enjoyed the way I tried to portray the lives and stories of Bollywood as a metaphor for Indian society. With “India: From Midnight to the Millennium,” an attempt to look back at the last 50 years of India’s history, I found an additional audience of Indian-Americans seeking to rediscover their roots; their interest has helped the American edition outsell the Indian one.
In my new novel, “Riot,” for the first time I have major non-Indian characters, Americans as it happens, and that is bound to influence the way the book is perceived both in the United States and in India. Inevitably the English language fundamentally affects the content of each book, but it does not determine the audience of the writer; as long as translations exist, language is a vehicle, not a destination.
Of course, there is no shame in acknowledging that English is a legacy of the colonial connection, but one no less useful and valid than the railways, the telegraphs or the law courts that were also left behind by the British. Historically, English helped us find our Indian voice: that great Indian nationalist Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “The Discovery of India” in English. But the eclipse of that dreadful phrase “the Indo-Anglian novel” has occurred precisely because Indian writers have evolved well beyond the British connection to their native land.
The days when Indians wrote novels in English either to flatter or rail against their colonial masters are well behind us. Now we have Indians in India writing as naturally about themselves in English as Australians or South Africans do, and their tribe has been supplemented by India’s rich diaspora in the United States, which has already produced a distinctive crop of impressive novelists, with Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards to their names.
Their addresses don’t matter, because writers really live inside their heads and on the page, and geography is merely a circumstance. They write secure of themselves in their heritage of diversity, and they write free of the anxiety of audience, for theirs are narratives that appeal as easily to Americans as to Indians — and indeed to readers irrespective of ethnicity.
Surely that’s the whole point about literature — that for a body of fiction to constitute a literature it must rise above its origins, its setting, even its language, to render accessible to a reader anywhere some insight into the human condition. Read my books and those of other Indian writers not because we’re Indian, not necessarily because you are interested in India, but because they are worth reading in and of themselves. And dear reader, whoever you are, if you pick up one of my books, ask not for whom I write: I write for you