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
Source: The Hindu