Common Myths and Misconceptions about Indian English Literature


 

Preamble

 

    As my modest contribution to this important initiative to rethink Indian English literature (IEl), I would like to offer a summary of some common myths and misconceptions that dominate our discipline.1 These are widely held beliefs, often promoted by one or more important writer or critic, so that gradually a large number of people, both specialist and lay, have come to accept them.  In calling them myths and misconceptions, I do not imply that they are totally devoid of substance or that they are totally untrue.  I respect myths far too much to offer such a facile analysis; moreover, what might appear a misconception to me, might be not just a valid conception for another, but even the truth.  That's why, I believe that these widely held notions about Indian English literature, though not entirely false, are--to varying degrees--exaggerated, inflated, distorted, and therefore unwarranted.  Continuing to keep faith in them has thus become counterproductive to the growth of the discipline. If we need to rethink IEl seriously, then many of these myths and (mis)conceptions will have to be challenged and, some, entirely overthrown.  Before I begin with the actual enumeration and undermining of these myths and misconceptions, let me hasten to clarify that what I offer is purely a personal selection, somewhat playful at that. I have little "objective" evidence to substantiate it.  I have not gathered any empirical data to support my claim that a large number of people adhere to these beliefs. Yet, I have come across them so often, again and again, during my travels and also during my readings spread over several years that I have reasonable cause to believe that I am not entirely mistaken. There are, moreover, crucial differences between myths and misconceptions which, however, I shall not delve into here.  Let me just say that what we are dealing with are akin to the idols of the mind that Bacon spoke of in  The New Organon  (1620).

 

IEl is the Best

    This false notion, which secretly lurks in the heart of every English-wallah in India, gets a special boost every now and then by some famous or infamous personality.  The latest such boost was given Salman Rushdie in The New Yorker (June 23 & 30 1997) when he asserted that the best literature in India is being  ritten in English. He followed this up with a haphazard and semi-literate listing of some good books originally written in other Indian languages and then concluded that apart from these, there was nothing extraordinary about literature written in these languages.  The presumption is that having compared these books with those written originally in English, Rushdie finds the latter at least as good or even better.  Rushdie was attacked, condemned, controverted by all kinds of people--which is exactly what he wanted--but the English-wallahs were gloating secretly. 2  Rubbing their palms in glee they whispered, "We always thought so but it takes a Rushdie to actually say it."  We all, of course, remember, what Rushdie  did  say about IEl:  "The prose writing--both fiction and nonfiction--created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen "recognized" languages of India ... and, indeed, this new and still burgeoning 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents, perhaps, the most valuable contribution India has made to the world of books" (50).

    In fact, such notions of the primacy of IEl are not new. They go back to its very beginnings in the early 19th century, when the first IE writers quickly began to recognize the power of English. More than any other language, they realized, English mattered, because it was not only the language of the Empire and of the imperialists, but also of the native ruling elites.  They knew that even a mediocre writer in English was bound to attract more national attention than a well-known vernacular writer. This was because though English did not have a region of its own, it was spread widely, if thinly, across the entire length and breadth of the country through the spread of English education. Thus, an English-knowing superclass, cutting across caste, religion, language, and province existed in India. Writing in English was to gain access to this whole class, which was, willy nilly, the ruling elite of India.  There was also the lurking temptation to gain world-wide fame by earning recognition not only in India but also in England itself, thereby gaining entrance into an international hall of literary fame.

    It was such fame and acclaim, not to speak of the patronage that it would ensure, which tempted Michael Madhusudan Dutt to venture into English verse.  However, the Empire struck back and Madhusudan Dutt was forced to return to his mother tongue, having failed to make an impression in English.  Rabindranath Tagore did not have the naive delusions of grandeur that Madhusudan Dutt had; yet he too knew that without translating his work into English, he would never become an international writer. Luckily for him, the very year in which his first translations appeared in English, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Without English, it is doubtful if he would have won it.

    To this enduring lure of English has been added the addition attraction of lucre.  Witness the stupendous success of Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy--to mention the most spectacular examples, both of whom are Indian citizens--the rewards that their writing has earned them are unimaginable to any native Indian writer, no matter how great or popular.  In fact, the pull of English is so strong that many IE writers live abroad.  They can market themselves better there; here, in India, their talents are difficult to convert into cash. The power and glory of English, which is today the undisputed international language, are so strong that no major Indian writer can resist it.  Every such writer wishes to be translated into English, without which he or she will remain just a regional writer.

    All these factors--the international importance of English, the royalties that English books earn, the hype and attention that they generate--have also confused people into believing that such books are, in one way or another, also the best books. In a society which worships external things, the biggest, the glossiest, the  best-selling, the most-exposed also, by extension, begins to be considered the best in quality, virtue, and value.  IE writers are the best because they are the most famous, the best paid, the most celebrated the world over—this is the idea.  The power of the language and its markets also rubs off on the products, whatever their actual value.  In fact, actual or absolute value is impossible to ascertain in a world in which reality is defined in terms of contingencies.

    Years earlier, P. Lal, in his over-enthusiastic defense of IEl has made a related suggestion that IEl is the only genuinely national literature in India.  Though, as a Bengali-loving Punjabi, he was not as ignorant as Rushdie to claim that IEl was qualitatively the best, he still made the case that it was the most important, even if for extra-literary reasons.  The English press and the English media in India continue to harbour such illusions, though their points of view are extremely limited and distorted.  It was such arrogance that led Dileep Padgaonkar, the former Editor of  Times of India  to assert that he held the second most important job in India (the first, presumably, was that of the Prime Minister of India!)  Market leaders in the media like  India Today  or NDTV also suffer from similar delusions of grandeur because they operate in English.

    In private conversations and, occasionaly in print, several other IE writers have voiced opinions similar to Rushdie, but because he is its most recent and notorious exponent, this myth should be identified with him.

 

IEl is the Worst

    There is also the opposite myth or fallacy, that of the utter uselessness of IEl.  Let us call this the Buddhadev Bose myth because it was his two and a half page entry in  The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets and Poetry , a book little used today, which Lal so strenuously refuted by bringing together scores of important and inconsequential writers in his anthology,  Indian Poetry in English  (1969). Lal, unfortunately, almost proved Bose's point in his over-zealous refutation by showcasing ample quantity but little quality. Bose's main contention was that Indians can't (and shouldn't) write poetry in English because English is not an Indian language. Furthermore, the only other reason why Indians write in English is to get a wider audience.  Lal's assembly of poets, if nothing else, definitely succeeded in convincingly demolishing both these objections.  Yet, they have been repeated, in one form or another, over and over again.

    Bhalchandra Nemade, for instance, has tried to provide a lengthier exposition of the first problem (see  Indo-Anglian Writings ).  It is, he contends, impossible for a meaningful literature to exist in any language without a number of supporting factors.  Not only should the language be spoken by the common people of that country, but it should also have a stock of proverbs, abuses, and folklore. Great literature cannot be produced in elite, library languages, he says.  Coupled with these "historical, socio-linguistic, and literary-cultural" criteria are "nationalist-nativist and psychological" ones.

These correspond to Bose's second contention:  there is something mala fide about an Indian writing in English.  It's not only improper, but somewhat unpatriotic. Why doesn't the writer choose some other Indian language instead of a foreign language, the argument goes.

    Let us consider both these accusations briefly.  How long does it take for a language to be nativized?  There's no easy answer to this question.  It may happen in one generation; on the other hand, it may take thousands of years.  But in either case, the fact remains that languages from one part of the world do become implanted in other parts of the world, either through trade or conquest.  In the process, all kinds of new literatures sprout, as do new pidgins and registers.  The phenomenon of world-wide creativity in English, a good example of this phenomenon, is  too widely established to require lengthy substantiation.  Some nativists argue that African or Caribbean literature in English is authentic in ways IEl is not.  Africa and the West Indies have creolized English as we in India have not been able to.  It seems to me that while we need to admit, even define, the differences in the process of nativization, to argue that India is the sole exception to what is happening all over the world would be especially vindictive, if not misguided. After all, we have our own chutnification or biriyanization of English.

    There are still better and more complex arguments in favour of IEl.  For instance, it could be argued that Indian culture has always functioned in two tiers, the elite and the folk, the marga and the desi, not dichotomously but conjointly and interactively. That is why we have always produced quality literature in elite languages like Sanskrit and Persian, which were never languages of the folk.  English is akin to these and has a similar relationship with the languages of the people.  The penetration of English in every major Indian language is too palpable to be denied; similarly, these languages have also coloured the use of English by their native speakers. 

    The most innovative argument in favour of IE creativity comes from Robert Lehman, the renowned American linguist.  Offering Raja Rao's work as an example, he argues that a language—any language--does not exist merely at the spoken/written level. Invoking Bhartrihari, he suggests that what is uttered, whether voiced or unvoiced, is merely the  vaikhari .  Beyond it are the  madhyama, pashyanti , and, ultimately, the  para , where meaning and sense actually reside.  The totality of language, and thus of creativity, is made up of this four-fold unity. Therefore, arguments and disputes merely over the medium are both half-baked and counter-productive.  All literature aims at trascendence: the word is the vehicle which takes us beyond the word.   Sabdabrahman  leads us to  Parabrahman .  If so, it matters little if one writes in English--or any other language.  What matters is the purity of the word, the sincerity of intent, and the  sadhana  behind the writing.   

    Similarly, I myself have argued that English can be used to promote  svaraj  just as a native Indian language can be used to promote neo-colonialism.  Even if the likelihood of the reverse is more, we can never rule out the possibility that English can be used both effectively and productively by Indians within a specified domain, provided it does not supplant any other language or usurp privileges disproportionate to its real value. Both these preconditions are observed more in their violation, yet their being fulfilled cannot be ruled out.  IEl ought not to be considered primary, but it ought not to be dismissed as

useless either.

     Now to the second accusation:  writing in English is a kind of betrayal or bad faith.  As somewhat of an IE writer myself, I have been the target of such suspicion and hatred over and over again at poets' meets.  Indian language poets tend to view you with a mixture of jealousy and distaste.  If you're famous, which means if you're published and recognized abroad, there's little they can do to offset your real advantages in the world.  So all they can do is to consider you a "non-Indian" poet, who writes for a foreign audience.  If you've not made it internationally, you are regarded as a pariah, someone who has been excommunicated from the caste of poets for the sin of writing in an alien

language. It's the feeling that those who convert from one religion to another experience when they encounter their kith and kin.  On the other hand, if you have no international pretentions to fame, that is if you're merely another  desi  writer like them, then you're beneath contempt.  No more an object of envy, you are only fit to be derided.

    What is paradoxical is that these same language poets will badger you to translate their work into English.  English for them, then, is merely a service language, one that'll help  them  get international recognition.  Those who write in English originally are, thus, not only rivals, but upstarts, who are usurping the rightful place of Indian writers by hogging up the limelight.  Such native writers would be happiest if all IE writes turn translators, dedicated servants, helping these authors get their just dues in the world market.  Every Indian language writer, regardless of his or her politics--craves to be translated into English.  Because, as I said in the previous section, there's no fame, no name, no money without English.

     Again, paradoxically, arguments against creative writing in English are usually made  in  English.  U. R. Anantha Murthy is a good example of this practice.  Himself a former Professor of English, who has written a good deal of criticism in that language, Anantha Murthy has nothing against people using English for intellectual purposes--journalism, philosophy, criticism, history--all these can be, and ought to be, written in English. But the moment you want to write a poem or a short story or a novel in English, he turns blue with disapproval.  Why?  As if there is a water tight difference between criticism and creative writing.  Much of the latter, nowadays, has become sounding like the former.  A critic like Edward Said or Noam Chomsky draws a bigger audience even in India than any major British or American writer.  Moreover, the critical and philosophical discourse has itself become highly imaginative, using all the stylistic and technical devices of literature.  We only have to read a Derrida or a Kristeva to discover how "literary" and "creative" they are. If so, all arguments which allow one kind of writing in English and deny another kind are, obviously, deeply flawed and self-contradictory.

    Indians have written creatively in English since the very beginnings of a significant encounter between the two cultures; they have continued to write in English, rather successfully and prolifically; and, I dare say, they will continue to do so in the future--as long as English is an important and/or paying language. Having considered these two major fallacies at some length, I shall now turn to some minor ones.

 

Only Fiction Matters

    The real thrust of this myth is against poetry, traditionally the only serious contender to fiction.  In fact, in earlier times, it was poetry which received more attention, partly because it began before fiction and because it's output was greater. But, gradually, over the last twenty years, a consensus has been building up that it is only IE fiction that merits serious attention.  Such a notion is prevalent among several critics and readers; the latter, especially, have proved it by buying fiction and neglecting the other genres.  So it is understandable if someone were to say that IE fiction sells and poetry doesn't.

    But that is as good or as bad as saying that cinema or pop music sells and and literature does not.  Sales are, at best, only partial indicators of quality or value.  So, just because IE fiction performs better than poetry, that doesn't mean that the latter is poorer in quality.  By the same token, several sensationalist non-fiction titles, which far outsell fiction, ought to be considered better literature than fiction.  That doesn't happen for the obvious reason that non-fiction of this sort does not even have any literary pretentions to speak of. But poetry does and therein lies the rub.  Poetry, moreover, is older than fiction in the IE tradition.  Also, poetry being language at its purest, has higher claims to seriousness than fiction.  No doubt, the output in fiction has been much greater, especially during the last few decades.  No doubt, also, that IE fiction probably has more good titles than poetry.  I would even concede the argument that IE fiction is, on the whole, more effective than IE poetry.  What I object to is notion that the poetry can be dismissed and only taking note of the fiction with do.  In fact, there are some well known critics who go to the extent of saying that when they teach IEl, they will only teach fiction, not poetry.  I would argue just the opposite:  because fiction have been over-exposed, it is important, once more, to look at the poetry seriously.

    In fact, in correcting this partiality to fiction, I would go a step further.  The real debate is not between fiction and poetry, but between both and between non-fictional prose.  The latter, "literature of thought," is not included in what is normally taught as literature in our universities.  But, it is this literature of the mind which is, perhaps, most significant. I shall say some more about this presently.

 

Nonfiction Prose is Not Literature

    This misconception is related to the previous one.  Actually, it's roots lie in the old debate over what constitutes literariness.  Earlier, the divisions were over things like rhyme, metre, and the kind of linguistic devices used, but they have been extended in recent times to genres.  While modernism undermined the difference between poetry and prose, postmodernism has gone a step further to dismantle the division between creative and critical writing.  Both are now seen as interrelated types of textuality.  So we have nonfiction whose fictionality is all to palpable and fiction which reads like nonfiction.  This blurring or generic boundaries is bound to affect us in India too, sooner or later.  But we need not wait for its impact to be felt before we revise our syllabi to include more nonfictional prose.

    If the nativist arguments have any sense or validity, it is clear that whether or not Indians can write good fiction or poetry in English, they ought to be able to write good history, philosophy, sociology, political theory, and so on in it. Indeed, one wonders, for example, what is more important—the prose writings of Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sri Aurobindo, and so on, or or the minor and insignificant novels that were being written at that time. Indeed, when I teach IEl, I begin with Rammohun Roy's letter of 1823 to Lord Amherst.  From then on, there is a continuous tradition of Indians writing nonfictional prose, not necessarily of the highest literary value, but of the highest political, social, cultural, and ideological importance.  This literature unfortunately, is not thought of as literature and therefore not studied seriously.

 

Translations are Not IEl

    The misconception here is that only works originally written in English constitute IEl.  But what about translations made by the authors themselves?  Tagore's English translations of his Bengali poems are a good, if complicated example.  The English versions are not really translations at all, in the usual sense of the word.  Many poems are entirely recast, assembling together, at times, lines from different poems.  Several lines, moreover, are revised or omitted.  The result is not translation so much as transcreation.  You have a set of parallel texts which do bear a relationship to the originals, but also demonstrate an independence.  The result is a very rich range of semantic possibilities:  the texts can be read exclusively in Bangla or English or simultaneously in both.

    Tagore's is, of course, a special, though not unique case. In recent times, Girish Karnad too has consistently translated his work into English, thereby creating a new set of stable, arguably autonomous texts.  But there are other translated texts which have acquired canonical status even when translated by someone other than the author.  Perhaps, the best example of this is A. K. Ramanujan's translation of U. R. Anantha Murthy's  Smaskara .  The English version is almost as well, if not better known than the Kannada original.  Should it or should it not be included in a course, say, on the IE novel?  Purists would argue that it cannot be included because it would give a distorted or incomplete picture of the Kannada original.  I would counter by saying that one is including it not as a Kannada text translated into English, but as an English text in its own right.  After all, hasn't it been said that all of IEl is a translated literature in that translates Indian experience into the English language?

 

IEl is an Expatriates Literature

    This myth has been gaining strength in recent years.  It's best instantiation is the infamous photograph of IE writers published by the  New Yorker .  There's a boast there about how these writers had to be assembled from different parts of the globe, as if to emphasize how international this literature is. However, the reverse implication is equally clear:  the stay at homes are actually those who don't matter, who have been left behind.  No doubt, this myth seems to be borne out by the migration patterns of major writers.  For various reasons, it seems easier to live abroad if one is an IE writer.  The writer's whole profession is much better organized there.  It is actually a business, with agents, publishers, copy editors, reviewers, and marketing executives all working together.  Above all, royalties are far superior to those an Indian writer may earn.  Therefore, there are several practical reasons for living abroad.  The power of the international market is such that it gobbles up anyone who is considered "good enough." The result is that those who stay behind, for whatever reason, are, almost by default, thought of as the second best.  It is not necessary to list the exceptions because one is trying to refute the very assumption underlying this myth.  The fact is that it is far more logical to expect the best IEl to be written by those who live or have close links with India than by those who live abroad.  After all, any literature is nurtured by the culture in which it is born.  Yet, at least as far as IEl is concerned, it will be hard to dispel the myth that expatriates are the best.

 

The Latest is the Best

    This myth is directly an outcome of spirit of modern times. Modernity, as its very name suggests, is obsessed with the contemporary, the current, the "mod."  This rubs off on literature and the arts as well.  Thus, every few years we are assailed and assaulted by "new waves."  The proponents of these new trends, no doubt, are also those who will benefit most by the replacing of the old by the new.  In this way canons are reshaped and modified.  Often, these attempts at hijacking the critical space fail, but sometimes they do succeed, especially if the "pro-changers" are unified and determined.  A good example of this trend in poetry was the charge of the modern brigade. Whatever their internal disagreements and dissentions, modern Indian poets were united in their passionate revulsion of the older poets.  Their consistent and concerted debunking of their literary forbears enabled their own promotion into the canon.  A number of anthologies, often edited by one of these poets, reified and reinforced their coming of age.  Soon, modern Indian poets became the only ones to be studied in courses.  A similar process emerged in fiction, though later.  The generation which came into its own in the 1980's, that of midnight's grandchildren as it were, was seen as distinct from the older novelists.  A neat three generation gap in IE fiction, thus, became discernible.  First you had the big three, Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, and Raja Rao, plus one or two more like Khushwant Singh, Bhabani Bhattacharya, and K. A. Abbas; then you have the next generation consisting of Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sahgal, Anita Desai, Manohar Malgonkar, Arun Joshi, Shashi Deshpande, and so on; finally, we have the third generation of Amitav Ghose, I. Alan Sealy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor, and so on.

    The brightest star on the IE literary firmament is also the latest--Arundhati "Dollar" Roy.  At the seminar at which this paper was originally presented, there were no less that half a dozen papers on her.  Not much later, there was another seminar in Delhi, a one-day affair, devoted exclusively to Roy.  Notably, in seminars of the last several years, one notices a disturbing trend:  there is not a single paper on writers like Anand, Narayan, Singh, Markandaya, Sahgal, Joshi, Malgonkar, and so on; the most neglected of our major writers is, of course, Raja Rao. Why have all these writers gone out of fashion?  What is the reason behind their eclipse?  I believe it is this myth that the latest is the best which has a good deal to do with it.  All this shows just how much our criticism follows the market trends. Whatever is in fashion, whatever is the latest, gets the most attention.  The glamourphilia of Indian society has afflicted IE criticism too.

 

If You're Not Noticed, You Don't Exist

    This is a very dangerous myth that the new, globalized market-culture has spawned.  Essentially, the claim is that there is no life outside the market.  In some senses this is true. Financial survival outside the system is, at best, precarious, at worst, impossible.  Moreover, deprived of recognition, a writer certainly suffers a kind of death.  Loss of self-confidence, depression, feelings of worthlessness and rejection--all these are common to who haven't "made it."  Of course, those who have made it and are grateful for the rewards this success has conferred upon them are nevertheless extremely guarded about their privacy.  Without the latter, how can a writer do what he is supposed to, which is to write?  So, experienced writers have found a compromise formula. They become recluses before and after, but milk the market once their book is released.  The hype, the publicity, the media attention, they know, translates into hard cash.  So they play the game, but as soon as their book is well-known, they retreat to the lonely, arduous, and essentially anti-social activity of writing.  Those who don't know much about what produces literature in the first place, the hard work, dedication, discipline, and loneliness--tend to believe that its the market alone which makes literature, not what a writer does himself or herself.  Such a distortion affects readers too, not just lay ones, but reviewers and, unfortunately, even serious critics.  So, the tendency is to look only at what is in the news, what is in the limelight.  In this manner, less feeds on little, breeding a culture of superficiality and transience.  It is not as if serious literature ceases to exist, but no one is interested in it any longer.  Indeed, the prevailing IE culture has become such that even the agenda of the classroom, let alone that of seminars and conferences, seems to be set by the media.

 

A Book is Only as Good as the Money It Earns

    In many ways, IEl is the work of people on the make.  Since the very beginning, Indians have used English as the means of social ascension.  That is why, being an IE writer is seen as the quintessential escalator of upward mobility.  How else can one explain why every other English lecturer, even in a moffussil college, wants to be a poet, no matter if he knows the language well enough or not.  His confidence in his native language or culture has been so severely undermined, that he is ready to grasp even at such straws of fame as writing in English may seem to offer him.  The straws, after all, are there--the expansion of the IE literary market testifies to this. Indeed, the sudden flood of IE writing in the last fifteen years can be directly linked to the expansion of the market.

    In a country starved of opportunities, is it any wonder that writing is seen as yet another avenue to promote oneself.  And now that the stakes, at least in the international literary marketplace are so high, more and more intelligent, talented, and worldly-wise people want to try their luck at it.  It's a bit like what the Hindi film industry was to every other good looking small town boy or like the job overseas is to millions of semi-skilled young Indians.  Similarly, IEl nowadays feeds the aspirations and dreams of Indian Anglophiles. Unfortunately, though the stakes are high, the odds against real success are also rather heavy.  That is why the Cinderella-like success of Arundhati Roy has struck such a responsive chord in the hearts of our wannabe Indo-Anglians.  So, everyone wants to hit the jackpot with his or her maiden novel--or at least the third, fourth or fifth one.  "It's not impossible," we tell ourselves, "difficult, yes, but not impossible."

    But such an attitude means that it is your financial success which matters above all else.  Literary quality, that abstract and almost indefinable thing, is forgotten or neglected.  "Who cares about quality; let's leave that to posterity.  Right now, what's important is if we can sell the book"--that seems to be the attitude.  That's why, after its staggering advance was announced, A Suitable Boy was hailed as the novel of the century by India's most successful and well-known editorial director. Later, the claim was attenuated, though not retracted.  The logic is clear:  the book--any book--which earns a million dollars in advance, has to be epochal.  Notice how the logic cannot be turned around:  any book as good as this one deserves to earn a million dollars.  Except those who are promoting the book, no one says that sort of thing.  They wait for the market to make up their minds for them.

    The whole scenario is somewhat like the crowning of a new beauty queen in an international beauty pageant.  By a peculiar logic of the market, there is room for an unknown, fairly ordinary person suddenly to be transformed into the most beautiful woman in the world.  The very fact that the winner is unknown and ordinary adds to the her appeal and saleablity as the new beauty queen.  The literary marketplace is a bit like this. Part of the appeal of a Seth or a Roy is that he/she has been discovered from relative obscurity and catapulted to international stardom by the very process which benefits from

their elevation.  The whole system is, thus, self-justifying. The discovery and sudden promotion to global stardom is a part of the overall appeal and marketability of the writer.  It's the sort of game in which you need hundreds, in fact thousands, of losers before you have one winner.  The myth takes this system at surface-value, equates the hype with the reality; worse, it is no position to discover what is the reality because it is so used to being led by others.

 

Listen to the Masters' Voice

    In accordance with this myth, it is imperative to wait for the response of a book abroad before venturing any opinions on it in India.  Shashi Deshpande recently observed how big a deal was made of John Updike's review of GoST.  No matter if Updike knows little about IEl or Roy.  Similarly, what reviewers and commentators abroad say about our books counts while Indian critics are rarely taken seriously.  Similarly, it is easy to bring out an Indian reprint of a book originally published in UK or the USA, but not vice-versa.  The book business is still imperialistic in the manner in which it operates but, what is worse, is that we ourselves help to perpetuate this inequitable system.  So, starry-eyed aspirants will continue to send their manuscripts to foreign publisher, who in turn, will only too gladly dump them in the slush pile.  Every now and then, a Seth or Roy will hit the jackpot and continue to stoke the dying embers of another decade of losers.  That is why, many of our reviews begin with the customary genuflection to what their Anglo-American masters' have observed about a particular book before venturing to say anything at all on their own.  The myth of our own minority is thus a stubborn and continuing one.

 

The Concatenation of Myths and Misconceptions

    Thus, if all these myths and misconceptions are put together, we begin to see a very interesting web of false beliefs and bad habits of thinking, a sort of miasma of illusion, in which we are engulfed like travelers in a blinding fog.  It surrounds us at every step, confusing us, blurring our priorities, blunting the sharp edge of our judgements.  A complex but sorry picture of an entire literature emerges, along with our own purblind ways of reading it.

    Two social factors, moreover, aggravate the situation—these may be identified as hierarchy and deprivation.  Our society is not only highly stratified and inegalitarian, but highly deprived and poverty-stricken. Both these facts combine to add to the confusing state of IEl. It's in such a complex society that this literature occupies the uneasy top berth of the "overprivileged underprivileged."  This twice-born, over-privileged literature enjoys advantages and attention disproportionate to its desserts. On the other hand it has an uneasy conscience because of its unearned privileges.  It substitutes hype for real quality, glamour for substance.  It is a superficial literature, supported a superficial elite, which both patronizes it and lives off it. Ephemera feeds on ephemera.

    The tremendous deprivation and privation that many suffer from in our society lends it to easy self-deception and fantasy-mongering.  Postcolonial societies, as V. S. Naipaul reminds us, cannot live without illusions.  We need false heroes,  false heroines, false icons to sustain our faith in ourselves. In terms of the harsh realities of our world, we know ourselves to be beaten, second-rate, defeated.  So we needs false gods, or gods of small things, to shore up our sagging faith in ourselves. Consequently, we are very lenient to those who do well on the international scene, whether they are cricketers or beauty queens, while we are simply unable to recognize native talents independently. We does not have the courage to make self-motivated value judgments because we have lost our confidence in our own ability to think.

    Such a society deserves the literature it gets.  It deserves IEl.

 

Conclusion

    I have been arguing throughout that IEl is beset with numerous myths and misconceptions.  If so, what is the truth about it? This is a question I need not answer.  It's not my job to spell out what I consider to be the correct picture, though, obviously, it is suggested by what I characterize as myths and misconceptions. But I will say this much:  if we have to arrive at a clearer picture of ourselves and our society, of IEl and its real worth, the kind of rethinking we'll have to undertake has to be radical and far-reaching.  Merely doing a whitewash, a surface-level job of re-applying a coat of new concepts on our unscraped and flaky minds, will not suffice.  But, such a radical rethinking is impossible if we don't know who we are as a culture, where we have come from, and where we are heading. Wherever one turns, however, such clarity is utterly lacking. Where it is available, it is usually a false clarity, based on error or wickedness.  It is only when sees beyond the apparent hopelessness of the situation that the simplicity, even inevitability of one's own path is revealed to one.

 

                                                                                               Notes

 

     1 This paper was originally presented at a national seminar on "Rethinking Indian English Literature" at the M. S. University of Baroda, 14-16 February 1998.  My thanks to Professor P. C. Kar and Dr. U. M. Nanavati, who invited me to the seminar and

encouraged me in the writing of this paper.

    This paper is inspired by, if not modeled on, Romila Thaper's  The Past and Prejudice .  Originally delivered as the Sardar Patel Memorial Lectures over All India Radio on the 12th, 13th, and 14th of January 1972, they appeared in book form in 1975.

 

     2 Among these were responses by Nabaneeta Deb Sen in  The Indian Express , Harish Trivedi in  The Pioneer , and Rukmini Bhaya Nair in  The Hindu.

 

 

 

                                                                                        Works Cited

 

Lal, P., ed.   Indian Poetry in English .  Calcutta:  Writers     Workshop, 1969.

 

Nemade, Bhalchandra.   Indo-Anglian Writings   Dharwad:  University of Dharward, n.d.

 

Rushdie, Salman.  "Life and Letters:  Damme, This is the Oriental Scene for you!"   The New Yorker .  23 &30 June 1997:  50-61.

 

Thapar, Romila.   The Past and Prejudice .  New Delhi:  National Book Trust, 1975.

 

 

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape