Life happened because I turned the pages~~Alberto Manguel

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Punk rocks Willy D

Pankaj Mishra writes a pretty stiff Letter to the Editor in the wake of William Dalrymple's 'The lost sub-continent':

Not surprisingly, Dalrymple has nothing to say about the best young Indian novelists in English, who mostly live in India - Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Chandra, Siddhartha Deb, Raj Kamal Jha, Rana Dasgupta, Rupa Bajwa and Tabish Khair. Recent books by Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Amitava Kumar, Urvashi Butalia, and Abraham Eraly disprove his assertion that the state of Indian non-fiction is "dire". And he is startlingly ungenerous to writers such as the distinguished historian Romila Thapar. Sunil Khilnani, estimable author of The Idea of India, stands accused of having "decamped to Washington" - although he has long been resident in the west. Dalrymple also tries to dismiss Ramachandra Guha, a respected biographer and author of the forthcoming Picador History of Modern India, as a "cricket historian".

And Vandana Singh very kindly gave me permission to quote from an email in which she put down some of her reactions to Dalrymple's views:

"OK, first I think the classification of resident Indian versus Indian from Diaspora is too simplistic. I’m a case in point. As a commentator on the blog points out, so is William D., who fits in more with the Chinese and other travel writers who’ve come to India for a bit. In other words as long as you’re being taxonomic about it, you ought to come up with more accurate categories.
Second, somebody makes the comment that of course Indian writers from the diaspora will be more successful and/or better writers --- because of their location, the fact that they are natural bridges between cultures, and so on. And since Indian publishers can’t afford big advances and the market in India is still small, naturally they will tend to write for an international audience, which will inevitably result in compromises. This of course excludes the Arundhati phenomenon, and completely excludes writers in the non-English Indian languages, some of whom are bloody brilliant. (Consider Premchand himself, one of the world’s finest short story writers --- nobody outside India has heard of him).
Here’s my take: yes, there is some truth in the above. And I’m probably nuts to be swimming against the current here and getting books published in India first, but I have my reasons. The comment about compromises is really true. But there are ways around all that.
I think Indian literature in English and in the vernacular can only reach greatness consistently if the two interact and feed off one another. Similarly writers living outside India who identify as Indian (never mind the rest) can best function when there is a healthy interaction between them and their compatriots at home. And the comment about the lack of money in the Indian publishing scheme is true, but there are ways around that too. Indians are far too talented at finding ways and loopholes and whatnot. Let me explain what I mean.
Way back in (I think) the 1960’s, four or five American SF writers who had talent but no money formed a group called the Futurians. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t recall the people in the group --- I think Asimov may have been one of them, and possibly Damon Knight as well. From these few penniless writers an entire movement arose. Damon Knight later went on to start the famous Clarion SF workshops, in which aspiring writers (chosen on the basis of their submitted work) went on a 6-week retreat with 6 established writers, learning, critiquing, and writing. Those who survived became, for the most part, successful writers. Clarion continues to do its bit today, and recently it has also been started in the UK. Then there is also this phenomenon in American SF of fandom --- volunteers organize ‘cons’ where professional writers and editors mingle with readers, fans, etc., there are panel discussions and parties.
So what I’m saying is, in order to encourage more reading and writing in India, we don’t necessarily need a lot of money. We need people with vision, to facilitate meetings where writers can interact with each other, bounce ideas off each other, form movements if they choose, build bridges between the vernacular and the English traditions. I don’t only mean formal meetings, but also small groups meeting at each others’ houses over chai and samosas to write, critique, argue, and hone their talents. (Jaya’s idea about a conversation between Indian childrens’ writers fits in perfectly here). Also another Zubaan idea, if I recall correctly, was to take writers and reading sessions to bookstores and coffee places. I suspect that if there are enough of these events, they will provide enough nuclei for a mass-crystallization. There are also (I suspect) people with money and a love of literature who are willing to host mehfils of poetry, music and writing. Yes, it is a dead Delhi tradition, but why not revive it?
I believe that there is more than enough talent in India and among Indian writers in other locations. (Consider, just by the way, the brilliant Premendra Mitra, whose translations from Bengali have recently become available). I think the good stuff needs to be brought out in the open, discussed, critiqued, praised. I think that part of my responsibility as a writer living abroad is to do my small bit in shouting all this from the rooftops. (This is one of the reasons why I’ve started a page on Indian SF off my website --- and eventually I’ll include non-English Indian SF as well). But one person can’t do much.
I’d welcome comments and critiques. Maybe all this would be worth writing up on my website, once I’ve got your feedback and my thoughts in order."



Twinkle twinkle cutie pimple,
Whom're you after, Darlymple?
Rushdie-sushdie? Vikram Seth?
They've their Padma 'n Philippe Honore.
Rem'ber you ain't our Guardian no more,
O Mr. Pinkie, get it straight:
We're vigourous, we're swell,
We're exotic, we're doing well.
Post-post-colonial - that's our creed,
A firang's judgement we don't need.
We are your generous hosts indeed,
But don't tell us to be prolific or terse.
As we tell our tales in prose 'n verse,
You prude Brits, just shut up and read.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/21/2005 03:08:00 PM  

Vandana, what you're talking about is some of what we're trying to do with DesiLit -- the Bay Area chapter meets monthly for potlucks and reading work to each other, and they seem to enjoy it a lot. The Chicago chapter does a book club and a literary festival.

I would *love* for someone in India to start up a chapter there, or even better, multiple chapters. It'd be marvellous to have DesiLit Mumbai, DesiLit New Delhi, DesiLit Calcutta...

By Blogger Mary Anne Mohanraj, at 8/21/2005 03:21:00 PM  

Obviously within a few thousand words one can only write a good simplistic copy which reads well. Some of us indians take these reviews which appear in foreign newspapers seriously.
As a person who has recently shifted to London, i have come to realize how few people pay money to read a brit newspaper. In fact, TOI has more circulation and more hold on english reading public opinion than all brit newspapers combined.
How about focussing on good books, instead of answering these kind of articles.

By Blogger Murali V, at 8/22/2005 02:23:00 AM  

I think that local languages in India have a very rich literary tradition. Unfortunately, they are not known outside their linguistic areas with few exceptions (Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay among the old writers). It is a real pity, because many of them would rank among the world's great writers. I think what is really hard is that it is really difficult to translate Indian languages into English, probably much more difficult than, say, translating Spanish writing into English. A good (if extreme) example, is that of Sanskrit translations-they sound really silly and off in English, while the original Sanskrit could be surpassingly beautiful. One probably has to practically rewrite them into English.

By Anonymous v, at 8/22/2005 07:35:00 AM  

I read Pankaj Mishra reply to Dalrymple's opinion piece in The Guardian. Was disappointed as it was too short.

He says:

"Not surprisingly, Dalrymple has nothing to say about the best young Indian
novelists in English, who mostly live in India - Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram
Chandra, Siddhartha Deb, Raj Kamal Jha, Rana Dasgupta, Rupa Bajwa and Tabish

I think Vikram Chandra divides his time between the US and India. S Deb also lives in the US (He came to New York in 1998 on a literature fellowship and now lives in the United States). Rana
Dasgupta works in Hong Kong, and he even refuses to call himself an Indian
writer (like Kunzru). Tabish Khair is married and settled in the
Denmark. I wonder how could Mr. Mishra not know it.

Just pointing out the inaccuracies. I am not going into the Dalrymple debate again. Have said enough on this issue.

By Blogger Zafar Anjum, at 8/22/2005 03:39:00 PM  

The fact remains that all the authors Pankaj Mishra mentions are quite pathetic, except Rana Dasgupta, Rupa Bajwa and Tabish
Khair, who I haven't read.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/23/2005 03:33:00 PM  

Mary Anne,

DesiLit is not a new concept. For instance, the San Francisco Bay Area has had small groups of writers and readers meet on and off under various guises for the last 5-10 years.

I also know that some published and unpublished writers in NYC also meet off and on in an adda-like setting, although I'm not sure there's a formal organization.

In addition, there's Caferati that operates in several Indian cities.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/28/2005 11:17:00 AM  


I agree that Pankaj Mishra makes a weak case with all those factual errors and writers he mentions. Chaudhuri, Jha and Deb are decent, but overrated as writers. Mishra's novel was quite bad too.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/28/2005 11:20:00 AM  

If Dalrymple thinks that Rana Dasgupta and Rupa Bajwa have not written anything significant, he just needs to read a bit more.

By Blogger reader, at 4/19/2008 06:23:00 AM  

Dalrymple is sore liar, and he lies because the truth about Indian History offends him, and he can only deal with it by flat out denying the truth...

I know Indians like to taboo all these subjects- that's why you only hear about indian history from the mouths of white british guys, but as an Indian, I'm gonna break the ice right now and tell the truth like it really is:

In his novels- particularly when he talks about "white mughals", this is what I have to say:

-These are total, utter, run-of-the-mill lies..all of world history including indian history knows that it was the british women that were sent to india in the thousands for Indian and Mughal maharajas and local men (for eg. search google for "A sale sale of english beauties in the east indies" by Thomas Rowlandson) in fact the indian rajas had such a interest in white women that many had 20 or more white british women in their harems each, (and remember that europe had a syphilis epidemic at this time, so a large number of these women were infected too).. Anyways, there were no white mughals- there were the white army officers etc. but they did not have the position of mughals, and neither did they have harems- again this is another example of the farce written by Dalrymple because many of these british authors twist the truth about history to cover up their own fallacies- they do the same when talking about how the americans defeated them, and some of them have invented theories that go as far as to say that britain made an truce kind of agreement with the americans to leave what was going to become the U.S. today- can you believe that?; another lie this author has told is that there was no evidence of rapes in the sepia mutiny by indian soldiers; what proof does the author have- the offical inquiry theory is a complete lie and coverup by british author and was invented recently, or the british record keepers in India back then simply covered up the truth and invented the lies back then just to preserve their own dignity (as if they ever had any in the first place), but they know damn well that those rapes did happen, and that rapes by british soldiers were very few comparatively- my indian friends' grandparents lived in India during this time, and they were eyewitnesses of everything going on, and they reported that no such rapes by british soldiers ever occurred that they had seen or heard about- because british laws were strict themselves and prohibited british soldiers from harming women as well; in fac there is a historical letter written by one of the brit generals in Delhi who reports that no women or children were heard during the riots in Delhi at the time. So you see here dalrimple and this other brit historic source of info are already contradicting each other- so how can you trust anything that british authors say? You can't. Besides all the Indian sources clearly point out that the mutiny rapes by indian soldiers did in fact occur- (check out Indian historians such as eg. Jayaprakash Narayan), and most of the world's historical information agrees with this- notice how its only britain that has contradictory info- surprise surprise- guess what?- its all a cover up to hide their shame about what really happened to them..and India does not like to speak much either about this aspect of the mutiny b/c its a shame on their part that their soldiers committed these acts.

By Blogger Latesha, at 7/15/2009 09:45:00 PM  

made some mistakes in mm last post-

I meant that the brit general in Delhi reported that no women or children were hurt..

and about the truce thing between brits and americans during the revolution, what I meant toi say was, the brits claim that they left the future US for good on peaceful terms, and that there was no military defeat of the brits by the american revolutionaries...

By Blogger Latesha, at 7/15/2009 09:51:00 PM  

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