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."