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The Babu's Printed Word Atop The Tower Of Babble

N Kalyan Raman

“Out again, on the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea…”

India is a country made for the valorisation of exile, much like Ireland was over a hundred years ago. We look up in awe at those who have left us: their lives forged under alien skies appear imbued with ideas, possibilities and action that have validated their departure. Closer to the bone, we are diffident at their implacable separateness, their singular distinction of not being, entirely, in and of this land. Consider the gifts of exile from our own history: Mahatma Gandhi’s moral agonising matured and fructified during his years abroad; Subhash Bose’s anti-imperial swagger, however ephemeral, was egged on in Tokyo and Berlin. On a cold evening in London, thoughts of a galaxy of our nationalist leaders shuffling down those pavements all those many years ago, dreaming their impossible dreams even as they were dwarfed by stone and looks of sly contempt, could ambush a lonely Indian in his reverie.

However, since it began to ride the rising curve in the Seventies, exile has lost much of its sheen of romance, adventure, and the impulse to discovery and political action. Bolstered by the glamour of pragmatism, exile has transformed itself, for the middle class, into a veritable Universe of Opportunity. Feeding on our valorisation, exile has anointed itself as the superior life-option. Each young member of the Indian intelligentsia must deal with the possibility of exile as a given; just as Paradise must haunt all sinners, I suppose, and as absent fortune must always mock and diminish the dispossessed. In like fashion, the sphere of imagination, too, teems with oracles who claim that people who live and dream on this vast subcontinent are parochial (sic), lacking the exile’s invigorating (sic) access to what lies beyond our shores.

Small wonder, then, that much that has been triumphant and celebrated in Indian English fiction is written by and on our Diaspora. Yes, distance from living experience can produce protracted nostalgia; and an imagined reality inspired by childhood memories, newspaper headlines, commentaries on the Op-Ed page, gratuitous cerebration on our cultural heritage, and acquired stereotypes of the Bihari, bureaucrat or Oppressed Indian. Leaving aside such treacheries of the public domain (and those of our own misplaced applause), exactly how central is the various - and unreprieved - Indian experience to the Indian imagination? Is Indian fiction in English about to establish that centrality, despite its own long odds? Is it about to transcend the small glories of composition and linguistic feats, and lay the larger claim to participation in India’s attempts to know and extend herself?

* * *

“…nosing up the impossible

stone- and bone-crushing waterfall;

raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten

steps of the roaring ladder; and then…”

If the challenge of India is one of forging a coherent engagement amid the ongoing moral anarchy, it is a project that can scarcely do without the resources of imagination, of art. There are many histories to be lit up, layers to be traversed, truths to be discovered and destinies to be imagined, if literary art were ever to accomplish its one special goal: to make it new. Where electoral politics can so utterly fail the spirit of democratic practice, literatures produced by a self-reflexive middle class can also fail to bring us an inclusive reality that is no less real than imagined. It is less difficult, by far, to nurture this inclusive imagination in the tongues of particular communities, the languages native to this land. However, for reasons that are far from colonial, it is important that English, too, finds its way to Imagining India, or of expanding – vigorously! - on the several beginnings already made. Too large a proportion of our resources – of knowledge and imagination – can be lost, or be laid to waste at the margin, if the exclusive role of English continues to privilege and distance those who have inherited or acquired its use. It would indeed be tragic if English were not turned into a medium for a deeper engagement with Indian life, and especially through the literary imagination.

Of course, you don’t have to be an EP Thompson to conclude, benignly, “there is no idea …that is not alive in some Indian mind.” Four Indian English novels published over the past one year, taken together, may illustrate the grappling with Indian history and reality that are so unique to a class of people, not represented well or meaningfully so far in Indian fiction. I speak of the intelligentsia, which came in After Midnight into this Republic and has lived through forty-odd years (give or take a few). It may now heading into – who knows? – what could be the Republic’s darkest hour. These novels certainly show a way to go beyond the headlines, the desultory and platitudinous commentaries, into the brittleness, tenacity and everything else that goes to make human lives, even as stratified, befuddled India turns, turns, turns again.

Yes, there are many great and good writers in the Indian languages whose thematic concerns run close to the living nerve and challenge our expedient worldviews that lead on straight to daily and long-term disasters – material, aesthetic, and above all, human. (The maverick brilliance of Paul Zachariah in Malayalam comes to mind.) However, the life of a sizable mass of urban Indians - who make up our corporate, bureaucratic and professional worlds, the teachers, opinion-makers and fortune-chasers, the ones not yet exiled (although their children may yet depart) - has not been explored in the fullness of their torment and promise, in their singular and perhaps amoral relation to Indian life. By dint of recent work of Indian English fiction, therefore, we may yet be witness to a new beginning, a coming triumph of empathetic imagination, albeit long into the future; just as long as the dreams of our long-dead patriots huddling under a cold English sky once must have been.

* * *

“I hear the ancient footsteps, like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me…”

The Mammaries of the Welfare State by Upamanyu Chatterjee is a plotless, surrealistic whirl through the pointless and monstrous edifice of Government at all levels, and through the high-minded delusions as well as the bottomless corruptibility of the people who, after their own fashion, man this edifice. They include not only greasy political masters and clean-shaven IAS officers with high foreheads and high-caste glistening noses, but also the so-called Class IV employees partial to blue jeans and devious get-rich schemes. “Agastya Sen [the protagonist] is not funny,” Upamanyu Chatterjee has said in a recent interview, “he is an amoral man at large in a morally degenerate world.” Eschewing all pieties and overt indignation, Chatterjee is pitiless in his description of malformed destinies, and of the endemic violence of irrationality and dereliction that constitutes our Welfare State. It is indeed surprising that such a deadly characterising life-force of our society and people has been denied literary description for so long.

Offering a candid and impressively courageous personal history – a year of it, no more – Manjula Padmanabhan’s Getting There describes the unusual quest for personal integrity of a 24-year-old woman in matters of art, earning a livelihood, social engagement and underlying all of it, sexuality and love. Beginning in a South Mumbai PG accommodation and stopping (not quite ending) in an abandoned house in a small town in Holland, the events of Getting There, while lying outside the middle-class universe, as we know it, acquire their own hard-earned authenticity and meaning. What could easily have passed for aimless youthful defiance at the periphery is first made real, and then fruitful. EP Thompson himself would have been doubtless heartened.

Sagarika Ghose indulges our collective talent for self-regard in The Gin Drinkers, which is purportedly about the New Order – of cheeky and impressively literate Dalits, if you will – taking over the intellectual and cultural pride of place from the Old. The Old Order, of course, comprises the Gin Drinkers, the steel-frame bureaucrats who once saw great promise in 1947, in their own High Culture, and in their stoic existence marked by genteel poverty and beat-up Fiats. The events of this novel occur within four (or fourteen) square miles of the Little Kingdom that is South Delhi, except when it journeys to the spires of Oxford University (or was it Cambridge? who cares?), which location (among such other locations) is infested by the bright and breathless progeny of the Gin Drinkers.

Except for the skeletal transfer of power conceived by Ms. Ghose as the central idea of the novel, there is obviously a lot – including politics that has never been dainty enough to drink gin – missing here. The range of the author’s imagination remains confined and self-serving throughout. There is much valorisation in the novel that will inevitably come out in the wash. However, Ms. Ghose’s straight-shooter’s talent for sticking to her South Delhi vantage point and describing everything else in those terms without self-consciousness or irony is illuminating in a left-handed way. It confirms that much may be indeed be absent in the closed-in, self-reflexive world of High Culture and Thought that she seeks to describe. Then again, this might well be the novel’s inadvertent distinction.

Of these four novels, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh by Ruchir Joshi is without question a tour de force. Written with a sharp eye, keen heart and an imagination honest enough to comingle contention and tenderness, the hundred years of India – past, present and future – offered up by Ruchir Joshi bring home to us a rare conviction: that India as herself, in the richness of her modest, obscure and passionate lives, was - and can be - lit up and consequential. Who knows, though? A reviewer has opined that the novel’s characters are set up for denouements that never arrive. It may be that Ruchir Joshi’s imagination, as it looks at the sprawling past and the future of India, privileges experience and imaginative vision over the dubious fruition of denouements.

* * *

There have been others, too, who are part of this beginning: Vikram Chandra (who is only partly exiled) and his hard-edged Mumbai; Arundhati Roy and the Disorder and Early Sorrow in God of Small Things, to name only a couple. And there will be many others. Art promises nothing, after all, save such insights as dreams on occasion provide. I don’t know if the Chinese ever went so far as to throw us a curse, but in terms of Indian English fiction at least, we do live in interesting times.

A version of this essay was published in Outlook magazine in its 2001 Independence Day Special Issue


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