Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Covering the Distance: Nilanjana Roy on South Asian writers

Via Chapati Mystery and Moorish Girl, Nilanjana Roy's column in the Business-Standard about South Asian writers. Most of her column is what I would call measured praise. She gets down to business at the end, however.

There is more than a little truth in what she's saying, but I still think her claims fall apart under close scrutiny. I'm going to take a slightly different tack than Sepoy does, however, when he defends English-language South Asian fiction from what he calls the "gallows of authenticity." (Sepoy has a way with words!)

My interest is in the overlapping question of narratorial "distance" that Roy refers to toward the end of her piece.

Bajwa, Suri and Swarup appropriate the lives of people whom they do not understand; unlike Bibhutibhushan, who lived Apu’s life of deprivation in the city and the village, unlike Mulk Raj Anand, who saw at first hand what the humiliations of an untouchable encompassed, they are at a remove from their subjects.

Yes, that's true about Bajwa and Suri (I haven't read Swarup, so I can't say). They are at some distance from their subjects. In Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop, it's a real problem -- one senses she has more in common with the wealthy clients in the novel than with the lower middle-class sari seller who is her protagonist. (I still rather enjoyed reading the book, except perhaps for the ill-conceived ending.)

But it's also true of every preceding generation of Indian writers, especially those who have tried to represent the perspectives of non-elite Indians. Mulk Raj Anand may have seen the humiliations of untouchability, but he was not an untouchable himself. Moreover, he himself wrote in English, was inspired by British modernism, and got started only after spending time abroad. He was as much inflicted by 'distance' as the more recent writers Roy names.

To continue:

Monica Ali does a more sophisticated version of the same thing, using a journalist’s techniques and a ham playwright’s voice when she employs pidgin English to convey the pathos of a Bangladeshi woman’s letters from the village to a luckier relative abroad. This does not make their novels any less entertaining, in the cases of Bajwa and Swarup, or any less well-written, in the case of Monica Ali and Manil Suri. But it does set up a constant, low-level interference that prevents an astute reader from engaging with their novels at a deeper level.

The pidgin English in Brick Lane is troubling at first. But it quickly becomes clear that Ali isn't using it to represent a person who writes poorly in English. Rather, the character of the sister (Hasina) in the novel writes poorly in Bengali. The pidgin is not necessarily a comment on an uneducated women's command of English so much as it is an attempt to represent a character whose literacy is limited. Obviously, Ali is quite different from her character Hasina -- we wouldn't have this novel if that weren't the case -- but given the social conditions of Hasina's life in Dhaka, the use of Pidgin seems appropriate. It is in keeping with Ali's realism, and it is far from disrespectful.

In my view Roy's reference to a "deeper level" of engagement with the South Asian fiction she mentions is a red herring. There is no "deeper level"; there are merely story, characters, and language.

In a nutshell: all writers, Desi and non-desi, deal with the problem of distance from their subjects. Good writers convince us that they've crossed that distance. Less talented (or less experienced) writers leave room for us to question the gap.


Blogger DesiReader said...

But it's also true of every preceding generation of Indian writers, especially those who have tried to represent the perspectives of non-elite Indians.This is not true and suggests a lack of knowledge of Indian literature past and present. There are many writers who have a direct connection to the worlds they imaginatively create and the characters in them. This goes from Hindi writers like Nirmal Verma or Shrilal Shukla or Krishna Baldev Vaid to Bengali writers like Mahasweta Devi to Marathi writers like Nemade or Nagarkar. And even English language writers like R.K Narayan, Amitav Ghosh or Upamanyu Chatterjee. Roy's argument is not about authenticity or place of origin which seems to be where you are trying to return it.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Actually, I'm trying to move the argument towards social class. Especially with the example of Rupa Bajwa and Manil Suri, it is class more than location or acculturation that separates writers from their "subjects." Even folks who write in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and Punjabi tend to be urban, and bourgeois.

There may be exceptions. I don't know Shrilal Shukla's work or his background, for instance... willing to be educated.

But basically, I'm not saying that writers don't have a direct connection to the worlds they imagine. I'm saying that there is always a degree of distance as well.

That's certainly true of Upamanyu Chatterjee in books like English, August (which is all about the protagonist's incomprehension of the world he encounters outside of the metros). And it's even true in a certain way in Mahashweta Devi -- there is a big gap between her literary and political milieu in Calcutta/Kolkata and the life of the tribals she writes about.

That's not a flaw in the fiction. If anything, I think the near-universality of this issue poses a flaw in Roy's argument, which rests on the distinction she is trying to draw between one group of writers and another.

7:33 PM  
Blogger DesiReader said...

Obviously there is always distance. If you write about someone other than yourself there is distance. But how much distance? That is the question I think Roy is asking. Mulk Raj Anand may not have been an untouchable but he knew Punjabi village life. The same goes for the other non English writers I mentioned and also R.K NArayan. Upamanyu Chatterjee's experience as an IAS officer may be what prevents him from trying to speak for Madna in ENglish August. But many new writers who have never even been to a small town in the middle of nowhere or bought saris from sari shops seem to feel much more comfortable writing about and for these places.

Of the writers I mentioned you said you have not read Shukla. Does this mean you have read the other writers I mentioned? Excuse me if I am being rude. I don't understand if there is some base knowledge of Indian literature that people who teach it are required to have. I hope you know that Mahashweta Devi lives and works among the tribals.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

DesiReader, that is rude; I'm not going to answer your question. Think what you like. There are about 30 posts on the sidebar at the right that instantiate my knowledge of South Asian literature.

And as I understand it, Mahashweta's home base is Calcutta. See Shashwati Talukdar's documentary about her life and work. (And Deepika Bahri corroborates this here).

Also, Shrilal Shukla was, like Upamanyu Chatterjee, also an IAS officer... And Nirmal Verma lived in Prague for many years...

But the point of this exercise isn't "who knows more about this?" If you disagree with me, why not just say it that way? It breeds ill will when you start off by publicly accusing me of ignorance.

I should also ask, have you read The Sari Shop? It's clearly written by someone who is very intimate with the rhythm of life of Amritsar, and why shouldn't it be? That's where Rupa Bajwa is from, where she was educated, and where she currently lives. It's also clear that she knows the ins and outs of the textile industry, and the importance of the competitive purchase ritual (muqabla, etc.) in Indian life. The problem in the novel, if there is one, isn't cultural connectedness.

The reason Nilanjana Roy's article irks me is that it's yet another attempt to find a simple index to separate the Good Indian writers from the Bad. It's an old exercise: people talk a lot about language, location, education, class, and the size of the western publisher's advance... But it's all equally irrelevant.

The truth is, the only way to do criticism is to read the book, and then make your judgment. The rest is essentially a lot of hot air and name-calling (a phenomenon with which you are evidently familiar).

8:47 PM  
Blogger DesiReader said...

I am sorry for offending you. I am not an academic type and do not know the protocols. In India we argue very personally. It should have been clear from my first comment that I was disagreeing with you. I still do not know on what basis are you making pronouncements about all preceding generations of writers. If you think being from the IAS means that Shukla's background is the same as Upamanyu's then I am very confused. Many IAS officers have not been to St Stephens. Also about Nirmal Verma he may have gone to Prague but he also knows Delhi and the world of Antim Aranya more intimately than many new writers. Also MAhashweta lives in Calcutta as well but she spends a lot of time in the tribal areas. Please read the introductory materials to Imaginary Maps and you will see what her distance is. All the links on the left are about Indian ENglish writers.

You are yourself talking about a way to distinguish between good and bad writers. Is EM Forster a good writer? I think you would say yes. Does he cross the distance in Passage to INdia. I don't think so. So it is possible that the question of distance is not so simple after all or just a red herring as you described it.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Anand said...

"Good writers convince us that they've crossed that distance. Less talented (or less experienced) writers leave room for us to question the gap."

I think you are right. Certainly good writing (if not good writers) convince us that they've crossed the distance. But less talented writers can also accomplish minimal narratorial distance, right? One may question the literary values of the work, but one cannot fault the author for any distance from their subjects; the work appears "authentic". Isn't that a possibility?

10:09 AM  
Blogger Shashwati said...

Funny thing this distance thing. Mahasweta Devi talked about this at length, and a lot of it did not make it into the documentary (since its been mentioned in this exchange). She put the onus not so much on "speaking for" as much as listening, in characteristically trenchant speech, when asked, "How can a person not from that community write about it?" she answered, "You can understand when you listen can't you?" the implications of this becomes very interesting when you look at all the other footage we shot that did not make it into the film, we talked to formally and informally lots of people, all middle class I have to say. And a lot of them were deeply uncomfortable with Mahasweta's writing, their way of dealing with it was to say that she is "doing Anthropology" or that it was "too harsh and cold, not like so and so whose writing is a little more pleasant to read." and so on. It seems quite clear that some of this distance comes from the reader, and in the case of articles like Roys, the metro based critic. Maybe they don't like reading about poor people (even if they say they like Mahasweta's work), maybe accusations of "distance" have more to do with being threatened when members of your own class write about people you yourself don't know too much about. Its easier to criticize EM Forster in this postcolonial era, than to get comfort from something like the "Death of Vishnu." which is about people we give a few rupees to clean our houses but don't really know a lot about, and knowing too much would just make us uncomfortable.

To look at this distance thing in another way, I go back to Mahasweta again, she is very clear that her location is Calcutta, and she says she practices "distance" in her work, because if she got too worked up she couldn't write (this made it into the film). And as a reader, I have to say that it is this quality in her work I like quite a bit, because it is not manipulative, it is not telling you how to feel because a character is feeling such an such thing (we are seldom told that).

OK, now back to work. Damn you Amardeep! the purveyor of workday distractions!

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nilanjana Roy, who has very smugly summed up the work of various writers, is obviously unaware that Rupa Bajwa, the writer of 'The Sari Shop' was born and brought up in Amritsar. (to Roy it is in the middle of nowhere) Bajwa is close to her subjects as is evident from even a cursory reading of the book.
Who, I wonder, decides how a person qualifies to be a critic? They don't even do their homework.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I met Rupa Bajwa at a book reading in Chandigarh and she came across as a person who would be equally comfortable talking to the wealthy, upper class as well as anyone from lower classes. She seemed different from the usual English speaking people who live in a world of their own. I found 'The Sari Shop' completely in sympathy with Ramchand, its protaganist. I don't agree with you Amardeep.

1:02 PM  

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