Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Amit Chaudhuri on audiences and exoticism

Via Kitabkhana, I caught links to a series Amit Chaudhuri is doing in the Calcutta Telegraph, on Indian writers and their audiences. It's a three part series, of which parts one and two have been published so far.

In part one, Chaudhuri argues that it's a vulgarized version of Said's concept of "orientalism" that drives the common suspicion that some English-language South Asian fiction is written for a western audience. I think there may be some link between the questions about English and the appearance of Said's argument, but it's probably more coincidental than causative.

Part two is more interesting to me, because there Chaudhuri questions whether there can ever be an organic connection between the characters in novels, the writers of those novels, and readers. He points out that many high modernist texts in Europe (he cites Ulysses particularly) definitely heightened the potential gap between the three groups -- Leopold Bloom isn't the sort of person who would read the book in which he is the protagonist. Secondly, Chaudhuri questions whether writing in languages other than English is really free of the problems of connection to the "real" India that one sometimes sees in Anglophone Indian writing.

I think he's right on both counts, though Chaudhuri doesn't take the next logical step, which would link the two gaps he's describing in terms of class. Joyce's invention of a protagonist who is in a sense too much of an ordinary guy to actually read the book that is about him is a way of challenging the expectations of his readers. And class is at play again in the example of Anantha Murthy's story about an urban bourgeois who returns to the village for a visit. Serious novels and short stories, whether in Kannada or English, are almost by definition an urban, bourgeois preoccupation. The divide in both cases is not between two economic class groups, not so much the "real India" vs. some deracinated, westernized, English-speaking fantasy of it.

[I must admit I have had Amit Chaudhuri's Freedom Song on my shelf for a couple of years, but have never had the chance to crack it. Anyone read it? However, I have made good use of his anthology, The Vintage Book of Modern Literature, which I think is probably the finest in its genre -- it's much better than Rushdie's Mirrorwork.]


coolie said...

I always look forward to reading Amit Chaudhri's essays.

I found this particularly interesting:

It’s not only the reader who takes the decision of rejecting or accepting a writer; the writer, too, depending on what his objective is at that moment, and how he means to achieve it, gives himself to, or withholds himself from, the reader

The essays that form the introduction to Amit Chaudhri's anthology of modern Indian literature are valuable too.

8:21 AM  
Amardeep said...

I like that sentence too.

I think what he's getting at here is an argument that there is no "strong" principle or scientific framework that explains the interaction of writers, texts, and readers.

10:11 AM  
uma said...

nice post. freedom song is good, actually i like it the best of all his novels. btw, that's the vintage book of modern indian literature.

12:19 AM  
anu said...

speaking of anthologies, i just ran into one in the bookstore the other day- story-wallah edited by shyam selvadurai, claims to be an anthology of south asian short fiction- and from a cursory glance looks rather promising...

3:26 AM  
Anonymous said...

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest writers in the English language I think. He has edited the Picador Anthology of Modern Indian Literature not the VintageBook which Rushdie edited in fact! As for the introductions to the extracts in this anthology, they are not just fine pieces of writing; they take us back to a time when only those who could write well wrote, not like our times, where everyone is forced to be a self-important literary critic to keep his/her job.

11:39 AM  

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