Authenticity and the South Asian political novel.
November 1, 2008
Nov 1, 2008
31 Min read time
Authenticity and the South Asian political novel.
In May this year, a fourteen-year-old girl named Aarushi Talwar was found murdered in her parents’ house outside Delhi. The teen’s parents were both dentists. The main suspect in the killing was the servant employed by the Talwars, a forty-five-year-old Nepalese migrant named Hemraj. Most servants in a large city like Delhi are the poor who have arrived from impoverished eastern states, mostly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Orissa.
In India, even an ordinary middle-class person can employ domestic help. You provide a poor young man or woman space to sleep, leftover food, and old clothes, and you are likely to get away with paying as little as fifty dollars a month. A hundred maximum.
Delhi is a city of seventeen million people, and six were robbed or murdered by their servants last year. This is not a very high number, but a large part of the urban middle-class mythology is built around the fear of being robbed, and even killed, by domestic servants. As it turned out, in the Aarushi murder case, the police had been inept. They had simply concluded that Hemraj was guilty because he was missing. Not only were no photographs taken of the crime scene, but even the trail of blood leading to a staircase was not investigated. A day later, a retired police officer broke the lock on the door leading to the terrace above and found the servant’s corpse already decomposing in the heat. The search for a new suspect was underway.
The case took a sensational turn when the police arrested Aarushi’s father. There was no clear evidence to suggest that the dentist had committed the murders, but the police provided the media with lurid speculations. There were stories about the father’s alleged affair with a fellow doctor. The police said that the daughter had come to know of this and confronted him. Officers also openly alleged that Aarushi was involved in a relationship with Hemraj, and the enraged doctor killed the ill-suited lovers.
None of this turned out to be based in fact. Amidst criticism of police bungling and the role of tabloid journalism, the investigation was handed over to the central intelligence authorities. They released Aarushi’s father, and suspicion shifted to a man in the doctor’s clinic as well as a neighbor’s servant. But earlier this month the investigators disclosed that they were not going to charge anyone in the crime. The dead girl’s parents previously had shunned the media that had so damagingly fed sordid stories about them, but they now appeared on television to demand justice for their murdered child. They believed that the investigators had at last caught the killers. Why were they allowed to go free?
All through the summer, I followed the story from my home in upstate New York. Then, in mid-June, I read an article in a British newspaper about the Aarushi case, in which I found out that a popular novel had already been written this year about middle-class Indian fear of domestic servants. The novel, the article said, “tells the story of a bitter and disenchanted chauffeur in Delhi who slits his employer’s throat.”
That is how I came to discover Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize.
Soon after I learned of the book, I met Adiga in New York City. He was born in Chennai, India and later migrated to Australia. He then studied at Columbia University and at Oxford. After university he returned to India, where for three years he worked as TIME ’s correspondent before quitting to write fiction. Adiga told me that his novel is the fruit of his labors as a reporter in India. He traveled to various parts of the country, including places whose backwardness shocked his sensibility. The White Tiger is his rebuke of the cheerful, and false, notion of a new, transformed India.
What Adiga said was exciting to me: I have long subscribed to the idea that one of the novel’s primary tasks is to produce a map of the contemporary. By one definition, then, the province of the novel is what you read in your newspaper each morning or watch on your television at night. The novelist’s task is to explore how the news enters people’s lives and indeed becomes a part of daily life.
In the wake of Rushdie, I imagined magical realism to be the last refuge of the nonresident Indian. If you were dealing in invented details, it hardly mattered when you mixed up names and dates.
I also loved what I’d heard of Adiga’s cheeky use of the epistolary form, that the whole book was a letter from the Indian servant to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Certainly, the narrator’s voice is bold and funny. One review quoted Adiga’s protagonist: “Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia. These are the only three nations I admire.” And then, his belief that “the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man” because “our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage, and drug abuse.”
But when I started reading the book, my enthusiasm evaporated. I did not know until I began reading the novel that the protagonist, Balram Halwai, is from the state of Bihar, where I was born and grew up, and which Halwai in the course of the entire book calls by the name Darkness. But more than the name was unsettling.
In the book’s opening pages, Halwai begins to tell the Chinese Premier the story of his life. We are introduced to the poverty of rural Bihar, and the evil of the feudal landlords. Halwai’s voice sounds like a curious mix of an American teen and a middle-aged Indian essayist. I find Adiga’s villains utterly cartoonish, like the characters in Bollywood melodrama. However, it is his presentation of ordinary people that seems not only trite but also offensive. Here is his description of the migrant Bihari workers returning to their villages after their hard labor in the cities:
A month before the rains, the men came back from Dhanbad and Delhi and Calcutta, leaner, darker, angrier, but with money in their pockets. The women were waiting for them. They hid behind the door, and as soon as the men walked in, they pounced, like wildcats on a slab of flesh. They were fighting and wailing and shrieking. My uncles would resist, and managed to keep some of their money, but my father got peeled and skinned every time. ‘I survived the city, but I couldn’t survive the women in my home,’ he would say, sunk into a corner of the room. The women would feed him after they fed the buffalo.
I have witnessed such men, and sometimes women, coming back to their village homes countless times. The novelist seems to know next to nothing about either the love or the despair of the people he writes about. I want to know if others, who might never have visited Bihar, read the passage above and recognize how wrong it is, how the appearance of verisimilitude belies the emotional truths of life in Bihar.
As I continued, I found on nearly every page a familiar observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounds false. I stopped reading on page thirty-five.
I was anxious about my response to The White Tiger. No, not only for the suspicion about the ressentiment lurking in my breast, but also because I was aware that I might be open to the same charge of being inauthentic. My own novel Home Products, published last year, has as its protagonist a journalist who is writing about the murder of a young woman. The case is based on a well-known murder of a poet who had an illicit relationship with a married politician. Kidnapping and rape and, of course, murder, feature quite frequently in the novel’s pages. By presenting these events through a journalist’s eye, I tried hard to maintain a tone of observational integrity. At some level, realism had become my religion.
Since then, I have wondered whether my choice of the journalist as a protagonist is not itself a symptom of an anxiety about authenticity. Was it the worry of an expatriate Indian, concerned about losing touch with the society he took as his subject? To invest in an aesthetic of observation and reportage was to build banks against the rising tide of that worry. I know now that this worry informs my reading of all novels about India.
For years, in the wake of Rushdie, I imagined magical realism to be the last refuge of the nonresident Indian. If you were dealing in invented details, it hardly mattered when you mixed up names and dates. But now, more than magical realism, it is the painstaking attempt at verisimilitude that clearly betrays the anxiety about authenticity. This condition is more subtle. It has limited fiction’s reach, keeping writers to what they know. Look at Jhumpa Lahiri, who has assiduously mined the experience of Bengali immigrants of a fixed class. She is one of the better ones, writing about what she knows; lesser writers have been content to churn out what we all know: arranged marriage, dowry, saris, and spices.
Authenticity does matter, but only as it serves the novel’s more traditional literary demands: that the fault lines be drawn where the internal life and the larger world meet.
Quite apart from this whole slew of stay-at-home writers, home being in most cases somewhere outside India, are the ones who, like Adiga, have taken the bus, or at least a hired taxi, to the hinterland. They might have traveled on a boat and risked being eaten by a Royal Bengal tiger. Or they might have walked in the tight, smelly alleys in the slums and, if they are enterprising, met a hired killer or two. This brings a different frisson to the body of Indian writing in English, which, given its roots in the middle class, has often been insular and dull. And these works seem direct responses to the numbing social violence in nearly every stratum of Indian society. But reportage is only an inoculation against the charge of inauthenticity. It hides larger untruths. Authenticity does matter, but only as it serves the novel’s more traditional literary demands: that the fault lines be drawn where the internal life and the larger world meet.
* * *
During the summer, a few weeks before I began reading The White Tiger, I read in the news that nine men and women had gone on an indefinite hunger strike to call attention to the suffering in Bhopal. On the night of December 3, 1984, forty tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas from a tank in the Union Carbide plant formed a dense poisonous cloud. In what has often been described as the world’s worst industrial disaster, the gas killed thousands that night and left many more with lifelong respiratory and other ailments.
The protestors were demanding, among other things, medical care, clean water, and legal action against Dow Chemical. The chemical giant acquired Union Carbide in 2001, but has not participated in the clean-up of Bhopal,where more than twenty years after the accident children are still born with damaged brains and deformed limbs. Seven of the strikers were survivors of the disaster.
In a village in southern France, the novelist Indra Sinha fasted in solidarity, although he had to stop after seven days because he was undergoing long-term radiotherapy. Last year Sinha’s novel Animal’s People was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Animal’s People was dedicated to Sinha’s friend Sunil Kumar, who was a Bhopal survivor. Kumar was only twelve when he became the breadwinner for his younger siblings, everyone else in the family having died as a result of the gas. He became an activist, fighting for the rights of his fellow victims. In July 2006, at age thirty-four, Kumar hanged himself from a ceiling fan. When he died, he was wearing a T-shirt that read, “No More Bhopals.” I had read Sinha’s moving obituary to his friend, and after reading of the protests I wondered how the lives of people like Kumar, and the story of the disaster as a whole, entered fiction and found new life.
Animal’s People is set in the near-present in a fictional town called Khaufpur. One night, following a chemical leak in a pesticide factory, the town’s inhabitants are awakened “by a wind full of poison and prophesying angels.” Khaufpur translates as “the place of fear.” The novel portrays the struggles of the people unable to forget the desperate panic of the night that overtook their lives two decades ago. Indeed, terrible realities of that night have seeped into the present, corroding almost everything worthwhile in the lives of the Khaufpuris. On his Web site (http://www.indrasinha.com), the author speaks of the “double disaster” in the lives of the people residing in the “all-too-real city” of Bhopal: “first the gas leak itself which has killed around 23,000 people directly and through lingering illness” and then the second disaster, “the mass poisoning of the water supply of 30,000 more by chemicals leaking from the abandoned, never-cleaned factory.”
The narrative is presented as a young Khaufpuri’s true-to-life account recorded on tape for a visiting foreign journalist. Animal lives in a scorpion-infested den; he introduces himself on the book’s opening page with the words “I used to be human once.” He lost his parents on the night of the disaster, and later, when he was six, the toxins took their toll. His spine twisted “like a hairpin,” he could only walk on all fours, his backside the highest part of his body.
Rescued by a French nun working in Khaufpur, the orphan grew into a Dickensian street-smart kid who survived by picking pockets. But this is the back-story. The novel’s main interest is in describing Animal’s transformation from a scam-artist into a somewhat-reluctant political activist. As his creator is committed to an unsentimental, even cynical, worldly-wise hero, Animal’s motivations are primarily sexual. In fact, a lot of narrative energy is expended in the repetitive detailing of Animal’s erections and ejaculations. Animal is driven by his love for the beautiful Nisha who, in turn, is in love with the man of the people Zafar, whom Animal sarcastically calls the “champion of the good and true.” The three of them are involved in negotiating the hopes as well as suspicions aroused by an American doctor’s arrival in Khaufpur to open a free health clinic.
Is the Pennsylvania-born female doctor an agent of the pesticide company that has so far only brought misery to them? Most people around him believe so, but Animal finds himself divided. It turns out that he is a sentimentalist after all. Animal secretly hopes that the American doctor will cure him, and that when he walks on two feet, Nisha will naturally want to marry him. The plot somewhat tediously plays with these possibilities before the court case between the people and the company is reopened, breathing a new urgency into the lives of the Khaufpuris. They fear that a deal will be struck between the American corporate lawyers and the local politicos, and, indeed, matters come to a head when, hiding outside a luxury hotel, Animal spies one of the lawyers kissing the attractive doctor.
What is Sinha trying to achieve with this particular way of retelling Bhopal’s story? In 1993, while working as an ad writer in London, he designed a campaign that garnered enough money to help establish a medical clinic in Bhopal that, he claims, has provided health care to more than 30,000 people. Given that Sinha has taken an activist approach to pragmatic goals in Bhopal, one could assume that the novel had specific literary goals. What is distinctive about Animal as a character in a novel? Not his sensitive heart or his buried humanity. Not, also, his back “bent as a scorpion’s tail.” However remarkable his physical appearance might be–he believes four parts of him are strong and appealing: his face, his powerful arms, his chest, and his enormous penis–it is Animal’s language that is more immediately striking. A toxic mix of irreverence and energy, its vulgarity is a ready antidote not only to the hypocrisy of the elite, but also the solemn pieties of those who from their space of comfort want to make a better world. Animal, early in the book, explains his point of view:
The world of humans is meant to be viewed from eye level. Your eyes. Lift my head I’m staring into someone’s crotch. Whole nother world it’s, below the waist. Believe me, I know which one hasn’t washed his balls, I can smell pissy gussets and and shitty backsides whose faint stenches don’t carry to your nose, farts smell extra bad. In my mad times I’d shout at people in the street, ‘Listen, however fucking miserable you are, and no one’s as happy as they’ve a right to be, at least you stand on two feet!’
One imagines Sinha did not want simply to tell a moral tale, and that is why he found a voice that was scabrous and also playful. As an invented argot, particularly with its mix of Hindustani and gabbled English (“Kampani” for company, “jarnalis” for journalist, “internest” for the Internet, and, more interesting, “jamisponding” for spying à la 007), it appears to possess a texture that is earthy and redolent of the street. But does it? The British colloquialisms, the impromptu rhymed verse, and the French sentences that in the book form a part of the speech of the homeless Khaufpuri youth seem overwrought and–ah, that dreaded word–inauthentic. For a book that strains so hard to achieve its air of visceral realism, the narrator’s language, which no street urchin in India would employ, is disturbing. It is not that this novel about Bhopal is less than literary; rather, it is too literary, trying painfully and self-consciously, through its use of a familiar romantic tale and other devices, to find distance from the well-known tragedy that is its subject. My criticism points to a historical reversal. Now that nonfiction so routinely uses fiction devices, novelists run the danger of appearing lazy and dated when they dress up real-life happenings as genre fiction. What was once newsworthy is easily made banal.
All this is a far cry from John Updike’s claim in The New Yorker a few years ago that the novel was “traditionally a mirror held up to the bourgeoisie, to teach its members how to shave, dress, and behave…”
Perhaps the novel form was born to bring news, but, today, news is everywhere. The disaster novel of the present at its best makes news personal and intimate. It tries to contain crises of one sort or another. Containing involves a retelling. In the wake of September 11, there came disaster novels by writers as different as Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Don DeLillo (Falling Man). Each attempted to give intimate meaning and poignancy to an event that not only defied meaning, but also was too large, too public.
However, in countries such as India and Pakistan, the disaster novel is not so much a way of making real what had seemed remote; rather, for people who have experienced the bite of reality, writing offers a shot at redemption or justice. Or, at least that is the alibi. Such a clear and laudable goal allows writers to contain the messy actuality: issues of complicity and the entanglement of privilege are burned away in the heat or light of righteous glory. A near-universal feature of such high-minded fiction is that despite its attention to real grievances it is often abstract and unreal. I can only call the absent element the essential quiddity of the real. With all their beauty and artifice, novels often hide the ordinary grit of reality. We find it sometimes, plain and unadorned, in the news, but it is often too generic and drained of force. It is the irrepressible bubbling-up of the everyday, not the unbending demand of a rigid aesthetic, that makes a novel satisfying, that connects it to life.
Sinha’s work thus represents another crisis of authenticity. It is not enough to have local knowledge and an activist’s good intentions. For a political novel to be successful, it may, in the end, have to betray its program. Art, like life, seizes us when it transcends a fixed purpose. Animal’s People, despite its self-conscious attempts, never quite manages that liberating act.
Sinha’s novel is most engaging when it, almost accidentally, opens up an absorbing conversation between art and life. Consider the daily reports I read about the hunger strike during the summer. June is a punishing month in Delhi, with high temperatures hovering around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The police made arrests and harassed the protestors. I came to the closing pages of Animal’s People: a hunger strike is launched in Khaufpur, a fast to the death, without food or water, during the nine hottest days of the year. In the middle of the strike, Zafar, one of the men who is fasting, his tongue already dry and swollen, begins to talk to Animal: “‘What a place is this Khaufpur,’ he says, ‘where even the sky is broken and when rain comes it’s just a loan against long overdue debts.’” It is a remarkable statement and much more effective than the more magical realist outpourings from Sinha’s pen. Zafar goes on:
‘Is Khaufpur the only poisoned city? It is not. There are others and each one of has its own Zafar. There’ll be a Zafar in Mexico City and others in Hanoi and Manila and Halabja and there are Zafars of Minamata and Seveso, of Sao Paulo and Toulouse and I wonder if all those weary bastards are as fucked as I am.’
In the light of these words, the hunger strike in Delhi acquires a near-luminous glow. It also seems as if the protestors from Bhopal, and indeed the writer on his own fast in France, were living the life that had been depicted in the novel. All this is a far cry from John Updike’s claim in The New Yorker a few years ago that the novel was “traditionally a mirror held up to the bourgeoisie, to teach its members how to shave, dress, and behave…” Were novels ever doing only that?
* * *
On August 17, 1988, shortly after take-off, the plane carrying the Pakistani military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq crashed, killing all the passengers. Those who died along with General Zia were not only his top commanders, but also the American Ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the American military mission in Islamabad. The cause of the crash has never been explained.
Mohammad Hanif’s elegant thriller A Case of Exploding Mangoes begins with that afternoon on the sun-bleached desert runway as General Zia is about to board the doomed plane. The protagonist coolly describes what will happen in the assassination’s aftermath, thereby introducing us at the same time to the semi-fictional landscape in which his own story is being given birth:
The generals’ families will get full compensation and receive flag-draped coffins, with strict instructions not to open them. The pilots’ families will be picked up and thrown into cells with blood-splattered ceilings for a few days and then let go. The U.S. ambassador’s body will be taken to the Arlington Cemetery and his tombstone will be adorned with a half-elegant cliché. There will be no autopsies, the leads will run dry, investigations will be blocked, and there will be cover-ups to cover cover-ups. Third World dictators are always blowing up in strange circumstances, but if the brightest star in the U.S. diplomatic service (and that’s what will be said about Arnold Raphael at the funeral service in Arlington Cemetery) goes down with eight Pakistani generals, somebody will be expected to kick ass. Vanity Fair will commission an investigative piece, the New York Times will write two editorials, and sons of the deceased will file petitions to the court and then settle for lucrative cabinet posts. It will be said that this was the biggest cover-up in aviation history since the last biggest cover-up.
A fairly comprehensive failure of conventional newsgathering as the condition for the novel’s emergence! Although the causes of the crash were never identified, there were plenty of suspects. On the list were the CIA; the KGB; Indian intelligence; the Israeli Mossad; several disaffected groups inside Pakistan, sections of the military among them; the members of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s family seeking revenge for his hanging. To this long and impressive list of suspects, and this is only a partial list, Hanif, a graduate of the Pakistan Air Force Academy who now heads the BBC’s Urdu service, adds a few more, not least a determined junior air force officer armed with love’s vengeance and aided by a supporting cast–a crow, an army of tapeworms, and, of course, a case of exploding mangoes.
Hanif’s protagonist is Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, smart and capable but without any air of superiority. This is important; like Adiga’s Halwai and Sinha’s Animal, Shigri is a man of the people. His knowledge of the world and of history, for instance, seems to be drawn only from Reader’s Digest. Hanif has reserved all assumptions of disdainful superiority, and therefore all signs of hypocrisy and weakness, for the rulers. Like Animal, he hides his sentimentality from the world and turns resourcefulness into an art. His father used to be a colonel in the Pakistani intelligence, faithfully serving his country’s (and the CIA’s) mission to arm and pay the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The colonel’s suicide, which his son believes was murder, is the impetus for Shigri’s revenge against Zia. His carefully laid plans go awry, however, when Shigri’s fellow cadet and roommate, the effeminate Obaid, tries to do away with Zia on his own.
The fast-paced story is rich with implausibility and therefore of great interest. For the reader on the subcontinent, particularly in Pakistan where the book’s publisher is reportedly having difficulty finding even a printer, no officially sanctioned statement of fact is either true or benign. Nearly everyone is on the take, and therefore everyone is suspect. No one theory is capable of explaining anything but everyone gets by as a conspiracy theorist. News, fueled by rumor, rapidly mutates like a virus.
But if the novel’s plot is not believable, its exaggerated, satirical comedy rings true. It has bite. The portraits of the military leaders, all recognizable figures in Pakistani politics, are full of irreverence. In a country ruled for much of its history by men in uniform, this is heady stuff. Major Kiyani–a senior intelligence officer who is described as “a man who runs the world with a packet of Dunhill, a gold lighter, and an unregistered car”–has an extended biography that Hanif presents with all the precision and poetry of a postcolonial Graham Greene:
One look at his skin and you can tell he has been fed on a steady diet of bootleg scotch, chicken korma, and an endless supply of his agency’s safe-house whores. Look into his sunken cobalt blue eyes and you can tell he is the kind of man who picks up a phone, makes a long-distance call, and a bomb goes off in a crowded bazaar. He probably waits outside a house at midnight in his Corolla, its headlights switched off, while his men climb the wall and rearrange the lives of some hapless civilians. Or, as I know from personal experience, he appears quietly at funerals after accidental deaths and unexplained suicides and wraps things up with a neat little statement, takes care of loose ends, saves you the agony of autopsies and the foreign press speculating about decorated colonels swinging from ceiling fans.
General Zia himself emerges in the novel’s pages as a scared man who reads the Qur’an before his morning prayers to ascertain what the day holds for him–and to choose suitable lines that he could use in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he hopes to win some day. The General is also bothered by a rectal itch because of the tapeworms that are devouring his innards. In addition, his marital life is on the rocks. As the book progresses, we find the powerful man disintegrating under attacks of paranoia and piety. The parts about the General particularly test the reader’s credulity, but their main weakness is that they rob the man of his menace. This happens less with other figures like Major Kiyani, and therefore, unlike the pages that paint Zia as a buffoon, those other sections of the novel pack a stronger punch.
What we have in the narrative sketches about the military men–from a lowly loadmaster who sexually molests a prisoner, to the toadying generals whose suave demeanors barely hide their instincts for torture–is a complex picture of a ruling class in transition. It reminds us of what Eqbal Ahmad wrote of the great shift that had already begun taking place in Pakistan’s military by 1974. According to Ahmad, during the first twenty-five years of its existence, Pakistan was ruled by bourgeois soldiers and bureaucrats of colonial vintage, men who were largely status-quoists, greedy and paternalistic but nevertheless moderate in their beliefs and behavior. In the years that followed, new officers joined the ranks, men of petit bourgeois origin and fascist in outlook. These officers tended to be more religious and, having been trained by the Americans, resembled the Brazilian and Greek juntas. For Ahmad, the political environment in Pakistan appeared “to favor the growth of a right-wing, militarist dictatorship.”
That reality has obviously come to pass in the world depicted in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. A different way of acknowledging this development would be to say that news in the form of fiction has caught up with theory. And there is a feeling of retributive justice in the unanticipated fact that a lowly cadet has taken up the pen and merrily skewered his former bosses.
* * *
A couple weeks ago, I resumed my reading of Adiga’s The White Tiger. When I left him, Balram Halwai, the book’s narrator and hero, was painting a mythical image of Bihar. When I encountered him again, he was making his journey to the metropolis.
As I got deeper into the book I discovered that Halwai does not so much move to Delhi as move into a car. And because he is a chauffeur, it is vital that the important and meaningful talk between his employer and his employer’s wife and other relatives takes place inside the car. Apparently the expensive apartment the employer owns in Gurgaon is only for sleeping, not for living, and this sacrifice is important for the sake of the plot. And useful also for delivering numerous bits of potted dialogue between the members of the ruling class:
‘Why are we going to this place in the middle of nowhere, Ashoky?’ Her voice, breaking the silence at last.
‘It’s my ancestral village, Pinky. Wouldn’t you like to see it? I was born there–but Father sent me away as a boy. There was some trouble with the Communist guerrillas then. I thought we could–’
‘Have you decided on a return date?’ she asked suddenly. ‘I mean to New York.’
‘No. Not yet. We’ll get one soon.’
The description of the journey to the ancestral village in Darkness is a clean and fine piece of writing:
We drove along a river, and then the tar road came to an end and I took them along a bumpy track, and then through a small marketplace with three more or less identical shops, selling more or less identical items of kerosene, incense, and rice. Everyone stared at us. Some children began running alongside the car. Mr. Ashok waved at them, and tried to get Pinky Madam to do the same.
But even at such moments, the novel reveals its great weakness. Who is looking here? The village to which the car is returning is not only the employer’s village but also Halwai’s–he is returning to the place where he was born and grew up and has only recently left. Yet does it appear to be the account of a man who is returning home? He recognizes no landmark or person, he has no emotion, he has no relationship to the land or the people.
This is at the heart of the book’s bad faith. The first-person narration disguises a cynical anthropology. Because his words are addressed to an outsider, the Chinese Premier, Halwai is at freedom to present anthropological mini-essays on all matters Indian. It is an “India for Dummies” that proves quite adept at finding the vilest impulse in nearly every human being it represents. I do not only mean every member of a corrupt and venal ruling class, but also the victim class itself, portrayed in the novel’s pages as desperate and brazenly cannibalistic. Reviews of the book in mainstream publications, including The Economist, present it as a glimpse into the “real India.” Whose India is real; Adiga’s, or mine?
Almost exactly eight years ago, in this magazine’s pages, the Indian writer Vikram Chandra published an inspired, polemical essay called “The Cult of Authenticity. ” Chandra’s anger was directed against those “cultural commissars,” mostly critics in India, who were suspicious of writers’ use of clichéd Indian motifs. These critics claimed that an easy appeal to saris and samosas, and the employment of a few well-known words like karma and dharma, were the means by which Indian writers in the West signaled their identity and coddled their readers. Chandra bristled at the suggestion that others, by dictatorial fiat, could choose his material for him. Chandra made an argument not only for artistic autonomy but also for the essential hybridity of any writing. His point is that because the culture around us is mixed up and in flux, the literature that draws on that culture will reflect its energy and impurity. It was inevitable, for example, that in his fiction he would employ words in English and other Indian languages. Just as people do on the streets of Mumbai.
Quite explicitly, Chandra also argued against the notion of any real India, an India that is accessible only to a certain kind of writer, one who lives in the hinterland, or receives poor advances, or writes only in an obscure, regional language. Against such a purist aesthetic, Chandra pushed for recognition of the actual, impure world in which we all live and write:
There will always be a prevailing market and a prevailing ideology, and a head of department who fiercely upholds that prevailing ideology, a head of department whose cousin owns the press that publishes the books, whose cousin’s best friend reviews the books for the Sunday paper, whose cousin’s best friend’s cousin gives out the government grants and the fellowships to Paris. All art is born at this crossroads of ambition and integrity, between the fierce callings of fame and the hungers of the belly and the desires of one’s children and the necessities of art and truth. Michelangelo knew this, and [popular nineteenth-century Urdu poet Mizra] Ghalib knew this. There is no writer in India, or in the world, no artist anywhere who is free of this eternal chakravyuha, this whirling circle that is life itself. To have less money does not mean you are more virtuous, to have more money does not mean you are less capable of integrity. Those who believe in the salutary effects of poverty on artists have never been truly hungry, and are suspicious of money from the safety of their own middling comforts. Finally, I suspect, whatever language we write in, we are all equally capable of cowardice and heroism. . . . In case it makes anyone feel any better, let me state for the record my considered opinion that for sheer incestuousness, for self-serving pomposity, for easy black-and-white moralizing, for comfortably sneering armchair wisdom, for lack of generosity, for pious self-interested victim-mongering, for ponderous seriousness and a priggish distrust of pleasure, there is no group on earth that can match the little subcaste that is the Indo-Anglian literary and critical establishment. I say this with full cognizance of my own somewhat contested membership in said establishment.
Chandra’s argument against the impossible-to-satisfy and hypocritical demand for purity is liberating. Yet I wonder where that leaves criticism. Does Chandra’s injunction to writers–“Be fearless, speak fearlessly to your readers, wherever they are”–not also apply to critics?
His opponent in the essay is an academic critic; Chandra shrewdly graphs himself as the street-smart writer. There is a lesson in this. Such is the impurity of our enterprise, as writers or as critics, that even in the act of proclaiming our freedom from the demands of authenticity, we are never free from brandishing it.
Unlike Chandra, I don’t think there is freedom at hand from the entire question of authenticity, largely because there is no escape from the yearning for the real. The painfully real, the brilliantly, euphorically real, the emphatically real. Either in our lives, or in our writing. And for me, living abroad, this yearning also translates as a parsing of tales about India. In an interview on the Man Booker Web site after his book was included on the Man Booker longlist, Adiga said:
It’s a great thrill to be longlisted for the Booker. Especially alongside Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie. But I live in Mumbai, where not many people know of the Man Booker Prize; I’m still standing in long queues and standing in over-packed local trains in the morning and worrying about falling ill from unsafe drinking water. Life goes on as before.”
I envy Adiga’s way of claiming authenticity at this moment when he is himself in the news: he has access to the real India, he is standing in long lines, he is afraid of drinking dirty water. I could write a novel about this.
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November 01, 2008
31 Min read time