In Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, there is a wonderful section on the fascination Japonisme held at a certain time in Europe, when Japanese bibelots, netsuke, robes and paintings found their way into Parisian salons: “Anyone would sell you anything. Japan existed as a sort of parallel country of licensed gratification, artistic, commercial and sexual.”
Often, what the collectors of that time picked up from Japan was unremarkable — the dross of everyday life, mass-produced objets d’art mingling with the rare and the exquisite. As de Waal recounts so beautifully, this early hunger was replaced by first a refined connoisseurship, and inevitably, a waning of the interest in Japonisme, a return to the less exotic and the more local.
In the last few weeks, as new books on India by Patrick French and Anand Girdharadass were released, a familiar debate came back to us, reheated and freshly garnished. Pankaj Mishra’s argument with French was over the content of the book—Mishra seemed unable to recognise or reconcile his vision of India, one of cruel economic inequalities and a dominant, often bullying, state, with French’s more upbeat India story.
Reading between the lines, the real anxiety was over French’s portrait, not the quality of his reportage: was this the authentic India, or had he missed the big story? Elsewhere, in a joyously savage piece of provocation, Mihir Sharma flayed India Calling, by Anand Girdharadass, for shallow journalism, and slammed the stereotypes of India that find their way into the “foreign correspondent” book.
But the real debate is one that tore Indian writing in English apart about a decade ago; it’s the question of what makes a book about India the genuine article, and who has the right to “represent” the country. The “authenticity argument” was rapidly buried, with a few stray knives in its back, in the world of Indian fiction — few readers, writers or critics wanted to police books to see how their Indianness rated a scale of one to ten.
Fewer still are comfortable acknowledging what might be called marketplace realities. In the years when Indian writing was doing well, like a hardworking honour student, in the West, we were happy to measure our importance and success not by the literary impact of a Kiran Desai or a Salman Rushdie but by the sales figures and the prize shortlists. What we are all uncomfortable acknowledging is that the West —shorthand for the complex markets and divergent reading tastes of the UK, the US and a large swathe of Europe — has a sharply truncated view of Indian writing.
Much of the unease expressed by Mishra, and in a different form by Sharma, comes from questioning the need for the Big India book — at some level, we understand that these books are very rarely written by Indian journalists, and that the stories they tell, whether simplified or not, are influential even so. Some of the unease comes from a sense of disenfranchisement; it is telling, for instance, that there seems to be little need for the Big India book in Hindi, or Urdu, or Marathi. Outside of English, we lack either the curiosity or the need to explain India to ourselves.
What the West sees of Indian writing would be ridiculous, if that view wasn’t so influential; as with the age de Waal describes, where all of Japanese culture and history could be interpreted through the shlock, detritus and masterpieces of the art world. Over the last 30 years, some realities have been inescapable; Indian writing in the Western world is defined largely as Indian writing in English, with very few translations making their way abroad.
Writing from the margins —Dalit writing, the resurgence in Indian poetry in English, writing from the north east — is rarely visible, and when it is visible, it’s exoticised, here and abroad. And by its nature, Indian writing in English has been largely privileged writing — if not quite limited to the sons of St Stephens’, most contemporary writers in this language come from the relatively enfranchised middle class, and their work reflects the limitations of their backgrounds.
In the same week as the French-Mishra rallies, complete with aces and double faults, were playing out at the net, a small piece of data passed almost unremarked. The Census 2001 figures, recently released, revealed that English had effectively become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns, or belong to areas of the metros that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege. English belongs to them now as much as it once did, about two-three decades ago, to the old class of writer-Brahmins.
And as this generation begins to tell and write their stories, they may not need to beguile the souks of the West with their Indiennisme. 125 million English speakers, out of whom a much higher percentage has made it their first language in the decade since the Census data was collected, is enough to make its own marketplace. I’m guessing here, but I don’t think this new generation of writers will find much use either for the Big India books or for the debates that drew us in over the last few decades.