Back home, my craving for English literature was consummately supplied. But it was no longer English nor Indian.
Correction: It was too elastically English and Indian, to remain either.
Hype-marketed, English Literature from India, as it is styled in university academic modules, or as would be the more bull’s eye labelling, Indian Literature in English, has become the world’s.
When I go into quaint book places in Leeds, stand before the one-off bookshelf at the deep end of a charity shop, inside a renovated church (“Free to take” or “Please drop some coins in the box above the kettle for members’ tea. Thank you” – British etiquette dribbling from scribbled lines sellotaped to the tile), the tattered carton an afterthought in a bric-a-brac heaven, I discover titles distinctly British.
Like the rolling cobbled alleys off Headrow, a lone gent in beret with dreamy clouds in his eyes and his small espresso at the dented formica table, a terrier anxiously shifting at his tied post outside Sainsbury’s, the pubs shuttered but unable to stop giggling stories from last night’s sloshed ribaldry, like the equally drunk sunlight lurching his way home through the backstreets, squeezing between the overflowing trash wheelies and empty pallets of consumed greens, like the black cat that strides blasély across, ducks in and vanishes from make-believe beneath the gate, and is dolefully observed doing so by her friend (foe?), the brindle, from the garden post, covers hidden in their unlikely places scream-whisper Britain.
Unread, yellowed from long not courting a paramour. Well-polished, scratched, wrinkly, drained from excess of use on a past lover’s bed, names that have never surfaced in the media or internet. No reviews read. No humbug ‘expert’ adding weightage to a neophyte’s treatise. None of the miles of column space booked by flush publisher to ensure its ward meets the dazzling public glare.
Marketing is a three-edged stiletto knife that pierces none too softly.
On the one hand, a hundred modern-day preoccupations need a literary work to body-surf its way into public attention, commodify itself into a consumerist mindset, grovel on hands and feet like tawdry merchandise, like the salad bag and glitzy party wear, appear at once necessary and in fashion before we loosen our purse strings.
On the other, half the mystery of opening a middle page, snifting through a few lines before we’re desperately eager to rush it home for a cosy snuggle is long since gone.
We’re no longer in ignorance of what we are buying.
With limited shelf space, and more limited spending budget on books, we have to be dead sure we know what we’re purchasing.
Profligacy will not do.
Reading is unfashionable, they tell us, and we’ll only indulge if it appears stylish.
As a result, the delight of discovery is not so much of original talent, as in trying to unearth if those hiccup-inducing, seven-figure sums read in the headlines were even worth it.
Every book released upon the adrenalin-pumped readership today is copybook derby memorabilia.
Meanwhile, as a third blow, excellent authors will receive one-line standard rejections in their mailboxes, from scrutinising editors trained by sales divisions, because the former’s sweat-and-spit bundle, tied in heart strings and intrepidly offered, bloodier than butcher paper, was not deemed “marketable.”
The books and authors I find these days, never graced the posh bookshops back home. Their echoes never reached Indian shores.
Perhaps the remiss is as much my ignorance as their publishers’ limited fiscal muscle. Am I glad nobody told these poor sods to pack up their keyboards – no one owns a Remington anymore, I suppose, except antique collectors – and suck it?
They must have been less profit churning, or of entertaining warmth, or else why would they end up in recirculation in evidently poorer neighbourhoods? As I pay for my picks from a used cupboard in a much pre-loved furniture stall, a pensioner in platinum curls with a magenta sweater thrown over her floaty frock makes entry. “George, I have got some more books for you.”
The Help, The Kite Runner, Three Cups of Tea, The Blind Assassin, Paulo Coelho, and Bill Bryson (his wicked turn of phrases makes him more British than the Brits, and well, he married a fruit of the soil, so overall qualifies being considered as such) were a few rare international, read that “foreign,” titles.
Kazuo Ishiguro is British to a fault, but his Never Let Me Go is chillingly dystopian for readers to notice the idyllic rural setting. And his The Remains of the Day is a film anyway. Have you ever met anyone who’s actually read the book?
Tolkien was British, but had been lately up-marketed, yet again thanks to Hollywood. His Middle Kingdom is hellishly bleak, no less than the English moors, but as removed from the latter as imagination can possibly make it. Hobbits are a tribe no one in their right mind would associate with the average five-foot ten-inch height of a Brit male.
Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is as much Britain 20th century as Bangladesh, that drifting unsettlement of being neither here nor there, at once confusedly everywhere.
It is her kind of diasporic South East Asian voice that has taken over my hunted book shelves in Calcutta.
Since the first Indian novel written in English, Rajmohan’s Wife, to Khushwant Singh’s strident Partition piece, Train to Pakistan, to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, (maybe the fatwa should have been declared right here, to discourage the spill-over of more magic realism) to V.S.Naipaul’s first, The Mystic Masseur, to Vikram Seth’s first The Golden Gate (truly an enchanting feat, a novel in sonnet form, frightening off scatty imitation), that audible gasp-bringing advance paid to Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things (this once, the money was well spent) to Kunal Basu’s mystic word-weaving (historic novelist if there ever was one) to Amitav Ghosh who will not have you rest from his unlimited frothing to Jhumpa Lahiri, it is as much history as global, barely current, barely native.
Of these, only The God of Small Things can claim to be contemporary and Indian with vengeance. The Shadow Lines (Amitav Ghosh) and The Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth) are set in post-modern urban milieus. Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters visit “home” all the time, through their eyes “India” is revealed.
I miss the Kamala Markandaya-s, Mulk Raj Anand-s, Anita Desai-s, R. K. Laxman-s.
Those that, writing in their times, of their times, upturned the bullock rutted village roads, the migrant-riddled city footpaths, the hut and the hovel. Uncharmed by mere history, their pens raked up modern, contemporary India.
Why is no India-resident author today writing in the international patois, for a global audience?
Poetry is having its slew of experiments, in fiercely confident pens, from bi-lingual or English poets, unabashed and unafraid to show off their just dexterity in what is no longer a foreign tongue.
Why then, are the fiction writers only addressing antiquity, or concerns of a globally dispersed citizenry, delectable fare, but distant nonetheless?
In ramshackle book tables I manage to find the charms of English country life, chameleon-like cosmopolitising cities, hidden beaches with basaltic pebbles and Salmon pink coral, quaint train stations where steam engines stop twice a day, dropsy meadows, insular fishing cottages on wind-blown cliffs, Downing Street intrigues, caramel topped cross buns.
The last, genuinely Indian novel, smelling of hilly mists, was Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, a good eight years ago. (I’d be happily removed from my ignorance, if there is an update to this fact.)
A mere two years ago, the modern British novel arrived, and a modern Britain was born in the pages of The Casual Vacancy. Awlright, awlright, I cannot hold her non-anonymity against the lass, but J.K.Rowling salvaged herself from her one genre wonder. The Cuckoo’s Calling had paper thin plot yet in the brush stroke of characterisation, Rowling’s pen(wo)manship was unmistakable.
Native language Indian authors are screaming from want of publication, already limited by India’s ever present language problem. Too many speeches mean an author will only be read, if at all, by those of her/his native language. A book with regional lineage get picked up for translation by a national level publisher. Publishers are playing it safe by churning out multiple editions of earlier works, originally in English or newly Anglicized. Chick lit, light-read, international bestsellers and Young Audience titles, besides weighty non-fiction, are marketed with some enthusiasm.
In all this, the modern Indian novel is patiently waiting to be born on some Indian English author’s word processor.
Or bloodless stillborn, has already been issued a pink slip, presenting none the bewitchment of a chance encounter.
Photo By: cactusbeetroot