A discussion of Indian Writing in English (IWE) in all its aspects, with a view to creating some structure and organization in this body of writing. About Me
Name: Paritosh Uttam
Location: Pune, India
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Sunday, December 04, 2005
Who's the most authentic of them all? - II
It's perfectly all right to write about people who are not the norm in the society they are placed. One of the thumbrules of good fiction writing is to make interesting things happen to interesting people. Usually, in the effort to make a character interesting, he also becomes unusual (though the real skill of the writer comes out when he makes the usual interesting).
With the growing body of IWE writers, one would naturally expect that the subject of writing follows a normal scattered distribution. If some writers are not comfortable using typical characters and settings and rely on the uncommon, then there should be some who should be comfortable. But in actuality, statistics appear to be skewed in favour of the uncommon. What I mean is that most books by IWE writers are about people who might be interesting as individuals, but do not strike the reader as being typical of a class of people. The character is not representative.
Or at best, he or she may be representative of a niche class. Say, books about bored or repressed housewives: about an individual who can be seen as a symbol for group of people in similar conditions. But there would be few novels dealing with, say, the masses below the poverty line. If at all, the protagonist would be looking at the situation from the outside in. A story seen and told by a person belonging to that strata, facing the problems and concerns that people in that strata face, would be a rarity (I would be glad if someone apprised me of exceptions to this).
Even more so in modern times. Earlier, a Mulk Raj Anand could write a Coolie, or an Untouchable (though there are criticisms that even they weren't truly authentic). These days, hardly anyone even attempts--either due to the lack of a market, or because IWE writers are not capable of writing from such a character's viewpoint.
It is this point which lends maximum credence to M. Prabha's thesis of IWE being the waffle of the toffs. A major reason behind this (as has been discussed before) is that English is not the lingua franca of the country; it is not the language of the masses. This automatically implies their exclusion from IWE, or the absence of authentic IWE writing about the hoi polloi from within.
Another aspect of authenticity to be considered is the bone of contention between the native and the NRI IWE writers. When the NRI tries to be authentic by typifying his Indian setting, he is accused of exoticising. (Vikram Chandra has devoted an essay to this debate.) Writers from both sides need to have a balanced perspective. If a writer describes a cuckoo singing, or the process of making dal, it doesn't necessarily mean he is exoticising. He could honestly be laying out an Indian scene.
At the same time, when Indian keywords like mangoes, curries, tamarind, sarees, and so on populate the titles themselves, the charge of exoticising doesn't sound baseless. As is the practice, we will not conclude without reaching a conclusion. The question we were grappling with: is Indian Writing in English authentic?
One of our conclusions was authenticity does not depend on numbers. Say, I am an abstruse poet and you are a ragpicker. My problem is not finding the right...