Desi Names in Firangi Lands

William Dalrymple writes on why the best desi writing is likely to come from the diaspora rather than those from the country itself. Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Misra, probably the two significant examples of those with no experience in living in the West, have practically given up writing fiction. Dalrymple also comments on the overall decline of writing in India, with slight and scattered exceptions in the regional languages.

…one tends to meet far more Indian writers in English at the literary festival of Hay-on-Wye, deep in the Welsh countryside, or Edinburgh or even Sydney, than one ever does in Delhi. For a place supposed to be at the eye of the postcolonial literary hurricane, it is all a little, well, peaceful.

This is a huge contrast to the situation during the last great literary renaissance in the city, 150 years ago. Farhatullah Baig’s Dehli ki Akhri Shama, The Last Musha’irah of Dehli is a fictionalised account of what purports to be the last great mushairah or poetic symposium held in Delhi under the patronage of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar: around a courtyard sit several poet princes of the royal house, as well as 40 other Delhi poets, including Azurda, Momin, Arif, Bedil, Azad, Dagh, Sehbai, Shefta, Mir and Ghalib himself. Much of the detail of this mushairah may have been invented, but this stellar gathering of poetic talent could have happened. In a Delhi whose population was then little more 100,000, you could still find a gathering of 45 poets, at least 10 of whom are still widely read and admired today.

Nor was this just an elite pursuit: The Garden of Poetry, a collection of Urdu verse (or tazkirah) published in 1850, contains no less than 53 poets from Delhi who range from the emperor and members of his family to a poor water-seller in Chandni Chowk, a merchant in Panjabi Katra, a young wrestler, a courtesan and a barber. Seth and Lahiri may have a more international audience than Momin or Mir Taqi Mir ever did; but one can’t help thinking that, at least as far as Delhi is concerned, something has been lost in the trade-off.

Darlymple ignores the literary renaissance of the 20th century- the one that included Urdu, Hindi, Bangla, Malyali, Marathi and a host of other regional languages and also the one that came to be closely conglomerated around IPTA and the Progressive Writers’ Movement. It started around 1930s when the Left ward swerve to Indian politics came after the Civil Disobedience Movement and continued till the 1970s. There was little Indian writing in English then, which bubbled really post- 1980s and burst about five years back, around the same time as the dot com burst.


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