Why Dalrymple is right

Pankaj Mishra has commented somewhat tersely to Dalrymple’s prognosis of Indian writing in English. However, he has merely alluded to certain facts and representations in Dalrymple’s essay- and while Mishra is by and large right in this, he seems to miss Dalrymple’s point. Despite Mishra’s attempt to list other writers writing in English who live in India, it is worth noticing that a significant number of those who are currently living in India have for varying lengths of time lived abroad as well.I suppose that the other critics of Dalrymple’s prognosis miss the point as well. Dalrymple’s reasoning is incomplete too, while he is correct in his central argument.

Indian writing in English is by its nature diasporic today and is likely to be more and more so in the future. The reason is not only because English is historically a colonial language and also an international language despite its increasing claim to be an Indian language- which I suppose is justifiably so at least for a significant and articulate section of the Indian middle class today. Any Indian who can write fiction in English today has much more opportunities of travelling abroad, for durations long or short. And abroad in this post, as it does elsewhere, refer mainly to the countries at the core of the world capitalist system. It rarely refers to anything outside this. There are occasional exceptions of course, most significantly that of Amitava Ghosh- his excursions to Egypt and Burma come quickly to mind.

There has been a sea- change in the last decade in terms of travelling abroad for this section of the middle class. Young Indian in their twenties and thirties dot the length and breadth of countries like United States but also England, Germany, Australia and New Zealand and even South Africa and South America. Not only has the cost of travel come down over the last three decades but the opportunities to travel have increased and not only for software programmers.

It is not incidental that Pankaj Mishra’s letter to The Guardian bears a London address. Arundhati Roy travels frequently to the United States. Both were good examples of writers who had never been exposed to the West before their major literary works were published. Travelling for short durations is not exactly like living abroad, but the fact is that travelling outside India, specially to the West, does force one to look at the world differenly. It expands , mutates one’s horizons- as any travelling does. Walking on The Golden Bridge in San Francisco or standing athe Opera House in Sydney is different from just reading about them or seeing their pictures.

This is bound to bring elements of what may be called a diasporic viewpoint into the writings of these individuals.

Similarly, and Dalrymple has noted this point well- many expatriate Indian writers do travel to India and some of them even live across countries including India for a significant time of the year.

The point I am trying to make is that most Indian writing in English is diasporic in nature and will increasingly be so. The class of people writing in English is increasingly diasporic. Even if one has not been to the West before being published, the writer is bound to get sucked in to the global or at least the English speaking world.

And Dalrymple is right in noting that a writer with an address in London or New York is more likely to have better and immediate access to the markets for their wares.

And this linkage of writing to the markets is a very relevant point- literature today, as writing in general, is increasingly linked to market dynamics of the capitalist nature. The nature of writing is no longer, say, social realism, that defined the writings of Mulk Raj Anand and many those linked with the Progressive Writers’ Movement. And the world markets today are intrinsically (and not only just) internationally linked via globalization.

I am not sure if there is a pattern in Arundhati Roy moving away from fiction to increasingly political and activist writing. Is that Arundhanti Roy, the writer, or is it Arundhati Roy, the sensitive person reacting to the heart wrenching impact of globalization and environmental destruction? One differs from her sometimes shrill and sometimes neo- Narodnik bursts of angst, but it is very important to ask the reasons for her silence as far as fiction is concerned.

And the reason to ask this question is underlined by the fact that undoubtedly Arundhati Roy is different from her contemporaries- as Dalrymple has noted. However, Dalrymple’s reason that she is not a public school and Yale/Oxbridge educated is only one of the aspects. Another is that she is perhaps one of the very few non- Brahmins or high- caste Hindus that dominate “pack”. Well, there is Rushdie too, but he too comes from a “high- caste” Muslim lineage. The “caste system” among Muslims and even Christians (not to say Sikhs) is well noted in contemporary sociological literature and need not be repeated here.

This is not to state that the origin or social class of the writer necessarily determines the quality of his writing. The ontological does not necessarily translate into the epistomological. However, it is a sad fact that even after nearly six decades of independence, the leading writers who are being discussed in the context of this debate happen to come from the same social and caste grouping. One cannot but help wondering if there indeed is a correlation between the two. Indeed, and predictably in the words of Ramachandra Guha,

For it is how a writer tackles his subject that is important, not where he studied or lives. Orwell went to Eton yet wrote with insight about the British working class; was an Indian police officer yet exposed the underbelly of imperialism. Birth in Brahmin homes didn’t prevent Mahasweta Devi or Shivarama Karanth from writing with searing honesty about the iniquities of caste.

While one does not differ from Guha, one wonders why he does not ask why even after six decades it “so happens” that the same social class/caste continues to determine the agenda for “mainstream” debate and why he fails to notice or comment on the glaring correlation.

However, Roy’s exception to this rule gives her a particularly unique vantage point, and distinguishes her from even other women writers writing in English today. It is possibly the reason, too, for her more acerbic observations.

Dalrymple certainly needs to fill in the gaps in his essay as Mishra has noted. This Reader too pointed to Dalrymple’s glossing over of certain facts. But he is right in his overall prognosis of Indian writing in English.

The fact that this may not be a desirable future is a different question may need a different treatment altogether.

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2 thoughts on “Why Dalrymple is right

  1. Naman

    “This is bound to bring elements of what may be called a diasporic viewpoint into the writings of these individuals.”
    Really? That doesn’t even sound technically correct. Diaspora is about movement of people from their homeland, and as far as I think, it’s associated with a sense of loss for one’s own homeland. How can going and living in say, the United States, for “short durations” give you a diasporic view point?

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