The definition of an Indian Writer in English (IWE)

If I ever made it ‘big’ as an author, I probably won’t be considered ‘Indian Writer in English’ either since I have never been to India. At least that seems to be one of the central assumptions of the reporter: to make claims of authenticity beyond a shadow of doubt, one must have ties to ‘India’ and spend time in the country beyond merely advertising a book.

Why does it matter? So that the Indian press can take some fake nationalistic pride and solace from the fact that an award-winning writer is authentically Indian. No thanks. There is no such thing as being authentically Indian. We should celebrate good literature for the mere fact that it is good; not because it is written by one of ‘us.’

In a postmodern, postcolonial and transnational context, the Indianness of the writer is increasingly becoming both highly visible and irritatingly elusive. In the beginning there was Salman Rushdie, who was born in India—so what if he never lived here! Then there is Hari Kunzru—who, one wishes, looked more Indian so that our claim to include him as an ‘Indian writer’ would have more legitimacy! There is also Jhumpa Lahiri, the caramelskinned beauty, born in London, and brought up to be Indian in the US, who won the Pulitzer Award that is meant exclusively for ‘American’ writers. Is she Indian or is she not?

The annals of criticism on Indian writing in English are punctuated periodically by such basic questions. It is only when the big awards are announced that all debate is put on the backburner; the media, literati, and chatterati gear up with headlines and statements that declare ‘Indian writing in English comes of age’; ‘The Empire writes back’; or simply ‘Once again our girl gets home the Trophy’. V S Naipaul too, would have been similarly and readily co-opted, had he not waged a lifelong battle against such ‘areas of darkness’. There is definitely something about international awards that pushes further the frontiers of Indianness.

Strange things happen to these award-winning ‘Indian’ writers if they default on tokens of Indianness. Kiran Desai was pulled up by a chauvinistic section of the media for not wearing a sari to the Booker Award ceremony. Surely she should have known better than to reveal to the whole world and its aunt her innate multiculturalism—the same multiculturalism that she criticises so eloquently in her novel The Inheritance Of Loss. But Desai also found several champions who defended her sartorial choice as one that befitted a universal writer: Nilanjana S Roy, a reviewer and critic, observed, ‘Writers belong to nations by accident and by default. But the only country that can really hold them is the borderless country of the imagination. We diminish ourselves as readers every time we forget that.’’

Should we be ashamed of ourselves to want our very own Indian writers in English? Should we conclude that there are and can be no Indian, American or British writers? I wouldn’t worry too much about being overly nationalistic. After all, virtually no writer makes a secret of his or her saleable nationality when it comes to book promotions and publicity campaigns: Indianness sells well in the global market. The market-savvy Rushdie, for instance, introduced Kiran Desai as ‘a new child with lavish gifts’’ born of “India’s encounter with the English language’ and not as the denizen of a ‘borderless country of the imagination’ to the literary world.

The real problem is how to shop for the authentic Indian writer. Is s/he the one who looks Indian? V S Naipaul in; Hari Kunzru out. Is s/he she the one who writes about India? My God! Vikram Seth is out with his An Equal Music and it’s Mark Tully that’s in! Is s/he the one with the Indian passport? Oh God! Where is everybody?

I think I personally would go the Bollywood crossover way (there is no other way to go these days!). As in Loins Of Punjab, I too will look for the Indian soul—a purely spiritual engagement with the country. My prize for the Desi Writer Idol would go to our very own White Mogul, William Dalrymple. In recent times, Dalrymple has emerged as an articulate critic of American imperialism, which he critiques as the post-modern avatar of British colonialism.

The Scottish writer, his website claims, divides his time between Delhi and London. Not only is this more than Rushdie, Kunzru or Lahiri do to be Indian; it is also much more in hours and minutes than the time spent in their ‘own’ country by the likes of Kiran Desai. I hear that even Amitav Ghosh—who at one time was considered Indian with a vengeance by the same critics who rejected Rushdie for not being Indian enough—hardly visits any more, except for book tours, of course! Besides, Dalrymple knows Urdu, is a champion of pluralism and is regularly rapped on the knuckles by fellow whites for his West-bashing. How many Diasporic and international Indian writers can match this?

Source: Times of India Goa

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