IN THE CIRCUITOUS WAY one sometimes encounters writers, out of step with the chronology of their output, I knew all about Vikram Chandra’s writerly creed before I read anything of his fiction. I’d been dazzled by ‘Cult of Authenticity’, the 2000 Boston Review essay in which he undertook to counter (“grind … under my iron heel” is the more categorical phrase he used) the well-known critic Meenakshi Mukherjee’s charge that he had tacked titles such as “Artha”, “Kama” and “Dharma” onto his stories in order to flaunt their Indianness before his Western audience; these terms, Mukherjee said, were not intrinsic to his characters’ worlds. Chandra’s defense of his art was spirited but also simple in that he just pointed to the Indian realities from which this art took its inspiration.
From one writer’s championing of his choices, however, the piece grew into a probing examination of what it means to be writing in a multilingual culture. For Chandra had quickly realised that a rebuttal based on personal experience would be inadequate. There is apparently an a priori inauthenticity in being an Anglophone writer. You are suspect for writing in English and whatever you write in English can only be suspect because you are, in Mukherjee’s view, cut off from “the normal ground conditions of literary production, where a culture and its variations, a language and its dialects, centuries of oral tradition and written literature, all interact to create a new text.” In other words, Indian writers in English are, to restate what is now a time-honoured allegation, without an organic community, remote from the so-called real India. Chandra went on to boldly dissect the contradictions and insecurities behind this position and ended the piece with a rousing call to fellow writers and artists to “ignore the commissars” and embrace all subject matter as their own.
I later read Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), the collection of five novellas with the titles that had offended Mukherjee, and discovered an interestingly oblique relationship between the ideas behind the titles and the stories. ‘Dharma’ for instance was about an exemplary major general who has followed the call of dharma through his unwavering bravery in war. This pursuit of duty is disrupted by a ghost from the past, and no metaphorical ghost either but a chillingly real one, dogged by which the major general starts to crumble. The question here seemed to be: how to combine the objective pursuit of dharma with the messy subjectivity of a personal past. In ‘Artha’, a character asks, “Why is everything made of money?” and greed and ambition drive the tale. But the piece is also an intense love story, its minor and fragile beauties set against the city’s harsher lucre-driven dreams.