The Cosmopolitan Critic

Anjum Hasan, Nakul Krishna, Saikat Majumdar and Pratab Bhanu Mehta on Amit Chaudari's Clearing A Space

01 January 2013

IS THERE SUCH A THING as modern Indian literature? Outside the Government of India model, it is not obvious what the answer to this question is. This model renders literature no different from any other resource—something to be correctly tabulated and evenly distributed. The earnestness with which the scope of literature—the number of languages in which we write, say, or the extent to which we write in each language—is measured via this approach is matched only by its dullness. For, once it has been reckoned in these deeply material terms, literature loses its shine and, as importantly, its edge. The immense goal of giving fair representation to multilingual literary production overwhelms the possibility of reading through lenses other than those of language, race and geography. In the shadow of this model, literature becomes bureaucratic, not personal; literal rather than subtle; momentous, because it symbolises the nation; and subservient, ultimately, to a dream of justice rather than an idea of truth.

Neither is it easy to find answers to my opening question in the daily commerce of the literary world. One usually feels let down by the either celebratory or peremptory tone in which literature is discussed in this country. It is by now well established that we are either conquering the world as Indian writers or betraying the nation by writing in English. A third, equally dead-end stance, which has percolated down from the academy, tends to see literature as illustrative of theory rather than seeing theory as a status quo that fiction might seek to subvert or question. Each new creative work, in this scheme, only confirms an already verified, even jaded, truth to do with our postcolonial history, our cultural identity, or our choice of language.

Reinforcing this milieu is not just an uncritical use of language but a licentiousness with it that allows us to wield words and use terms without taking responsibility for the ideas underlying them. These terms are often strangely moralist; readers try to determine the value of Indian English fiction not, for instance, by asking how this fiction communicates its meanings to them, but by asking whether it has been written to please specific privileged audiences, to exoticise India, or to depict worlds of which the writers are not certified members. Representation is another idea that bedevils us—not curiosity about how one represents a particular social world, but anxiety over whether our writing does justice to the poor, the lower castes, women, the neglected regions of the country, and so on.

Anjum Hasan Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: tradition novel postcolonialism Amit Chaudhuri Indian Literature modernity Aesthetics