The Shiver of the Real

Raising the stakes for Indian writing in English

01 May, 2014

THE ELECTIONS HAD ARRIVED. Each political party presented its manifesto. “Health vans will reach every part of India.” “Necessary legal framework will be created to protect and promote cow and its progeny.” “Every cycle-rickshaw puller will be given an auto-rickshaw or a solar-powered rickshaw free.”

Here is my own manifesto for Indian writing. I hereby call for a literature that engages with “the real”: not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past. Like the political parties, I too am trying to project myself to my home base.

The title of my novel Home Products, published back in 2007, was drawn from a quote by Mark Twain: “To my mind, one relative or neighbour mixed up in a scandal is more interesting than a whole Sodom and Gomorrah of outlanders gone rotten. Give me the home product every time.” But the title had always had another meaning for me. It was meant to signal that the story wasn’t for export. It was for readers in India. In fact, when people read it I wanted them to imagine that the novel could have been written in Hindi.

Also, I didn’t want to have to explain much. The book’s first sentence is: “Mala Srivastava’s mother lived in a two-room flat above a tiny kindergarten institution that called itself Harward Public School.” Not for a moment did I imagine that a reader of my novel in, say, Cambridge, Massachusetts, would immediately know anything about the unsuspecting humour behind the school’s name, a name that I had seen painted on a wall near my parents’ home in Patna. And yet, a reader like that, a reader outside India, wasn’t ever far away from my thoughts.

Soon after Home Products was published in India, the writer Siddharth Chowdhury, a friend from Patna, sent me a congratulatory note. He had especially liked a chapter where a boy lies awake beside a couple on their wedding night in Motihari. The groom engages in foreplay by speaking to his new wife about the high marks she matriculated with. She had scored well in both History and Geography. The groom says to the bride, “People like me know that the capital of Nepal is Kathmandu or that the capital of Burma is Rangoon. But please tell me—what is the capital of Mongolia?”

Ulan Bator!

Such sad seduction. If we were drinking Old Monk together, and Siddharth had made the comment about liking that section in the novel, we would laugh and improvise further lines. But I was alone in my study in upstate New York when I saw his message. I wrote back with the complaint that I was still waiting to hear from my agent in London. I wanted to know whether my book was also going to be published in the West. At that point, anxiety had swallowed any sense of irony I might have otherwise possessed. Chowdhury, who had already published his stylish first novel, Patna Roughcut, then sent me a response that I have never been able to put out of my mind:

I truly believe that getting published in the West is not that important. At best it is a bonus and one earns more, which is a good thing. But as Indian writers, our primary market lies here and it is here in India that we will be finally judged, though I do realise that some critics here look towards publication in the West as final validation of a writer’s worth. But tell me, is Paul Auster ever bothered about how he is perceived in India? Or whether his books sell at all in India?

I read the message from my friend and wondered whether Paul Auster had ever heard of Patna.

Although I hadn’t till then read anything by Auster, I now felt a connection. A couple summers ago, I saw a young woman on the beach reading The Invention of Solitude, and bought a copy the next day. When Auster’s memoir Report from the Interior came out last year, I again picked up a copy. Early in the book, there is mention of “the starving children in India.” Auster is describing a scene from his childhood. American mothers in the 1950s talked of half-naked, emaciated Indian children begging for food so that they could shame their own kids into finishing what was on their dinner-plates. This pleased me, but the memory was so general that it took on the character of a myth, which is what, in the end, it was.

If I was living in a barsati in Delhi’s Defence Colony, I would feel less anxious, I think, about being invisible to American writers. But I live only an hour and a half away from the brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn where Paul Auster lives. Therefore, I want him to know where, so to speak, I’m coming from. At the very least, I want him to know where on the map Patna is located.

No, I’m misstating my intention. I would like American writers to read and engage with Indian writers in the same way that Indian readers have read and celebrated them all these years. It is intolerable to me that I love Philip Roth and I also love Shrilal Shukla, but that neither they nor their work should ever come together.

Believe me, I try to do my bit. Exercising the agility of a pole-vaulter in the Olympic Games, I use any relevant detail in a story as a kind of lever to launch me into the other landscape. For example, in Auster’s memoir the mention of a polio epidemic in 1952 made me think of America more tenderly because it then began to resemble India. A young Harvard man, who lived on the street where Auster’s best friend lived, lost his life to polio. Auster writes that, ever since, he has associated grief with the sight of black cars outside the dead youth’s white house. When I read this story I felt a warm glow of recognition spreading in my heart. In Home Products too I had written about my own distant relative who has polio. In my imagination, I saw her transposed over the figure of a young woman in a play being performed at Bombay’s Prithvi Theatre—Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. She was Laura, the beautiful, doomed girl with a deformed leg, and—another pole-vault leap—there were worries over her marriage and her dowry.

In reading Auster or Williams this way, I was acting as a translator. Indians are adept at this. We are good at mimicking and miming, but we also perform more complex actions through which we absorb outside cultures. We make what is alien our own. We are also good at opening ourselves to the outside gaze and we have a portable notion of Indian culture that we carry to cultural festivals across the world. One critique of Indian writing in English is that we translate too much. Not simply that the humble samosa is described as a savoury food-item but that the narrative, like the menu in small Indian restaurants abroad, remains limited to the same familiar items. All too often, our writing is an act of translation on behalf of the West. Where, then, is one to look for a more challenging literature?

In an article in Mint Lounge last December, the critic Somak Ghoshal argued that recent translations from Indian languages provided a more satisfying read than books written in English by Indian writers. I thought of that argument when I was reading Auster’s memoir. When Ghoshal praised Ajay Navaria’s stories with Dalit protagonists, it occurred to me that here was an opportunity for Auster to participate in the heats for the pole-vaulting competition. What would stories about discrimination against Dalits teach Auster? Here, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, are the relevant facts: In Auster’s memoir, we learn that the man who was his barber also used to cut Thomas Edison’s hair. On the barber’s wall was a portrait of the famous inventor and a hand-written note: “To my friend Rocco: Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration—Thomas A. Edison.” As a child, Auster believed that Edison provided his connection to greatness. When he was a little older, in his teens, Auster learned that his father, when just out of high school, had worked for Edison in his lab, except that the job at the lab had lasted only a few days—Edison, a rabid anti-Semite, had discovered that Auster’s father was a Jew and fired him on the spot.

The argument I’m putting forward is a very simple one: Auster, writing a memoir that touches on the prejudice against Jews during his childhood, could learn from Indian literature. For example, he could read in English translation an Urdu story by Bihari writer Husainul Haq, who examines the inescapable dilemmas of a Muslim man in a period—the early nineties—that has witnessed the rise of the Hindu right. Haq’s protagonist is asked by his Hindu neighbour, who has returned from Ayodhya, to hide a brick from the demolished mosque. The neighbour fears arrest; he argues that the piece of rubble is also, after all, sacred to Muslims. It is a delicate story, rich in paradoxes, and deserves a wide readership. The larger point I’m making is that India isn’t revealed only by tracking the dilemmas of Indians abroad. In other words, stories like ‘Jasmine’ by Bharati Mukherjee, about a young woman of Indian origin in America, need not be Auster’s only point of reference. The diaspora story that Mukherjee tells is by now a familiar one. Not only that, it also sees Indian identities only in terms defined by the struggle to achieve the American dream. The back-stories that such characters have are either thin or nonexistent. The subcontinent and its histories are simplified to the point of fantasy. The vernacular literatures in India are better poised to elude these tendencies and, thankfully, in recent years, we have seen a rise in translations from Indian languages. Books like Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue, Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi, UR Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura and Chandrakanta’s A Street in Srinagar have all been close contestants for the DSC Literature Prize awarded at the Jaipur Literature Festival. This is a very good sign. Pole-vaulting has grown at once simpler and also more complicated.

THESE DAYS, as I read the news careening about on social media about shootings and terrorist attacks, massacres and gang rapes, I often find myself thinking that a writer’s task today, more than ever before, has become one of making sense of violence. This, too, is an act of translation. Particularly because a writer often has to respond imaginatively to a report of violence from a part of the world other than the one in which he or she is living.

The other day I read the news of the killing in Delhi of a twenty-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh named Nido Taniam. The tragedy of Taniam’s death was brought out not by the fact that he was, seemingly for racist reasons, beaten up by shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar, but that, as if bound to the wheel of injustice, he was detained by the police and later returned to the same place by them. And there, once again and several hours after his first ordeal, he was beaten again.

Such sad inevitability! As if each tragedy were hiding a chronicle of a death foretold. The news-reports were brutal but spare; perhaps because of this quality, conveying a few unforgettable details but leaving a lot to the imagination, they brought me closer to life. But—and this is the more important point—these reports also brought me to literature. Specifically, the details of Nido’s tragedy reminded me of the story ‘Tirich’ by the Hindi writer Uday Prakash. It is a story I have wished everyone to read, to be filled with the same dread I was when I first encountered it: a boy in a village tells the story of his father’s death after the old man, deranged either by a lizard’s bite or by the dhatura herbal drink he has taken as a cure, is beaten by security guards in a bank, then attacked by kids throwing stones, and then assaulted by a group armed with iron rods. The boy’s story is a testimony, and therefore honest about cruelties, but his narration is sensitive, even soft. The brutality of the day’s happenings is enhanced by their tender narration. The disorientation brought about by the bite or by the drug is reinforced by the fact that the old man is wandering alone, deranged, in the alien, urban streets. The story begins with the tirich but the greater dread is of the inexorable violence of the city. Uday Prakash told me over a meal some years ago, while we watched India and Pakistan playing a one-day cricket match on TV, that Delhi started to change in the 1980s. “I was once at the ISBT”—Inter State Bus Terminal—“and I suddenly imagined my father, visiting from the village, getting lost there.”

I was already living in the United States when I first read ‘Tirich.’ Like much other Hindi literature I read during the mid 1990s, the discovery of Uday Prakash’s story was a homecoming. I read him still because his writings bring news from the new, shining India: the explosion of money, the bewildering changes in social relations. Small, vulnerable people being ground underfoot by the moneyed bosses who come from powerful castes. In his recent fiction, Prakash boldly offers small essays embedded as editorials, as if they were op-eds written by Arundhati Roy in Hindi. This mixed form suggests that he is not merely telling a tale but pressing on with urgent truths.

Long after putting down ‘Tirich,’ I am still haunted by the names I found there, names of towns, streets and characters that are rarely encountered in Indian writing in English: Samatpur, Master Nandlal, Pandit Ram Autar, Sipahi Gajadhar Sharma, Deshbandhu Marg, Sardar Satnam Singh, and, best of all, Satte. The pleasure of coming across, in Hindi, names like Minerva Talkies and National Restaurant! I suspect this was a species of nostalgia, this attachment to what we might call low-rent realism, but it was a real discovery. It mirrored an earlier discovery of mine, when I was in my early twenties, and the discovery came not through Hindi but English. I was a student in Hindu College in Delhi but would skip class to go instead to the Lalit Kala Akademi Library near Mandi House. There, for the first time, I read Ved Mehta. Mehta wrote about his father, a doctor in the Public Health Department in Punjab, and his own schooling in an orphanage-like school for the blind in Bombay. In an English that was plain and unfussy, Mehta made me see that the road outside my house, or my relatives in Motihari, not to mention my Punjabi math teacher in Modern School on Barakhamba Road, Delhi, could all be written about in readable prose—and were therefore real.

It would be years before I understood that Mehta, perhaps because he was blind, simplified the world in just the right way. He brought his private world into focus—and presented it to the West on equal terms. That too was translation. In the decades that followed, this act was refined by others in the diaspora, skilled translators all, writers as different as Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri. They each performed a complicated act of cultural engineering. Every new successful practitioner showed an ability to turn what is local or of limited valence into what is broadly intelligible in its sameness as well as its startling dissimilarity. This is literature’s domain, and I believe that translations from one language to another broaden literature’s landscape. The best translations, whether between languages or between cultures, are similar in the sense that they are acts of confidence. As a writer you grasp so well the specificity of what you are representing that your articulation of it always carries large implications of context and history which make it intelligible in a more universal way. Weak translations, on the other hand, are unable to grant any legitimacy to their subject, which they can only prepare for surrender to a dominant tongue or culture. When they don’t exoticise, they make mute.

A novel that I regard as nearly talismanic in its ability to speak in a voice that is uniquely its own is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. No one could accuse it of translating India for the West. And yet, and yet: On the one hand it represented a successful attempt at conveying small-town Indian realities in an English that was somehow familiar and yet new; on the other hand, however, its own narration cast doubt on any easy transportation of English into small-town India. A character in English, August is talking to the narrator in his office at a publishing company in Delhi, and says about a manuscript on his table: “Dr Prem Krishen holds a PhD on Jane Austen from Meerut University. Have you ever been to Meerut? A vile place, but comfortably Indian. What is Jane Austen doing in Meerut?” He goes on to ask: “Why is some Jat teenager in Meerut reading Jane Austen? Why does a place like Meerut have a course in English at all?” Why, indeed. And hasn’t the relevance of these questions weakened today?

Chatterjee’s novel was published in 1988. The questions in it still hold true but much has also changed. A decade after the book’s publication, in a landmark essay titled ‘Edmund Wilson in Benares,’ critic and novelist Pankaj Mishra went to considerable lengths to answer the question about Jane Austen in Meerut. Mishra’s essay described four months from the same year that English, August came out; it painted a portrait of ruin in decaying towns like Varanasi and Allahabad, their decline redeemed by the burgeoning literary consciousness in the minds of provincial youth. Mishra’s thuggish friend Rajesh, who was introduced to us in the essay, had a past mired in poverty and childhood labour in a carpet factory. But on reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Wilson’s essay about the book, Rajesh told Mishra, “It is the story of my world. I know these people well. Your hero, Edmund Wilson, he also knows them.” For someone like Rajesh, Sentimental Education held a mirror to the “grimy underside of middle-class society.” Flaubert’s fiction wasn’t so much about distant France; it was a report on the corruption common in Allahabad.

‘Edmund Wilson in Benares’ first appeared in the New York Review of Books in April 1998. I bought that issue at a subway stop near Columbia University in New York City. Upon reading Mishra’s essay in its pages, I forgot that this wasn’t the first time an Indian writer had offered an account of the influence a Western writer exercised on him or her. Instead, I was moved by the portrait that Mishra painted because the small room in which Rajesh lived was familiar to me, as was his mother’s house in the village. I had known intimately the landscape of thwarted hopes. But, more than anything else, I was ready to celebrate the gesture through which Edmund Wilson and Flaubert had been made Indian. These figures no longer appeared alien to me; equally crucial, they didn’t look larger than the small people and small lives that I had once known in Bihar’s small towns and villages.

A few more years passed. Watching Vishal Bhardwaj’s epic film Maqbool, a marvellous adaptation of Macbeth, I once again remembered English, August. In the novel, our narrator was given sleeping pills “called Somnorax … made in Ulhasnagar, near Bombay” and there was “a supine king on each packet, with hands beneath his head and eyes wide as chasms.” Below the king, this quote:

                  —the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast,—

                  Shakespeare, Macbeth

In English, August the narrator read these words on the packets of Somnorax and found himself moved by this attempt to find “some use for Eng. Lit.’s most famous insomniac.” But I, on watching Maqbool, thought, “Such glory!” Bollywood has long borrowed from Hollywood, but this wasn’t like that at all. Neither was it like a writer explaining the Indian joint-family system, or caste, to someone in London or New York. Instead, Maqbool was an example of a new kind of translation: it took what was essential about the context in which the original story was told and let it speak to what is essential and specific, and therefore eloquent, about the context in which the new art was being made. In this way, Macbeth came to Mumbai as an underworld don.

After a book reading in Mumbai, the film director Mahesh Bhatt asked me to write a screenplay for him. Irrfan Khan, Mr Maqbool himself, was also in the audience. As I had just written a book called Husband of a Fanatic—an account of my marriage to a Pakistani Muslim during the Kargil War, but also a report on violent riots in Indian cities—I was asked to write about the struggles of a Muslim youth accused of terrorism. But Maqbool had planted a different idea in my mind and I began work on an adaptation of Chekhov’s famous story ‘The Lady With the Dog.’ In my story, the couple meet at Harki Pauri in Haridwar. The middle-aged married man who falls in love with a woman, also married, travels to Amritsar to tell her about his longing and loneliness. The film based on this story was never made but I tied it into the narrative of Home Products because I wanted to pose a question to Hindi films: Don’t middle-aged people fall in love? This question was asked in the interest of making art more real, and writing more meaningful, a way of working out a problem or two I would face in my own life.

There will always be many ways of doing art. I want better, and more honest, and certainly more searching, accounts of whatever is happening in the world. This sometimes makes me a partisan of good non-fiction. The young woman in Delhi who was raped and assaulted with an iron rod in December 2012—where are the stories that do justice to her life and death? Close to the one-year anniversary of the attack, her father told a BBC reporter about how his daughter comes to him in his dreams and asks him if he needs money. The father offered the reporter an explanation for this. He said that this is what poverty does to you. You think about money all the time, think about whether you have enough money in your pocket to take your daughter’s body home. He said this because he was thinking of the night his daughter was raped and left by the wayside. The father said that a call summoned him to hospital, where he was told his child would live only a few hours. “My first thought was how I would take her body home?”

These statements do not appeal merely as facts; they seem to embrace life’s most difficult complexities and challenge the imagination.

In late August 2013, I read a news story whose horror has stayed with me. I do not ask myself how Auster will write about it, or even how I might translate it for a wide readership. Nor do I wonder so much whether the story needs to be told as fiction or non-fiction. All I ask of myself and my readers is: how to keep this story alive? This is what I wrote down of the story in my notebook:

A young Dalit woman from Jind in Haryana left home to sit for a Teacher Training Exam. Her father, a daily-wage labourer, received a call saying that his daughter’s papers were found scattered near the bus-stop. Her body, which was found the next day, had cigarette burns. Her clothes were bloodstained. The police at first refused to register a case, and then denied that the victim was raped. Her father said, “Her eyes were still wide open with fear. Nobody bothered to straighten her curled fingers. And nobody tried to close her mouth. It was as if her scream was still inside her mouth.”

Before I end, let me make one point clear about what it means to read as a writer. Around the time I was starting work on Home Products, I read an interview with the literary agent David Godwin. When asked what turned him on in a book, his reply was: “Voice, not so much story.” I think it’s because of their clarity that I can never put some non-fiction stories out of my mind. This is the apotheosis of voice that writers from Orwell to Naipaul dreamed about: a language so transparent that there is an illusion of an art which works without the trespass of personality. In other words, the voice propelling the story often stays out of the picture, and lets the events stand out in an austere or striking light. Over the hush of a narrative voice I hear the hammer of new truths striking my heart.

My examples above might be misleading. I am not asking for screaming headlines. Or urgent voices hoarse from all the shouting at Jantar Mantar. This is a plea for the ordinary—that it be returned to the startling quotidian arrangements without being crowded into the ornate and colourful covers between which Western publishers tend to put all Indian books. I’m appealing here to an argument made by Amit Chaudhuri that to produce the estrangement effect in art one need not look at the extraordinary—rather, let’s look at “the dross that surrounds us: verandahs, advertisement hoardings, waiting rooms, pincushions, paperweights.”

Here, then, instead of a slogan, is an image from a doctor’s clinic. It comes from a story by Upendranath Ashk, newly-translated from Hindi by my friend Daisy Rockwell. All along I had been looking for authenticity, and I found it in a description of a fake: but this is the value of fiction, the fake that sends a shiver up your spine. When I read it, I saw that it belonged to its own landscape, and yet it shocked me into recalling my forgotten childhood in Patna:

A fake cockroach had been pinned to the partition behind the doctor. Under the cockroach hung a lizard with its tail crooked. The first time Mr Goyal had come to Dr Chatterji’s clinic, both these creatures had looked completely real to him, and for quite some time he had waited for the lizard to leap up and seize the cockroach in its jaws. Even though he had since learnt that both were fake, he always found himself riveted by the cockroach and the lizard when he went to Dr Chatterji’s clinic.