14 May 2006

Of writing and politics: the coming of non-fiction and urban realism?

"Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters." — Stendhal (Henri Beyle)

Loathe as we are to admit it, we think that V.S. Naipaul is right in criticizing “the exaltation of the familial” and the trivial in recent desi fiction. So much for Fredric Jameson's much-exploded thesis that all third-world literatures have a public aspect and ought to be considered "national allegories."

Think of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Orhan Pamuk, Nuruddin Farah, Tayeb Salih, Sembene Ousmane, Hanan al-Shaykh, Abdelrahman Munif, Emile Habiby, Dai Sijie, Álvaro Mutis, and many other African, east and west Asian and new Latin American writers, all rooted in politics. Which desi writers come to mind right now? Taslima Nasreen, Vikram Chandra, and Siddhartha Deb in India and Amitav Ghosh, Vassanji, Rushdie, again to a certain extent, Mistry, maybe, in Europe or North America. We know that there are some excellent Dalit writers and probably equally good work in Indian languages other than English but what has happened to the new crop of Indoanglian fiction?

Let's face it: huge advances have been paid for what are really silly books. One longs for some substance, even a little grit, under all this newly churned froth. It appears that the booming economy's completely changed consumers' value of books. Reading has been reduced to a leisure activity which demands nothing more than escapist and poorly constructed bollywood melodramas about TV shows, mystics, call centres, cello playing, romance and arranged marriages. (The writer-friend who read Seth’s An Equal Music said “ah, one could make a novel out of this.”)

Amitav Ghosh thinks that fiction is holistic with its own totality. We know that the range of reading is expanding in India to include all sorts of interests but the novels that continue to command attention are somewhat denatured, depoliticized works. What has led to such pretence and an avoidance of serious issues in fiction from India which has seen the Bhopal tragedy, the 1984 pogrom of Sikhs, the post-Babri Masjid violence, the Bombay riots, and the Gujarat massacres and many other depredations?

You'd think that academicians would be tired of it too but we haven't seen much criticism. OK, we exaggerate a little but aren't we in danger of losing our idealism and belief in a better world to the point where the latest Maruti is more important than anything else? We need a profile of the reader. Who has time to read them? Who demands these books? Who refuses to publish political fiction? Who bothers to write them? Even more troubling for a blogger, why bother to write about them?

A formal consequence. Fact and fiction go together as writers contest reality. With the advent of urbanization in India, it’s unsurprising that the village story is no longer the commonplace form. At best, it's been replaced by more imaginative types of story telling. However, magic realism is already becoming a museum piece in Latin America, unsurprisingly at a time when the region is turning politically to the left. It'll be interesting to see if Indian fiction makes the same shifts to urban realism. Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop is an exception but I am not sure if it will start a trend towards a less bauble-ridden reality.

Maybe it was a sign when Arundhati Roy chose to give up writing novels. The upside to all this is that Indian non-fiction is making great strides. Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Amitava Kumar, Amartya Sen, Pankaj Mishra and Roy (although her critics allege that she is still writing fiction) are all thinkers worth reading but we are hoping for a sea change in Indoanglian fiction.

No comments: