14 May 2006

Writing whose reality? Speaking whose voice?

In Brecht’s poem Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters, the worker asks some rhetorical questions about how history is written:

Der junge Alexander eroberte Indien
Er allein?
Cäsar schlug die Gallier.
Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?

The answer implied is that when Alexander conquered India, he didn’t do it alone. Yes, there were cooks (and other figures) who helped Caesar beat the Gauls. Ditto about who won glory for Philip of Spain and Frederick the Great. Similarly, women, GLBT and once-colonized peoples have engaged in “writing back” to reclaim their histories and voices.

These are simplifications, of course. Not everything is fixed to or defined by the centre. There have been struggles within the writers’ own traditions. Even writers who wore a “socially progressive” label have been criticized for co-opting the voices of those they have written about. Mulk Raj Anand’s depictions of untouchability in India have been challenged by the new crop of Dalit writers, some of whom, incidentally, are available from Orient Longman in English translation. Orhan Pamuk, a notable successor to Yashar Kemal in Turkey, chooses to arrive at truths through his works that feature characters from the middle-class gentry that he knows so well rather than through village stories about peasants and fisherfolk, an approach that was favoured by Kemal and writers of an older generation.

Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop plays nicely with this paradox. Although her novel is very much in the older Indoanglian tradition of writing about the working class, she has a scathing account of an upper-middle-class, convent educated socialite about to get married who earns fame by writing a facetious novel about the sari-shop attendant who gatecrashes her function. It would be interesting to study how complex this engagement is in the many master/mistress-servant novels that continue to emerge from India, the latest being Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us. A recent sensation is Baby Halder, a "servant's" own story told in her own voice as edited by Urvashi Butalia. Another of our quests is to find the translated Urdu story which mirrors Jorge Amado's Gabriela: Love and Cinnamon. Both are about a lustful master who marries a servant. The marriage falls apart and the woman drifts away. She returns later as a servant and they resume their transgressive romance.

No comments: