Literary Shelf

Selling the Idea of India

in Recent Indian English Fiction

We all know and accept that Premchand is a great story teller or Jai Shankar Prasad is a great poet. But the game of language is such that these literary stalwarts are not in limelight. Salman Rushidie, Kiran Desai and others are at the centre of attention. The obvious conclusion is that English as a language is dominating the scene.

The question arises that if one language is leading, are there certain ideas also that are catchier than others? When an Indian writes a novel, s/he is expected to write about India. Now, what kind of ideas about India sell and what kind of ideas don't. That is the question. Many sectors are selling the idea of India - tourism industry, education industry and so on. In literature also, a particular brand of India sells. What is that brand? In the present paper, we will take up certain recent and successful Indian English novels and will try to study the idea of India therein.

Why do we look towards the West for acclaim? There is no recognition from the Indian soil that the British or the Americans crave for. They recognize themselves. But we need them for recognition. This is neo-colonialization. This is the slavery of the mind. We are mental slaves.

The sheer multitude that is India is both a boon and a bane. It is good that majority of Indians do not know as to what is happening in the elite, English dominated literary scene. They are busy chanting Shri Ramcharitmanas and singing bhajans. They do not know that they have become a commodity, a hot selling product in the literary market. A particular idea of India sells.

Freedom of expression is of course fundamental to human nature. To point out India's follies is no crime. It is necessary. But if we project a negative image of our motherland in order toe make big bucks or fetch international prizes, it becomes obnoxious. Consciously or otherwise, many writes have been doing so in the recent past. They have been selling a negative idea of India to international market and have been earning kudos.

The novels of Chetan Bhagat an IITian are doing the rounds these days. His novel Five Point Someone is a national best seller and is soon to be turned into major Bollywood movie. One Night at the Call Center is also a very successful novel by Bhagat. Critics tell you to read a book from the author's angle and be a 'sahridaya reader'. Bhagat has written chatty, enjoyable stories for young, urban, rich, elite, westernized India. Why should I spoil his broth? His eyes are the eyes of the West. He does not know India. Or the India that he knows is very different from the India majority of Indians experience. He is not rooted in the Indian soil or the soil that he is rooted into is very trendy and globalized Indian soil.

It is interesting to note that a particular idea of India runs through these popular novels. For example, the very first page of One Night... says, ‘In most cases I shared my compartment (railway) with talkative aunties, snoring men and wailing infants.'[1] and the sentences continue, 'The yellow light bulb in my compartment was a moody one' [2] 'Some 300,000 people work in the industry (BPO). They help US companies in the sales, service and maintenance of their operations. Usually younger people work in night shifts....’ [3]

I accept that I am not doing justice to the story. I have simply picked up sentences that project India's image. But sometimes it is necessary to read books, not from the author’s angle but from your own angle and derive some insight that the author never intended to give.
Another careless line from Five Point says, 'A senior named Anurag leaned against a wall. Another senior, to my nervous eye, looked like a demon from cheap mythological TV sops –six feet tall, over a hundred kilos, dark, hairy, and huge teeth that were ten years late meeting on orthodontist. Although he inspired terror, he spoke little and was busy providing background for the boss, a lungi-clad human tooth pick and just as smelly is my guess.' [4]

The conclusions are very obvious. Indians are smelly. They are professionally subordinate to US company owners. Facilities in the Indian trains do not work. Indian women are talkative, men are foolish snoring lot and children are sick.

This is India's projection. Many of us will say as to what is wrong with that. Whatever he was written is true. Even much worse than this is true. Well, I disagree.

Criticism is healthy so long as it is done with an insider's view. Cynicism cannot be good. What have Bhagat and the likes done to improve India's lot? What right do they have to cast their cynical eyes on the plight of this struggling nation and laugh at it?

When Asheroft wrote The Empire Writes Back there was a huge furor. But what about empires within the empire? We cannot deny that we are products of Macaulay's education policy. Macaulay's Minutes say that nobody could 'deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia…. All the historical information which has been; collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments  used at preparatory schools in England…. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color but English in taste in opinions, in morals and in intellect.' [5]

The cynical 'Indian' writer fully justifies the prophecy made by Macaulay way back in the early 18th Century. Nirad C. Chowdhary, V.S. Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Nayantara Sahgal and so many others behave as though they are onlookers to the ongoing Indian 'tamasha'. They are not part of it. They are not responsible for anything, they are detached. They can only give you gems like:

'While in India, you should keep your eyes open… the Indians are a thieving lot…" [6] or 

'The crisis in India is not political; …nor is the crisis economic. These are only aspects of the larger crisis, which is that of a decaying civilization, where the only hope lies in further swift decay…'[7]

So, this is the prescription for India from Sir Vidyadhar Suraj Prasad Naipaul - die soon, the sooner, the better.

At this point I wish to reiterate that I am not against examining the flaws and faults of India. But one has to be an Indian in order to understand the Indian problems. One has to keep in mind at least ten centuries long history, culture and tradition of this land. One has to realize that the flexibility and laid-back approach inherent in Indian soil are India's strong points, not her faults. India has survived because she has the capacity to assimilate and absorb. The innumerable pagan traditions of this land are beyond the Western mind to grasp and understand. A land of tree-worshippers, animal worshippers is also the land where gods drink wine and wear garlands of human skulls. The Western mind cannot understand the layers that exist in India.

I agree that we should not shut our eyes to present day ailments like corruption, population explosion or the impending disasters. But at the same time, one cannot write off a ten centuries old civilization in one sentence. We must love India in order to criticize her.

What I want to convey though this paper is that presenting a negative image of India has become a tool of bagging international prizes and global acclaim. Amitav Ghosh withdrew his The Glass Palace from Common Wealth prize competition because he said that he did not believe in the idea of Common Wealth. He said that the concept of Common Wealth was archaic; it is a colonial remnant. Now when the countries are free from British rule, what is the point in continuing the concept of Common Wealth? Well, Amitav Ghosh has not been able to bag a Booker or Pulitzer. The phenomenal film Lagan was rejected at the Oscars. Why do we look towards the West for acclaim? There is no recognition from the Indian soil that the British or the Americans crave for.

They recognize themselves. But we need them for recognition. This is neo-colonialization. This is the slavery of the mind. We are mental slaves. We, as intellectuals must come out of this complex. We must recognize each others' merit. All that is Indian is not bad. We must believe in this. We must believe in Indianhood. We must believe in the idea of Indian.

1. Bhagat, Chetan. 2007. One Night at the Call Center. New Delhi: Rupa and Co.1.
2. _____________2.
3. ____________7.
4. Bhagat, Chetan. 2007. Five Point Someone. New Delhi. Rupa and Co.2
5. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Macaulay, Prose and Poetry. 1946. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills Ed. New York: Macmillan. 271, 75,77.
6. Naipaul. V.S. 1999. Letters between Father and Son. Great Britain: Little Brown and Company. 5.
7. Naipaul, V.S. 1977. India, A Wounded Civilization Now. London. Penguin. 174-75. 


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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