Thursday, January 11, 2007

Two Indian writers: similar experiences

In the introductory essay to his anthology of post-independence Indian writing in English, Salman Rushdie recounts how he was once cornered in Delhi. He had just concluded a reading to a gathering of university students when a young woman said to him: "Mr. Rushdie, I read your novel Midnight's Children. It is a very long book, but never mind. The question I want to ask is this: Fundamentally, what's your point?" Then she added: "Oh, I know what you're going to say. That the whole effort -- from cover to cover -- is the point of the exercise." Rushdie was thrown off balance. "Please," he begged, "do I have to have just one point?" His interrogator responded firmly: "Fundamentally, yes."

Now compare this story with another recounted this time by Vikram Chandra in his Boston Review article called 'The Cult of Authenticity':
A woman in the audience, somebody I didn’t recognize, raised her hand and asked, "Why do the stories in your collection Love and Longing in Bombay have names like ‘Dharma’ and ‘Artha’ and ‘Kama’?" I answered. I talked about wanting to see how these principles--Duty, Gain, Desire--worked their way through ordinary lives. But my interlocutor was not satisfied. "But your stories are so specific, and these titles are so abstract." That’s precisely what I like about the titles, I said, the burnished glow of the Sanskrit, their seeming distance from the gritty landscapes of the stories themselves. "No," she said. That wasn’t it, according to her. "These titles are necessary to signal Indianness in the West," she said. By this time, I was annoyed. I’m afraid I was a little short with her. Absurd, I sputtered, I used these titles because of the energy inherent in them, in the electric charge between the abstraction and the concrete.

After the discussion was formally closed, the audience and the writers milled around in the courtyard of the British Council building. I was deep in the middle of a much-needed whisky when the person who I was by now thinking of as Title-Lady walked up. "You misunderstood what I said," she said. "I meant that since ordinary people don’t think about such things as dharma, or use that kind of language, the titles couldn’t have arisen from the stories but were tagged on to signal Indianness in a Western context." I was again bewildered. What I wanted to say was, "then perhaps you and I live in different Indias, or even on different planets." We were standing, after all, in the capital of a nation that had watched the Mahabharata and the Ramayana on television in numbers that had set all-time world records, a nation that had experienced the rise of the BJP and the destruction of the Babri Masjid and widespread riots. I myself was from a city that had been ripped apart by bombs, where a single saffron-wearing man ran the government by remote control and lectured us often about dharma.

But I didn’t say any of this to Title-Lady. I’d just started working on a new novel about the underworld, about Bombay cops and Bad Guys. So, I told her about an evening I’d spent the week before with a police inspector, a man who at the time was working in the criminal investigation department in one of the western suburbs. In a bar, over a beer, he told me about a murder case he had been investigating. He had caught one of the shooters, and then, when he felt he was getting close to the man who had paid for the killing, a man of some influence and power and wealth, he had been told in no uncertain terms by his superiors to back off. "What did you think of that?" I’d asked. He said, "Sometimes I feel that I’m suffocating. But you tell me, Vikram, what is my dharma?" So I told Title-Lady about this, and she nodded, and said, "That’s what I wanted to hear," and was off like a shot into the crowd.

Do you see some similarities or is it just me?

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