Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Authenticity in Indian Writing

Amitava Kumar has an essay in Boston Review about debates surrounding the problems of thinking about authenticity in Indian Writing in English in the context of the recent booker win of Arvind Adiga's novel The White Tiger:

"Since then, I have wondered whether my choice of the journalist as a protagonist is not itself a symptom of an anxiety about authenticity. Was it the worry of an expatriate Indian, concerned about losing touch with the society he took as his subject? To invest in an aesthetic of observation and reportage was to build banks against the rising tide of that worry. I know now that this worry informs my reading of all novels about India."


Some more tangentially related thoughts...

I haven't read Adiga's novel and don't feel excited enough to read it either. In general Indian novels (specially those in English) are low on my reading priorities and further because I have only a finite amount of energy and time which I can devote to books I rarely get to them. One reason for putting those on low priority is my fear and distaste of any kind of parochiality or even "insularity" (to use a much discussed and debated concept recently, after the nobel committee chairman's comment). In my case this feeling is further compounded because I grew up in a provincial small town (that would be Patna in Bihar which both Adiga and Kumar talk about) and not in the "centres" like Delhi or Mumbai. This is not really a repudiation of my origins (which would be purely negative) but rather a positive longing to know about other ways of looking at things, the desire to enter the world of thoughts and ideas which are new and foreign. I had quoted Susan Sontag earlier saying that writing for her was a means of self-transcendence and not self-expression. I think of reading in the same terms too. I feel dismayed when people while reading look for experiences which exactly mirrors their own (expressed in commonly heard sentiment "I could relate to this or that"), this to me is a severely disabling way of reading. Reading itself should open pathways to new and uncharted territories of experiences, only then one can "grow" or change oneself by reading.

About authenticity in Indian writing in English, I think Kumar mentions exactly what I find so boring and uninteresting in most such writings (including probably his own novel "Home Products" which I haven't read either). This is the definition of authenticity which he thinks is some kind of fidelity to the external world of facts and people's behavior. This is a shallow authenticity, it belongs not in art but in journalism. In fact it is not even authenticity at all, it is just another version of Heideggerian "idle talk" which journalists and op-ed experts are so good at peddling. (This is not to say that shallow reportage doesn't serve any purpose but we shouldn't confuse it with art). The authenticity that interests me is being authentic to your Self, to your way of thinking and feeling, to your way of looking at the world and your own self, in short to your own way of being itself. Truly remarkable novelists and artists take it one step further, they try to understand being from a historical and intellectual perspective and try to place it in a number of different contexts and think through these. This to my mind what makes something like "The Man Without Qualities" a sort of uber-modern novel. (If I am not mistaken Musil doesn't even mention a single street name or any such thing throughout the novel and yet it profoundly belongs to its place and time. This to me is real authenticity.)

Coming to another point which Kumar talked about in excerpt above - the so-called anxiety of expatriate Indian, this fear of losing touch with India, which means the fear of losing a part of your self, which gives rise to anxiety which then leads to fetishisation of naive realism. This is all okay but somehow I am not convinced that Indian-ness can be reduced to those naively captured details no matter how strong your "observational integrity" (as Kumar calls it) is. The very fact that the writer feels insecure about being perceived as inauthentic gives the game away. One could of course be self-aware about it and write about the same anxiety in fiction but I don't think these novels do that. There is a lack of self-awarenss and a lack of doubt which goes hand in hand with a devotion to a naive journalistic realism. Another irony is that these writers have left India because they were lured by academic and material success abroad but still feel guilty and are not ready to reconcile it with their new life. Just compare the musings of these so-called expatriate writers with someone like Nabokov who was in the same position in America and you will see the difference. I understand Nabokov is surely setting the bar ridiculously high but one can still see how a longing for lost home and lost past gives rise to this fetishisation of detail in Nabokov but since the longing and the pain are authentic, so is the writing. These sundry assistant professors and journalistic correspondents on the other hand should stick to writing reportage, rather than lamenting about losing touch with real India.


Chris said...

Your comments on authenticity and insularity hit home with me - and the problems with "the fetishization of details" in a certain naive realism are those that I often find off-putting in American fiction (I am an American writer as well as reader). Indeed, for me, that form of authenticity rings not so much false as irrelevant to the questions that most concern me - the point of existence, the value of life: it seems, at best, facile; at worst, morally and intellectually cowardly. Journalism no doubt has its place, although I find it is trying to usurp the place of all the arts, moral thought, literary integrity, and philosophical assertion (the Internet is fast becoming a sewer of the journalistic ethos); it hardly needs to be encouraged. But one expects more of novels, literature, etc.: at least I do. I look for an intensity of vision, an uncompromising aestheticism that sees truth as not only attainable but inescapable, and that forces the reader's face into the filth of life with a ruthless and liberating joy.

Alok said...

beautiful comment Chris! I couldn't agree more.

In their defence most contemporary american novelists argue that what they write is accurate description of the consciousness of contemporary man in american (or any late modern) society. We are continuously inundated with propaganda, TV images, advertising, empty groundless journalistic discourse, so that there ultimately is no space left where we could engage with questions like you mentioned - the meaning of existence, the dilemma of being human etc which I think is a pretty fair desciption of the way we live. The Self as the unifying thing, which is prerequisite to all those existential questions doesn't really exist anymore. It is completely fractured and fragmented.

Is it intellectual and moral cowardice on their part not to aim higher? Perhaps it is. As writers they should try harder and as readers we should definitely demand more from fiction.

Kubla Khan said...

Hi alok

Nice write up but am too exhausted to comment coherently. travels in North India have tired me, like any other country would. when are you going back?
i see that you have been quite prolific as ever. i hope to blog again but haven't read anything in the last 3-4 weeks except The times of India.

Anirudh said...

I agree that a debate on journalistic realism in fiction is uninteresting (not boring, that is, but barren) but I'm not sure if realism itself is a useless form.

('Madame Bovary', for instance. Or talking of two modern Indian novels in English - 'A Strange And Sublime Address' and 'Such A Long Journey'. Though 'A Strange..', like most of Amit Chaudhuri's novels is not a 'straight' realist novel, the way Mistry's is.)

Reg Chris's comment: simply because the meaning of existence and the value of life are his central concerns does not mean that all good fiction should grapple with them. Indeed, many Indian writers in other languages (and a few in English) are very interesting in their experimentation with form and aware that fiction is not about depicting 'real' life in 'fine' writing but their central concerns are not necessarily life and its meaninglessness.

lalegini said...

Dear Alok
Those concepts Chris talking about are not very relevant in fiction writing. Maybe they are mostly philosophers' preoccupations.Nonetheless, in a sense, we don't have realism in fiction writing, what we deal in writing fiction is representation. If the novelist fails to represent the "Reals!!", then he or she is in crisis, or in representation crisis!! The decisive point in reading fiction is primarily to enjoy the text...I mean an atristic work not pulp fiction. You said well Alok about Nabakov. He said once: "My mind thinks in English and my hand or pen writes in Russian."

km said...

Ah, everyone's favorite topic :)

I am sometimes ashamed to admit that I have probably finished about two books by Indian writers in the past ten years. I have started many more, of course. They *just* doesn't interest me. Someday, I hope to find out the reason why.

Alok said...

anirudh, lalegni, km: I can speak only for myself but I do look for those philosophical questions in fiction and I don't think they are relevant only to philosophers or philosophical books. I read an essay on existentialism and it makes me think but the experience is nowhere the same as reading Dostoevsky (eg. Notes from Underground). You realize that those are not just academic questions about rationality, freedom, ethics but these are questions we grapple with in our everyday lives often without realizing or explicitly thinking about them. Putting ideas into fiction grounds them and embodies them and as a result they become more meaningful and acquire more power.

These "well-written" books with "fine" creative writing don't interest me. I want the book to help me make sense of all the chaos and nonnsense that surrounds us and oppresses us and if not give answers to those existential questions then at least help me think about them in a clearer and more self-aware way.

My personal touchstones in fiction are those great Russian writers who did the same without compromising their artistic integrity. This is again setting the bar too high but at least I want the writers to try and aim higher rather than just regurgitate whatever they learnt in their creative writing and journalism class.

anirudh: I wasn't condemning realism wholesale. I was reacting a shallow and naive sort of realism - a journalistic realism. To me mere "observational integrity" is not enough in writing...that may do for journalism but not for writing which claims the status of art.

kubla: welcome back! Hope you had a good time there. You have to now try and undo the damage done to your mind by reading the times of india :) it has become a tabloid newspaper in recent years, not very different from the fate of newspapers elsewhere too.

Anirudh said...

Alok, I am not in agreement with lalegini at all. I'd want more writers to engage seriously with meaning, existence, writing itself. All I was saying was that realism is not dead/dull nor is the meaning of life the only thing literature should be grappling with. Obvious perhaps.

Alok said...

Anirudh, I like realism too but what irritated me in the article was this reliance on topical events and this idea that authenticity is all about capturing surface details. Realism to me is about looking *through* things for some deeper reality (all those great realist writers do this) and not just looking *at* some simulacra of the real world for some voyeuristic pleasure. The *craft* of writing can be good but that doesn't excite me that much...that can be learnt in a writing course. Things like vision and intelligence and personal worldview are things that great writers bring to their writings and that's what I look for.