For that matter, who is an Indian? Being an Indian who has always lived in India, I used to think I know. But over the past few years the diaspora in conjunction with ‘international’ Indians has challenged all the familiar parameters – appearance, language, location – of Indianness and introduced new ones. Assessed on new parameters Indian Indians seem distinctly un-Indian. In a crossover but still Bollywood-enough film called ‘Loins of Punjab’ (2007) there is a Desi Idol contest in Jersey promising an award of $25,000. A bunch of contestants – mostly NRIs of various hues – congregate. One particular ABCD (American born confused desi) does not understand the words of the song she sings or the film-dialogue she mouths, as she does not have any Indian language. She is disqualified by the machinations of a wicked socialite who had set her heart on winning. The twist in the tale comes when the only white contestant, an American Jew, soulfully renders the Indian national anthem and walks off with the prize and a lissome Indian lass.
Can this be read metaphorically as the story of Indian writing in English? In a postmodern, postcolonial and transnational context the Indianness of the writer is becoming increasingly both highly visible and irritatingly elusive. In the beginning there was Salman Rushdie, who was born in India – so what if he never lived here! Then there is Hari Kunzru – who one wishes looked more Indian. Our claim to include him as an ‘Indian writer’ would have more legitimacy! There is also Jhumpa Lahiri, the caramel-skinned beauty, born in London, and brought up to be Indian in the U.S., who won the Pulitzer Award that is meant exclusively for ‘American’ writers. Is she Indian or is she not? The annals of criticism on Indian writing in English are punctuated periodically by such basic questions. It is only when the big awards are announced that all debate is put on the backburner; the media, literati, and ‘chatterati’ gear up with statements like “Indian writing in English comes of age”; “the Empire writes back”; or plain and simple “Once again our girl gets home the Trophy” . V.S. Naipaul too, would have been similarly and readily co-opted, had he not waged a lifelong battle against such ‘areas of darkness.’ There is definitely something about international awards that pushes further the frontiers of Indianness.
Strange things happen to these award-winning ‘Indian’ writers if they default on tokens of Indianness. Kiran Desai was pulled up by a chauvinistic section of the media for not wearing a sari to the Booker Award ceremony. Surely she should have known better than to reveal to the whole world and its aunt her innate multiculturalism – the same multiculturalism she criticizes so eloquently in her novel The Inheritance of Loss. But Desai also found several champions that defended her sartorial choice as one that befits a universal writer: Nilanjana S Roy, a reviewer and critic, who has recently turned publisher, observed, “Writers belong to nations by accident and by default. But the only country that can really hold them is the borderless country of the imagination. We diminish ourselves as readers every time we forget that.”
Should we be ashamed of ourselves to want our very own Indian writers? Should we conclude that there are and can be no Indian, American or British writers? I wouldn’t worry too much and sacrifice all parameters. After all, hardly any writer makes a secret of his or her saleable nationality when it comes to book-promotions and publicity campaigns. Indianness is selling well in the global market. The market-savvy Rushdie, for instance, introduced Kiran Desai as “a new child with lavish gifts” born of ‘India’s encounter with the English language” and not as the denizen of a ‘borderless country of the imagination” to the literary world.
The real problem is how to shop for the authentic Indian writer. Is he/she the one who looks Indian? V.S. Naipaul in; Hari Kunzru out. Is he/she the one who writes about India? My God! Vikram Seth is out with his Equal Music and is that Mark Tully that’s in! Is he/she the one with the Indian passport? Oh God! Where is everybody!
I think I will go the Bollywood-crossover way (there is no other way to go these days!). As in ‘Loins of Punjab” I too will look for the Indian soul – a purely spiritual engagement with the country. My prize for the Desi-writer Idol would go to our very own White Moghal, William Dalrymple. In recent time Dalrymple has emerged as an articulate critic of American imperialism and he critiques it as the post-modern avatar of British colonialism. The Scottish writer, his website claims, divides his time between Delhi and London. Not only is this more than Rushdie, Kunzru, or Lahiri do to be Indian; it is also much more in hours and minutes than the time spent in their ‘own’ country by the likes of Kiran Desai. I hear that even Amitav Ghosh – who at one time was considered Indian with a vengeance by the same critics who rejected Rushdie for not being ‘Indian enough’ – hardly visits any more. Besides, Dalrymple knows Urdu, is a champion for pluralism and is regularly rapped on the knuckles by fellow-whites for his west bashing. How many Diasporic and international Indian writers can match this?By Anuradha Marwah
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