Friday, January 28, 2011

A response to Hartosh Singh Bal (again), and a note on Open magazine

Here are some thoughts, some of them reposted from the magazine website, on the recent Open magazine controversy about the current state of Indian literature (1, 2, 3), and especially Hartosh Singh Bal's last piece, "Does Dalrymple Know What Racism Really Is?"

Unfortunately, Open magazine strikes me as being greatly fascinated by the subject of Indian literature without really being interested in the actual books that comprise it – interested, that is, in literary opinion without the actual work of considered and independent-minded literary judgment.

Indeed, Open's own recent books coverage seems to me an excellent example of the very Anglo-servility that the magazine decries so passionately – and, on this evidence, hypocritically – in another section of its pages.

Consider this: two out of three books pieces in the current issue of January 22 are, respectively, an immensely long interview with the obscure Rowan Somerville, winner of this year's Bad Sex In Fiction Award (which is handed out by a British literary magazine) and then, even more perplexingly, a review of Somerville's book itself. It's as if no worthy books appeared in India this week, and as if the Bad Sex In Fiction prize is actually a major honour that requires readers to scramble towards the neglected book in question in the same way as a Crossword Literary Prize or a Booker.

If this isn't the most slavish genuflection at the feet of literary England (and that too over a minor episode within England's own literary culture) then what is? And aren't Indian writers who've put years of hard work into books that might have been released this week entitled to be dismayed by the magazine's misplaced priorities?

What is most disturbing for Indian writers about this is that Open's editor, Manu Joseph, is himself an Indian novelist of some repute, and winner of last year's The Hindu Best Fiction Award for his novel Serious Men. Serious Men, when it came out last year, was widely reviewed in the Indian press, perhaps partly because – if one wants to make an Open-like case for too much foreign influence – the book had already been sold in other major literary markets and gained plenty of pre-release notice, but also, to my mind, because it was indeed a genuinely good book (as I myself argue here).

But it seems clear, looking at the pages of Open, that the close consideration of literary merit from which Joseph himself benefited, and without which he might have not won the prize, is not a courtesy that he is usually willing to extend on the pages of his magazine to other Indian novelists – particularly those who appear in translation and need all the attention they can get (even if positive things are finally not said about their work) if we are to become a genuinely equitable literary culture.

It seems to me nothing short of scandalous that the magazine should allot precious review space to books like Somerville's, for no other reason than that the word "sex" and a constellation of related activities is activated by this focus, while blithely ignoring recent releases by major Indian writers, such as the great Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy's novel Bharathipura, which has just appeared in English translation.

If Mr.Bal and Mr.Joseph are really as exercised by the idea of a continuing Indian "literary Raj" as they claim to be, and are looking for further evidence to help prosecute their case, they need look no further than the books section of this week's edition of their own magazine. The questions they might pose to themselves then are, for the first time in this long-drawn and unsavoury episode, sure to yield some genuinely valuable answers.

Last, some of the atrocious tabloid-style reports that then appeared in the major Indian newspapers during the Jaipur Literature Festival only confirmed that this sort of bad faith and empty posturing is a widespread malaise in Indian letters.

Consider, for example, the absurdly snide and disrespectful tone of this fairly typical piece, for which it would be pointless to blame only the writer whose byline appears on it. If this kind of writing was merely the result of ignorance and linguistic disability, then it might still be condoned.

But the truth is such work actually represents a carefully worked out and calculated cynicism, which sees literature less as an autonomous entity with books at its centre, and more as a subset of the celebrity-and-entertainment-gossip industry, to be sexed up whenever possible and reduced to personalities rather than works. Let's face it – it's the newspapers (with a few honorable exceptions) that want writing like this, perhaps because it attracts eyeballs, even if for all the wrong reasons, and helps bring in advertising revenues. These are the kinds of ugly, trivialising, homegrown power structures, numbing our minds day after day, by which Indian literature is, far more than any foreign literary raj, tragically held hostage.

My original response to Bal's essay in the magazine is here:

Hartosh Singh Bal's latest salvo -- and his first in Indian letters as a chest-thumping, hard-drinking Sardar, a persona that was only implicit in his earlier detonations -- seems to me to make no other point than that he is spoiling for a fight. Reading his "rebuttal", I could hear the nagada drum booming violently in every paragraph.

What seems most suspicious about Bal's piece is that, although he insists that his argument is more about a larger issue than about personalities, he loses no opportunity to drag the debate down to just that: a wrestle in the akhada or a guzzle-contest in the bar. In his conclusion, he might have re-emphasised that, in making the arguments he does, he had the good of Indian literature at heart. Instead, we got a gust of hot air about Sikhs and Scots (which ended up, as one commenter pointed out, actually meaning the very opposite of what it intended).

There seems little point in trying to refute any of Bal's allegations and insinuations, as it seems clear from these pieces that he's not one to admit that he's anything other than one hundred per cent right. It was only if his piece had been properly reasoned to begin with that one could have had a reasoned debate with him.

I'd just like to make a few remarks about the point at which Bal says, of Dalrymple and Jaipur: "Much has also been made by him and others of the diversity or range of the Jaipur festival. That in no way takes away from the point I am making. In the same way that the need for equal-opportunity employment betrays an unequal society, the need to stress this aspect only emphasises that the people who remain the focus of attention at the festival are not homegrown."

Having been to the Jaipur Literaure Festival four of the five years it has been in existence (including the first year, when it had tiny audiences of 40 or 50 people at most events), I'd like to say that Bal's comparison of the festival programme to "equal-opportunity employment" is not just unfair but deliberately (and indeed predictably) disingenuous, particularly since he has never been to the event himself and relies, for his allegations, completely on hearsay.

Over the years I've gone with my notebook and pen to many of what, after Bal, one would have to call the "homegrown" events at the festival, and profited enormously from listening to Sheldon Pollock on the Sanskrit literary cosmopolis of a thousand years ago and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra on the state of Indian literary criticism, watching Naveen Kishore's film on Mahasweta Devi, learning from S.Anand and Omprakash Valmiki talk about Dalit literature. and hearing the electric sounds of Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain's dastangoi, the gravelly voice of Gulzar reading his poems, and the beautiful cadences and wit and rhetorical flair of Ashok Vajpeyi's Hindi.

In my experience, if there is a space where the festival is distorted, it's in its representation in the Indian media, which reports mostly on the big-name authors and ignores all the other riches on view, riches the worth of which our newspapers and magazines (and here Open is as guilty as anybody) should be doing their best to communicate to the lay reader.

I'd even meet Bal halfway, and grant that, buried deep somewhere in his unpersuasive and splenetic piece, he has a point about the larger power dynamics of Indian literature and publishing.

But if Bal really feels so passionately about Indian literature and how it remains a kind of satellite of the London literary establishment, looking westward for all its cues, then one would expect to see from his pen, alongside the work of attacking deeply entrenched interests and biases, pieces that advance the appreciation of actual Indian novels, plays, or poems, or that champion Indian writers who are unfairly neglected. But the only reading of an actual text that he offers anywhere in his work is that of William Dalrymple's bio on the festival website, one that he gleefully brings up again and again, as if by tracking it all our doubts and ambiguities can be magically resolved. This is just juvenile.

I've read some of Bal's other work, such as the essay on the Narmada river and Gond tribal narratives and artworks that he published in the Asia Literary Review in 2008, and found him, in this avatar, to be a much more complex and subtle writer than he comes across as being here. I'd like to submit (at the risk of discovering that he can no longer restrain his urge to reply in Punjabi) that, in crude jeremiads like this one, Bal is not only being unfair to William Dalrymple and the Jaipur Literary Festival, he is above all being unfair to himself.

And an old post from 2009: "A reply to Hartosh Singh Bal".


Unmana said...

Wow, that piece about Kiran Desai is petty! And they manage to weirdly mis-spell the name of her novel.

Nice response, by the way. I can't pretend I know much about the matter, but having read Bal's piece and your response... his criticisms of Dalrymple seem petty and unimaginative. (Scots parsimony? Really?)

Moulding defragmentation said...

"In my experience, if there is a space where the festival is distorted, it's in its representation in the Indian media, which reports mostly on the big-name authors and ignores all the other riches on view, riches the worth of which our newspapers and magazines (and here Open is as guilty as anybody) should be doing their best to communicate to the lay reader."


Crystal Clear Thinking said...

Well there is some merit in the larger point Bal is making. The Indian literary scene and as you point out the coverage in the media is biased towards foreign books, writers; these writers receive unprecedented publicity in the Indian press as compared with a lot of Indian writers; Dalrymple's piece was pure exaggeration; to suggest that he is receiving excess publicity fawning from the media because he is an english man is not a long way... In fact what is surprising is the amount of publicity the big picture books on India by foreign writers/correspondents receive. I have read Nine Lives by WD which is an extremely ordinary book..but look at the fawning in the media over it; also Patrick French's big India book; all magazines, newspapers are carrying excerpts. Why? Clichéd as it may sound why are we still looking at the west for approval for everything related to our literature and our books?

Amitava Kumar said...

dukh ki baat hai ki hamaare yahan psoturing zyada hoti hai aur kaam kam. i liked some things at the jaipur fest, but the amount of space taken up by this so-called fight made me want to go elsewhere instead. chalo kashi, bhaiya!

Anonymous said...

"which sees literature less as an autonomous entity with books at its centre, and more as a subset of the celebrity-and-entertainment-gossip industry, to be sexed up whenever possible and reduced to personalities rather than works."

1) But it's not just the media - don't you think the jaipur fest also buys into this, increasingly, year after year? The authors that perform best, are not necessarily the best writers. The authors that attract the most attention are not the most deserving. The festival does create a space for vernacular literature and scholars like Sheldon Pollack. But at the same time, while attending the festival, I can't help get the feeling that to be recognized in the Indian literary world is often a result of knowing the right people, dropping names, and looking good.

2) Writers who are deserving (e.g. you and Manu Joseph) get recognition at the festival. But there are also the glamorous Ira Trivedis of the literary world, who are invited to speak at Jaipur, and (if her comments and questions to Candace Bushnell are anything to go by) do much to perpetuate the celebrity-entertainment-gossip-SEX (in capital letters) understanding/ perception of literature.

3) Lastly, although I agree with you that HSB isn't entirely right, and have many bones to pick with him, I'm glad he wrote his piece. I think conversations like this - and spin-offs like your insightful piece - are wonderful and necessary for a vibrant literary culture.

The Calumnist said...

I agreed with Hartosh when he spoke of a continuing 'literary Raj', and I agree with you when you ascribe some portion of the blame for this to the Indian media. Yes, there is indeed a tendency to give major review space to books by Western authors, or authors with Western validation. An equally good book by a poor desi might find no space at all, since it comes without hype, and hype feeds on itself. The hype machine starts when a publisher pays a big advance, but a big advance usually comes only from the West, because they have developed markets...

The tabloid style reports are a different matter. I suspect that some of it may be a result of 'coldly calculated cynicism', but sometimes it's also just one reporter and one sub who are to blame. It is physically impossible for the editor of a particular edition of the paper to clear every story that goes into the paper, especially since most stories only land on deadline. The editor in chief, who is in some other city, is even less likely to get into vetting daily news reports apart from the lead news of the day.

Kartikeya said...

I'm glad you've made the point that Mr. Dalrymple should have made about the unserious nature of Mr. Bal's original article, instead of launching into a somewhat melodramatic defense of his long relationship with Delhi and India. I was quite surprised by his response.

I wish that perceived prejudices were not elevated to the level of racism as casually as Mr. Dalrymple and Mr. Bal seem to do.

Anonymous said...

'Open' credits this excerpt from Mrinal Pandey's translation of Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar 's account of 1857 to Pandey rather than Godshe.

Shama Vijayan said...

That comment by Hartal whoever he is, is absolutely silly. We love reading William Dalrymple. English literature is highly valued in not only India but all over the world. Please stop being petty and parochial. We have had enough of this kind of nonsense in our country on almost everything and now on litrature !!!