Sunday, December 04, 2011

Falling In Love With The Novel

This essay appeared last week in The Telegraph of London.

In the autumn of 2000, I was a 20-year-old student in Cambridge, at home in the English language but new to England and the English. Producing dutiful but desiccated essays every week on regicide and gender-bending in Shakespeare, struggling meanwhile with the almost complete absence of rice and dal (“lentils”) in the British diet, I suddenly fell violently in love in an unlikely place – Galloway & Porter, a home for cut-price and remaindered books. Thankfully the object of my affections was willing. She was, to squeeze out the last of my metaphor, The Novel.

As with Shakespeare’s blue-blooded lovers, the vision of the novel I fell in love was inseparable from the name of a particular house. This was Christopher MacLehose’s magnificent Harvill Press, then on its last legs, soon to be bought up by Random House and reincarnated as the tamer Harvill Secker.

This encounter with the novels published by Harvill turned my relationship with the novel from one of deference to discovery. From the classroom, I knew of the English canon: Fielding, Sterne, Eliot, Dickens, Forster, Joyce and Woolf. If these novelists bored me a little, it was not because they were uninteresting, but because they were being given to me (I came to them much later, on my own terms).

But the beautiful tall paperbacks from Harvill seemed to me an alternative canon, put together by a mind in tune with the novel’s own roving spirit, its refusal to fit into neat compartments of nation and language. Here was a cavalcade of fantastic names from across European and South American literature: Bulgakov and Andrei Bitov, Lampedusa and Cortazar, Jose Saramago and Jorge Amado, Antonio Tabucchi and Haruki Murakami, with the occasional British firework like Henry Green.

Indeed, in a way that mirrored my own previous heartbreaks, these were novels that seemed to have lost hope in finding lovers, being sold at a pound or two apiece. From the glorious parade of their characters, narrative strategies, and formal play – every chapter on Alessandro Baricco’s Silk was no more than a page, but sometimes a single sentence in Saramago’s novels ran to more than that length – I took away an impression of a single amorphous spirit behind them all, a grand ur-Novel.

Empathetic and critical, veiled and direct, the novel seemed to suggest a complex position from which to inhabit and interpret the world, all the more powerful because not reducible to a single axiom or method. To be educated in novels was to be educated in many of the dilemmas and ambiguities and mysteries of life.

When, a few years later, I returned to India, this alternative education in the novel was to prove more useful than my classroom education in trying to make a map of the Indian novel (and eventually, in writing my own novels). Although the Indian novel has its roots in the English novel – it begins around the 1860s, a result of the colonial encounter – it very soon branched out onto its own paths, melting into the cultural memory and literary traditions of the more than two dozen languages widely spoken across India.

Like the European novel, I saw, the Indian novel was really a kind of continent; to read in it without an emphasis on translation was to confine oneself to only one country. Among my discoveries in translation was the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati’s limber and anarchic Six Acres and a Third, every bit as powerful today as it was when first published in 1902. Other great books of an Indian pantheon might include UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara and Bharathipura (Kannada), Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight (Tamil), and the Bengali novels of Mahasweta Devi and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.

Indeed, the values of the novel – individualism, scepticism, narrative depth, polyphony, empathy, truth-telling – seem to me to be in dialogue with the values of another ambitious project of Indian modernity: democracy. Both these projects invest similar kinds of trust in the individual, and take a similarly complex view of the relationship between liberty and responsibility. Democracy works through ideas and arguments, novels through stories. But the great novels, like democracy, represent a vision of justice.

Further, the novel’s native strengths seem to make it an ideal lens on India’s multiple narratives and long history of intercultural encounters. More than journalism or the cinema – both squeezed by commercial pressures – the novel seems the form most capable of absorbing India’s social and linguistic plurality, of not just describing but inhabiting from within the dozens of ways in which Indians make meaning.

In a culture where religion and society place vast pressure on the individual to believe in received truths, and advertising and the mass media now pour rivers of banality and manipulation into human brains, the novel is a reliable source of complex thought and an invaluable bastion of independence. For those seeking a layered and subtle account of India today, one very good place to find it is in a journey across the grand continent of the Indian novel.

And an older autobiographical essay: "On Not Coming Down From Trinity".


Ajinkya Deshmukh said...

This could be nothing but I couldn't help but notice. I was going through the labels on the left sidebar of your blog. They read 'American literature', 'Russian literature', 'Turkish literature', 'Indian literature in translation', 'Chinese literature', 'Oriya literature', 'Iranian literature' but uniquely 'Pakistani writing'

Is there a specific reason for that or do I just have too much time to kill?

Chandrahas said...

The Pakistani writing section includes a long essay on Pervez Musharraf's autobiography that I just couldn't allow for as being "literature"!

Suhasini said...

Fantastic blog. I'm getting back to reading after many years and I don't know where to begin - so have been devouring Murakami, George Orwell, Dalrymple, Pankaj Mishra and Francois Bernier indiscriminately. The reading list just keeps getting longer, and I despair of being able to buy all I want to read - a condition exacerbated by a wilful and deliberate decision to give up that day job so one has the time and is not far too exhausted by long hours and impossible commutes to read. What I can't find is a fantastic library in Mumbai - which will give me Pamuk and TLS, and now these books from Harvill Press, which look mouth-watering - do you know of any such library in Mumbai? I'll be most grateful.

Chandrahas said...

Suhasini - I think you could find the TLS in the British Council library. But I don't know where you could find the Harvill books - perhaps in the Asiatic Library. Bombay is short of good libraries, which says something about its collective mind. The best thing is to buy them one by one off the internet, or in secondhand bookshops around the world -- I bought a couple this very summer. And much of the TLS is now online. Good luck with your reading -- it is (almost) the most satisfying kind of human pleasure there is.

Suhasini said...

Thank you! No TLS at the Brit. Council, sadly, but the free content on the web sounds good. Yes, time to call the Asiatic lib. again for a membership - I shall be very happy if I find the Harvills there. When I'd gone a couple of months ago, they'd said most of the lit. (and art and history) section was under holland covers and likely to stay that way for their renovation, which would take "some time". Yes, I remember the thrill of second-hand bookshops in London :), but after giving up that day job, I no longer expect to junket around places like that, and am looking for cut-price shops here, or better, libraries. There was a fantastic cavernous old place called the New and Secondhand Bookshop, but it's shut down.

kamagra said...

Fakir Mohan Senapati played a major role towards the formation of Orissa and the acknowledgement of Oriya language during the British period.