Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A reply to Hartosh Singh Bal

A reply to Hartosh Singh Bal's piece "Oh, For a Book to Ban" on the Open magazine website last week:

Hartosh, I'm one of the authors on the list you provide — a list you judge as not to your reading taste even though you have evidently not bothered to read a page of the work of any. I thank you at least for citing your friend's "strong recommendation" of my book Arzee the Dwarf, but despite having got off lighter than the others — for which gesture I am ever in your debt, for we novelists are calculating creatures — I think there may be a few things I want to say in response.

You begin with the banning of Rushdie's Satanic Verses two decades ago and declare: "Today you would be hard put to find Indian fiction in English that anybody would want banned." The banning of Satanic Verses was, it is generally agreed today, a foolish and knee-jerk action by the Indian government, and India remains one of the few countries where it is still illegal to sell the book. Despite the hysteria and controversy surrounding the book upon its publication, no western government thought it fit to ban it.

So it surprises me that an act of such randomness on the part of a government (and whatever the debate about what governments can or can't do, it's generally agreed they're not very good when it comes to judging fiction) should for you become the litmus test for judging the ambition of contemporary fiction. Had the Indian government not banned Satanic Verses (and this could easily have been the case), the book would still have been as good or bad as it is. Only you would then have had to actually read it to have anything to say about it, while now you at least know it was banned, and therefore is good.

Indeed, you don't seem that interested in quality issues, as if this is irrelevant in a work of fiction, even though you then quickly pass judgment on two "ambitious" Indian novels as not being good, because inauthentic. That is, you perversely insist that the ambitious Indian novels being published today are not well-written enough, while the "quiet, well-written books" — well, you won't even read them.

By your logic, were some mediocre novel critical of Hindu society were to be banned, say, by the Gujarat government, that would immediately become an ambitious novel that everyone should read. But only a PR agent would want to think this way about books. Frankly, such a stance is an insult to the entire endeavour of artistic creation. Our powers as writers are limited to realizing our imagined worlds as best as we can. We are not out to write bannable books so that you may read us, although I certainly agree it's a pleasant feeling to be banned and it helps sales in the long run (as your own argument proves).

Your standards for judging fiction seem peculiarly journalistic, as if all that fiction writers do is report true stories while changing the names here and there and adding bits of dialogue and chapter numbers. "As someone who has reported out of Bhopal for two years," you declare," I know that the person excised out of Indra Sinha’s book is the one who has done much of the work on the ground...." Was Animal's People a fact-finding commission? Is everyone who did "work on the ground" in a real-world scenario supposed to be given a starring role in a work of fiction?

You don't argue at any point, citing a specific passage or interpretative point of view in the book, that Sinha's depiction of Bhopal gas tragedy is flawed or manipulative. Your status as "someone who reported out of Bhopal for two years" is supposed to be enough to support your judgment. To judge a work of non-fiction, perhaps (though I would contest even this). But for a work of fiction? Is that all you need? Your problems with the book are actually a direct consequence of the problematic assumptions with which you begin -- assumptions I am surprised you hold, considering you've published a novel yourself (the subtitle of which was, if I recall right, A Mathematical Novel).

Also, may I point out that it is not just us fiction writers, but you non-fiction writers and reporters too who need to pull up your socks? It will not have escaped your notice that Jaswant Singh's book Jinnah, Partition and Independence was recently banned by the Gujarat government. In one swift and satanic leap, Jaswant Singh, despite his wooden prose style, has become the leading Indian non-fiction writer of his day. When can we novelists expect to see a ban-worthy work of comparable ambition and consequence by a journalist or professional non-fiction writer? We're tired of reading the "quiet, well-written" reports you guys are churning out by the dozen -- that's really not what journalism is about.

Lastly, I'm sorry to hear that you won't be reading Arzee the Dwarf (your smirking comment about "dwarves and eunuchs" suggests that you think group identity is the primary identity any individual or fictional character has). But please make sure then that you pre-book my forthcoming novel Love In The Time of Naxalism, which should be more to your taste. In fact, if you have reported on the Naxal movement, may I consult you on it? I promise I won't leave you out of the book (although I may be mischievous and compose a scene where you are shown actually reading a novel, page by page, pencil in hand).


Zeba said...

First of all, congrats for getting shortlisted! It must be a great feeling.

I liked this post. Loved the way you ended it!

Read Mr Singh's post as well. Gutsy of him to comment on books he has not read.

Good luck with the upcoming book.

Anonymous said...

I dont know why you needed to reply. At least not in such sarcasm. You could have chosen to ignore. You are in public domain now. Dont splurge your nerves on critics. You have a lot to write. A writer's future often gets hijacked by such devious and ephemeral nonsense.

Bland Spice said...

I wrote Bal’s article twice, Chandrahas.

Your point is well argued in some places. As a writer of fiction, you are not obliged to be the reporter of enfolding national shifts in moods and moralities. You can only write about what you feel about most.

Also, I find Bal’s expectation of a sweeping great Indian novel rather na├»ve. The beauty of fiction is that it reveals the shifts in the little things and invisible people – where it sits most poignantly and tragically. My reading is very limited; I started with Rushdie’s sweeping epics – much as I still enjoy them and go back to them here and now, I find the emotional connect I have found in the Ishuguros and Coetzees missing there. But it neither belittles the space Rushdie’s works occupy, lives entwined with the fates of nations or setting ripples in space-time, nor that of writers of small characters – in your case, literally.

Bal’s arguments are greatly flawed and presumptuous – all based on his subjective experiences, one life against so many others, as basis for his arguments with little room for doubt.

In Bal’s defence, when he mentions the person excised out of Indra Sinha’s book, he does so to highlight the fact that since not many people are treating these prime subjects, there is a dearth of perspectives. “Fiction creates its own world, but when it distorts we need contrary versions to contest the truth and we just don’t seem to be producing any of our own.” He does not suggest Indra Sinha write about the missing person in question.

Another point I would like to agree with is this almost cartel-like linkages in the contemporary writer community. These writers, many of them very successful bloggers like you, are the most heard young voices and everyone is linked to each other; they go the same readings, read each other’s manuscripts and comment on each others’ posts. What it leads to is a variation of more or less the same theme.

I work full-time and have to struggle to find the time to read – but I really try. This has meant an immense loss on my social life. In the brief time I find, I try to find anchors which can guide me to read better; anchors like you (since I started reading late in life and my fellow engineering friends do not read much, I have not many references). I read your book and I found the effort you’ve put to understand a reality alien to you very commendable. But I have noticed the silence in your blog regarding bloggers mistaking novels for extended witty blogs, most especially in the case of your friend, Amit Varma, and his very mediocre Sancho. You might say that the universe of books you review is different. But the fact is that I have not found any well-read blogger offer any criticism of the spate of juvenilia which has pored from their fellow-practitioners.

In that respect, I find Bal’s article, however badly-argued, refreshing. The guy might be making stupid inferences (your own review of White Tiger, in my opinion, rather stretched very trivial deductions) but at least he’s trying to unravel the incomplete feeling every time I keep down a much-hyped contemporary Indian fiction.

Anonymous said...

Oh stop whining. He doesn't want to read your book. Get over it. And anon. is correct, you needn't have responded. You just made your insecurities clear by doing so and will end up joining the legion of bitter and unfulfilled Indian writers in English if you continue.

Hari Batti said...

I agree with you, of course. And the people who think one should actually read a book before publicly condemning it. Gosh, I actually believe one should read a book before PRIVATELY condemning it, but perhaps I'm old fashioned about that sort of thing. Anyway, I posted my two cents on the Open Mag. article thread--it's pretty lively over there.

Uncertain said...

I wish all of you would speak with more humility and would desist from speaking for or against amorphous categories. Really, one should not adopt a way of reasoning that one criticizes in "St. Golwalkar".

As a reader for more than a year, I must let you know that for some weeks now I have sensed an arrogant edge in your tone - be it in this reply to Bal or in your denunciation of Brown and Coelho (however justified your denunciation might be)

And if you're so fond of speaking for "us fiction writers" - then I agree with Bland Spice, some self-criticism for the dubious work (Sancho being an excellent case in point) of many straddling blogs and fiction novels might be in order.

Literary criticism might not lose anything by beginning at home.

Uncertain said...

The above comment is not to suggest that I concur with Bal. I do sympathize with his larger point (which is often lost in his polemics) that there is a vacuum of sorts in (let me say) Indian critical fiction - for the lack of a better term. Nevertheless, that cannot be any one person's fault.

This argument is in some sense so futile that I am surprised you even bothered responding. In keeping with its futility, this is my last comment on this matter. :D

Anonymous said...

Your readers are, I must say, an enlightened lot. The comments are of a very high caliber. If this was an excuse to get to know your audience better, well done.

To the readers of this blog, whats with asking Chandrahas to critique Amit's Sancho? Thats a no-go area. Keep in mind this is a shared blog after all.


certain-about-uncertain said...

I love your comment, Uncertain! :)

Bhushan Y. Nigale said...

Chandrahas's reluctance to review Amit Varma's novel (My Friend Sancho) might stem from the old virtue of defending your friends. I sense Chandrahas might be in a dilemma: Sancho is so overwhelmingly mediocre that any professional critic - and Chandrahas is certainly amongst the best literary critics in India today - would be hard-pressed to laud this alleged novel from Varma, which I feel is a collection of his blog-posts and self-advertisement. I sympathize with Chandrahas's quandary, I feel it's unfair to blame him.

Still on Sancho: does anybody find it surprising that the novel tops the best-seller list this year? (where else did I read this? On India Uncut of course! See: http://indiauncut.com/iublog/article/my-friend-sancho-comes-to-hyderabad/)


Chandrahas said...

Dear All, including at least two Anonymice - Thank you for all your comments. But, reading them, I find that the debate has fallen away from the issues on which it began, and it's become much too narrow and one-dimensional. I would have liked it to centre around the question: what use a literary criticism that is not actually rooted in reading, and reflection upon that reading? But given that some of you have written at considerable length, I will try to answer some of your doubts and objections as best as I can.

In particular, I'm astonished at the number of you who insist that Indian bloggers and writers only live for each other, and yet at the same time ask why I haven't reviewed my fellow writer and blogger Amit Varma's book, seeing it as some conspiracy of silence! But imagine the storm, ten times this size, that would have blown up were I indeed to start reviewing the books of my friends. This is one of the no-no's of reviewing (and it's one of the reasons why, I think, reviewing is very much a young person's profession. I would find it harder in five or ten years to keep up the tone of impersonal attention I feel I manage now.)

In any case, I'm not obliged to write an essay on every Indian novel that comes out; readers of this blog will know that I try and read as widely as possible across all the humanistic disciplines and across world literature (my next three posts are about a Bulgarian philosopher's book on torture, an American-Iranian writer's book on returning to Iran, and a Pakistani anthologist's selection of Urdu fiction in translation). It is not me who is trying to evade some issue here, but you who are unreasonably making a scapegoat out of a single point and a single book, as if it is in the response to this that all the clues to what's happening in Indian literature are contained. If you people feel so strongly about any one novel, isn't it up to you to make a longer and more coherent argument about your problems with it, leaving me meanwhile to make what I imagine are coherent arguments about books that I myself choose to grapple with?

On another point, I think the label blogger-turned-writer is (even if true to fact) a very lazy and unhelpful one, and have said so on several occasions to members of the press who have asked me how I made the transition from one medium to the other. Briefly, it takes three or four years to write a book, and only a day to write a blog-post. The two vastly differing time-scales means that any writer who wants to have a presence online would inevitably, unless he has published a book already, be a blogger before he is a writer. Writers need not be penalised for having blogs.

Uncertain, you say you hear a new arrogant edge in my voice in this post, and in my remarks about Paulo Coelho in an interview. But, other than my own books, 95 per cent of my work remains the act of paying close attention to the qualities of individual books, in essays for Mint and for this blog. Why then do you pick out my tone so selectively from my work? Remember that, even on the Coelho point, I was asked what my suggestions were for aspiring writers, not for readers in general. If I gave a strong answer in this context, I don't see why you should find me arrogant for it. I also said, as part of the same answer, that one of the best things to do if one loves writing is to copy out into a notebook the sentences from work that one likes. If you took only one thing away from that interview, perhaps you were only looking for something that would aggravate you? In the same way, when I said "us fiction writers" in my reply, the group I meant was the one named by Bal, and not all fiction writers in general.

Chandrahas said...

Bland Spice - I was very pleased to see your independent-minded arguments. You don't stand behind either me or Bal, but take your own line. I'm glad that my blog has served as a guide to your reading; indeed, nothing pleases me more than the testimony of readers like you. I'm surprised, though, that you think contemporary Indian fiction is a cartel, that the writers in it all write on the same themes, and that writers are unwilling to criticise one another. May I remind you about what a massive place Indian fiction is, whether you take language, time, or geographical spread as a criterion? In the last year for instance, I've read, among other things a marvellous translation of an Indian story (perhaps the first Indian novel) from the second century CE, Ashvaghosha's Handsome Nanda; a very sharp and spry debut collection of short-short stories by Aseem Kaul called Etudes (yes, he's a blogger too, but I don't know him); The Middleman, a Bengali novel from the 1970s in an excellent new translation by Arunava Sinha; and some fine new translations of the poems of Kabir by an American scholar, Linda Hess. All these people are also presences in the house of Indian literature in English today.

If you were to go to the Sahitya Akademi bookshop in your store and buy a copy of the most recent volume of their bi-monthly journal, Indian Literature, you'd get a sense of all the riches that are available to the Indian reader today, were he or she willing to make the time and effort to seek them out. Perhaps, instead of seeking from me a full-scale examination of trends in the work of Indian writers who are also bloggers (some of whom, from the very nature of my work, are known to me), you'd be willing to follow me into some of these places? I'd suggest that perhaps it's your own perceiving eye that's too focussed on what's happening on the cyber-scene.

As for "much-hyped" novels, I hope you will see my point when I say that I somehow never feel much sympathy for people who complain at having been let down by them. Central to any serious reading life is the assumption that you will ignore all hype around new books, and trust only what you see with your own eyes and experience with your own mind, often by reading a few pages of it before you make a purchase. There are two thousand years worth of books out there in the world right now, accessible as they never were in any other moment in human history. If you choose well enough, you'll find that even at a the pace of a book a week you'll read only a fraction of all the good and great books ever written. So don't go about imagining up conspiracies of both speech and silence; look at the bigger picture.

Bland Spice said...


I do realize that the discussion diverged. But that was because your post has led to a wider debate on the nature of fiction and criticism in India. In that sense, your comment has acted more as a trigger for many other thoughts and that suggests an outburst from something simmering beneath.

I also did mention that I realize that you’re not obliged to review every book which gets printed – but I lamented the fact that none of the major reviewers have touched the bestseller “topper”.

The blogger-turned-writer issue is not to persecute writers having blogs but, as Bhushan points, about writers who pass “a collection of his blog-posts and self-advertisement” for novels. The transition in your style and process to write Arzee has been absent in the case of “Sancho” and “You’re here” (to take some high-profile examples).

Please read these comments as not criticism of yourself but a compliment to the honesty you bring here. The reason this debate happened, in my opinion, is because this is one of the few honest forums where such debates can happen. Even though one might or might not agree, one cannot but agree that you say it as you see it and do not fall into the polite silences everyone else does – be it Adiga or Coelho.

These comments, mostly, are not about you but about Indian writing in general.

Also, could you drop in some extended posts on your inspirations and thoughts on the writing of Arzee. Something, perhaps, like Sankar’s epilogue to The Middleman. I would be really interested in knowing how you formed the story, the characters and how they developed, and general gyaan.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said, Chandrahas. Movingly, even.

Abdullah said...

Dear Chandrahas!

You book is good, I must say, at least I feel so-- of course after reading it. About other books, I would not like to comment, simply because I have not raed them. Aravinda's tiger has born and brought up in Bihar, but his stripes are not Bihari. But, honestly speaking, I enjoyed it.

I agree that a fiction writer should not be judged from the microscop of a non-fiction writers or journalist. You might observe that in order to be authentic novelists are fast becoming a journalist, Historian, Sociologist, Pshyicologist,etc. but a fiction writer.

On one point I concur with Bal that Indian writing has synonymous with a group of people. People like me with a Bihari rural backgroud, and without a degree from a reputed college, and who still thinks in Hindi, really finds it difficult to have a chance of fair hearing. The hallowed portal of Indian Publishing in English is not accessible to like of us. It is my personal feelings, and I may be easily wrong. But, anyway, I enjoyed both Bal's comments and your response. I also enjoyed your Arzee book. Wait for your next book for sure. I has a plan to write a novel in the backdrop of naxal movments in Bihar, but now have to look for some other issue.
I the meanwhile, here is a link to my piece writing appearing in BROOKLYN RAIL:

Read if you could spare a couple of minutes for me, and let me know what you think about it.

abdullah71 @ gmail . com

Unknown said...

Last time I went to the book shop, I bought Argumentative Indian and Tokyo Canceled, bypassing your book, thinking that there is so much to read on your blog.
Now I got to go and buy your book before a ban might make it a prized possession.And please thank Singh Sahab for expediting the process.

Anonymous said...

"don't splurge your nerves on critics.."i don't know..and just because you 're a 'writer' let anyone say what they feel like - without of course, reading the books. I mean , how can we even have a debate if the reviewer/critic has not even read the books...( I'm on the list too - and well, my medium/form does not even fall in the 'great indian novel' debate...)But I'm glad you responded - though i think with far more patience than necessary...

HRN said...

An interesting discussion; a thought or two on Sancho type novels, in light of "writers who pass “a collection of his blog-posts and self-advertisement” for novels. ":

I do agree that Sancho is something of an extension of some of his blog writing, and that overall it is a mediocre novel. But I also recall Amit Varma saying - perhaps in an interview/post-reading q&a that he'd put up on his blog - that he wanted his book to reach a middle-of-the-road audience not necessarily having the reading-time/ease-with-language required of most "serious" fiction. Chetan Bhagat says the same thing, that as much as literary critics might trash his work he has created a new audience for English-language fiction, the kind who previously thought English novels were "too much" for them - he has got a lot of these kinds of people to pick up a book, something they might have never done in their lives. (Especially in light of topping the bestseller lists) I'm tending to see Varma's Sancho as treading the same sort of territory. My point here is, it's important territory don't you think? Perhaps this sort of writing (Bhagat, Varma, and You Are Here like someone brought up) is leading to other (arguably equally/more important) things reading-wise in our country?

In that same middle-of-the-road answer Varma had gone on to mention Japan and how someone like Murakami is "wildly popular" there, read by a lot of people, while at the same time being accepted as having value, feted by critics and so on. To me what remains to be seen now, in India, is whether this new set of "popular" writers - having got a number of first-time readers to buy their books - go on to also produce writing of value, and appeal not just to "non-serious" readers but to all kinds of readers - including those who do look for writing merit in what they read.

Saikat said...

Fasten your seatbelt Chandrahas because Bombay is going bye-bye. Now that MNS looks all set to ban your novel for calling Bombay as "Bombay" umpteen times, your book sales will rocket sky-high, you'll be the talk of every literary soiree, and Arzee will be anointed the Great Indian Dwarf who'll inspire short stories out of Booker winning novelists.

ak said...

Bland Spice,

Why would a serious reviewer want to waste his time on reviewing bad books by fellow bloggers? There might be some sense in writing a sociologically-oriented essay on the rise of such fiction in India but since Sancho, in my opinion, has absolutely no merit as literature, there's no point in engaging with it on that terrain. Yes, many people are reading it but so what? Chandrahas writing an essay against it is not going to deter them. Not too many people who read Sancho will read that essay. So all this becomes a dare to Chandrahas to "expose" his friend in public so that he be considered an "honest" reviewer, which isn't fair; which is silly.

Unknown said...

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. -Marcel Proust, novelist (1871-1922)

Janaki said...

I came here to say.. good to see that you did not jump in to comment, after the first thought-out reply (@bal) but saw, instead, the fracas in the comments here. Best of luck with your book.. this one and forthcoming ventures.

Anonymous said...

An excellent, eloquent and pertinent response. You caught out mr Bal on several points quite nicely.
Though what you responded to seemed so puerile and imperious in its impetuous queen of hearts-style off-with-their-heads proclamation..

I would still agree with his critique (of which he does not go unimplicated) of the incestuous indian books scene - that little delhicentric circle of writers and critics..

I for one have written honest, balanced reviews and have been made to feel like the single recalcitrant kid who points out that the emperor is unclothed - but gets gawked at, in turn, as if he were the one who was nekkid.