Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Things I've Been Reading: Vajpeyi, Reeck and Ahmed, Perur, and Nair

Here are some essays I've been reading recently in the field of Indian literature:

"Crisis In The [Indian] Classics" by the historian Ananya Vajpeyi, which mourns the moribund state not just of Sanskrit scholarship in India, but that of scholarship in all our classical languages ("For...India to forfeit its command over language, lose its voice, forget its traditions, abandon its vast inheritance of thousands of years of learning, reflection, metaphysical and aesthetic achievement, throw away its greatest wealth of knowledge and spirit for want of a few good schools, decent libraries, and spaces for the work of pedagogy to carry on undisturbed, is a shame on all of us.")

Vajpeyi argues that "Without our words, we are nothing", and that we sometimes ignore how we are constituted by language as much as by religion, race or state. Among the initiatives that are working against this tide of neglect and potential oblivion is the Clay Sanskrit Library, which included over fifty volumes of ancient Sanskrit texts in translation before closing down last year.

Vajpeyi's essay ends with a bit of good news: the establishment, through a generous grant from the Murty family, of a Murty Classical Library of India, which will make available, from 2013 onwards, texts in translation not just from Sanskrit but many other Indian classical languages (such as the Sangam literature of ancient Tamil Nadu, some of which is also available in an excellent new anthology of translations by ML Thangappa called Love Stands Alone).

In India, CSL titles can be bought directly off the site of Motilal Banarsidass, the Indian distributor (some titles are here, here and here). Two books I've enjoyed greatly on this list are Dandin's Dasakumaracharita and Ashvaghosha's Saundarananda.

"Manto's Life in Bombay", an essay by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad that gives us one of Urdu literature's brightest lights out and about in the city that funded his brilliant stories ("In 1936 Manto arrived in Bombay; he was twenty-four years old. Nazir Ludhianvi had called him there to work at the Clare Road offices of his weekly, The Painter, and Manto slept in the paper’s offices until he had enough money to rent a room in a squalid tenement nearby — a two-story building with holes in its roof, forty narrow rooms, and only two bathrooms, neither of which had a door"). See also Manto's entertaining essay "Why I Don't Go To The Movies" ("After working in some rinky-dink film companies, I finally found a job at a well-known studio that made accomplished films. I worked there as a writer for four years and in the process slowly laid to rest my interest in watching films. The entire story of this burial is long and drawn-out, but I have only several columns in which to recount a number of anecdotes...")

"Paperback Messiah", a long, detailed and stimulating analysis of Chetan Bhagat's books, his themes, and his readership by Srinath Perur ["Great or not, Bhagat’s signal achievement lies in having unearthed a staggering lode of new readers, people who did not previously find their realities reflected in literature. At least some of them have gone on to read books other than Bhagat’s. His novels, at their best, are entertaining and allow readers glimpses of their lives at a remove. At other times they can send out mixed messages. His columns are far more direct and cogent: topics he has written about include India’s inability to harness talent, a call for a moderate Marathi voice, a letter to Gandhi on his birthday from India’s youth (that ends with “We hope you had a good one up there”) and a call for relinquishing the dynastic hold on Indian politics.]

"Many Vibes of Writers", a piece in The Hindu by Vijay Nair about the different kinds of Indian writers there are, which once again commends Bhagat's books, their direct storytelling, and their lack of pretension, and then moves to a denunciation of another group of writers:
That respect is lacking when it comes to a particular breed of writers who have already styled themselves as literary writers. These are writers whose works come with the coded message 'take me seriously.' And the reason they are saying this and have deluded critics into echoing the same is because these are writers who give the impression of being erudite and scholarly. They are writers because they know their Rushdie and Grass. They can give intelligent interviews and most times what they say in their interviews is more interesting than what the reader has to plod through in their works. While writers like Bhagat and Pal seem to write because they have stories to tell and they enjoy writing, there are writers who seem to write because they have read other critically acclaimed writers and want to write like them.
Among the many problems with this passage
is that, even as it masquerades as a call for a better literature, it actually betrays a peculiarly anti-intellectual and anti-literary stance, making no distinction between those who "give the impression of being erudite and scholarly" and those who may really be so. Every phrase contains some peculiar assumption or smear. It is apparently presumptuous for "literary" writers either to take themselves seriously or to want others to take them seriously. But I would imagine even Bhagat would like to be taken seriously; indeed one of Nair's problems with Bhagat's detractors is that they seem to refuse to take him seriously.

In Nair's estimation, Indian writers read the great world novels just so that they can then imitate those models. But how is one to be a writer of any worth without reading the greats? Indeed, since all writers are only writers because of a love of reading, why should they limit one's reading for any reason, or have to apologise for reading the best books they can? It never seems to occur to Nair that writers might read books, and write books, principally for themselves, to satisfy a personal standard of ambition and expectation.

In Nair's view, even if an Indian writer has something intelligent to say about literature ("They can give intelligent interviews...") this is pretentious too, and inevitably a smokescreen for dull and derivative work that ends up "deluding critics". It is worth thinking about the intelligence of any argument that implies that a situation may be improved if only people would take the trouble to be less and not more intelligent.

What is most telling about this essay is that, although it does not hesitate to applaud particular writers who Nair feels have been unjustly traduced (which seems to me a merit of the piece), it offers no specifics about books, writers, or passages it considers fraudulent or grandiose. Why not actually bring up examples of this kind of work so that we may see what he means in the particular and not in the general? What looks like a show of critical bravado is really an act of intellectual cowardice: the writer would rather not make any enemies, and prefers to flap away from behind the large screens of insinuation and flaccid generalisation.

Just as telling are the binaries with which the piece begins to lay out the argument. The idea that "The fiction of ideas is literary fiction and the fiction of emotions is popular fiction. One evokes thoughts [sic] and the other feelings" is so shallow and simplistic that even bringing it up to declare its inadequacy, as Nair does, works only to cripple the discussion from the very outset.

The slack and hackneyed language of Nair's piece is itself a telling comment on what kind of language and literature the writer values. W
hy, for instance, do writers never just write books, but always for some reason "pen" them? ("I have read the first novel Bhagat penned many years ago...Thanks to the immense popularity the four books he has penned to date have enjoyed...") Nair's remarkably bland and unexceptionable conclusion ("Maybe it is a good thing for a writer to be well read and also have a great story to tell" – does such an idea really require to be let out through a "maybe"?) suggests that, while his piece may certainly evoke thoughts, they are thoughts that others have to improve or complete if they are to be at all defended.


Unknown said...

Nice. It's a pleasure to read through your argument(s).

Anonymous said...

"But how is one to be a writer of any worth without reading the greats? Indeed, since all writers are only writers because of a love of reading"

Perhaps this has been your own experience and the experience of those in your circles. Do all the "good" writers that you have reviewed fall into the category of having read "the greats"? Did Salma, for example, read the "greats" before she began to record in the simplest language what was happening in her own house? Why does any writer have to?

HRN said...

Vijay Nair's article categorising writers into the Bhagat-kind and the literary-kind (and applauding Bhagat for communicating to the common man while holding up literary-writing as pretense and so on) has to do IMO with much more than writing itself. It's the same as the journalist who sudddenly loses a little warmth and asks "So your movies can be called Art Movies is it?", or "So from now you will only take on intelligent roles?". There is deep-rooted class insecurity underneath all of this, and the suspicion with which "literary" writers/filmmakers (especially those whose almost-first language is English) are regarded by the average person is really a translation of the resentment and frustration he feels at not having made the cut into this social strata. The corollary to this, of inordinately applauding someone like Bhagat, fits too: here's someone who writes a novel in English that does NOT expose an average person's perceived educational/social/class shortcomings, in fact here's a chance for this person to take that step up into being part of an english-language-reading community. This is gratitude expressed as applause.

SOB said...

Nair almost rhymes with Myers and the similarities don't end there.