The Unintentional Exoticising

Thoughts on and around “On strangeness in Indian writing” by Amit Chaudhuri (Hindu Literary Review Oct 2, 2005)

The Hindu is still leagues apart from anything else that you get delivered to your doorstep under the category of Newspaper. Sometimes I think the categorization is wrong, or at least clubbing of Hindu with other excuses of daily publications are wrong. Hindu’s Literary Review, for instance is, in my knowledge the most sweeping tour of the literary landscapes – Indian and otherwise, that you’d find in any Indian publication.

It’s in there that I stumbled upon On strangeness in Indian Writing — Amit Chaudhuri’s immensely thought-provoking review centered around Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri. On the onset, let me say that I’ve not read the book (a sequence of poems) or had never heard about it, despite Kolatkar being a Marathi (bilingual) writer. But I’m aware of Jejuri — the religious town (of the deity Khandoba) — that’s the setting of the poem(s).

Using the work itself and reactions to it (including an essay about Indian writing in general by Bhalchandra Nemade, a distinguished Marathi writer) Chaudhuri opens up a sensitive topic.

Chaudhuri touches a raw nerve when he says:

In India, where, ever since Said’s Orientalism, the “exotic” has been at the centre of almost every discussion, serious or frivolous, on Indian writing in English (tirelessly expressing itself in the question, “Are you exoticising your subject for a Western audience?”), the aesthetics of estrangement, of foreignness, in art have been reduced to, and confused with, the politics of cultural representation. And so, the notion of the exotic is used by lay reader and critic alike with the sensitivity of a battering ram to demolish, in one blow, both the perceived act of bad faith and the workings of the unfamiliar.

I think this is the dilemma that most writers of our generation will have to contend with. It’s the tightrope walk between unintentional exoticizing — a result of urban upbringing, which makes some of the writers as much aliens to the subject matters, as an Indian living outside India or even a non-Indian — and forced agreement. But when we stop dissenting, in the fear of exotifying, we are not honest to ourselves. So Kolatkar’s outsider (to Jejuri, and the culture that surrounds it) has as much right to be as the insiders. In the days of post-colonization, these outsiders, these recluses are torn between a world they can’t relate to and a world that they can but don’t want to elope into.

Then he raises the subject of the intended audience. It’s another dimension of this same tightrope walk. Can you not legitimately write for a fringe — provided you don’t exotify for the covert gains (acceptance by the foreign readership and critics, who want a certain idea of India reinforced?). For instance Nemade 1 asks: (quoting from Chaudhuri’s essay with the context)

“An Indo-Anglian writer looks upon his society only for supply of raw material to English i.e. foreign readership.” He mentions three instances of what, for him, are acts of “aesthetic and ethical” betrayal: Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Narayan’s The Guide, and Kolatkar’s Jejuri. And the now-familiar question, still relatively fresh in 1985, is asked and sardonically answered: “What kind of audience do these writers keep in mind while writing? Certainly not the millions of Indians who are `unknown’ who visit Jejuri every year as a traditional ritual… “

But what does Kolatkar have to offer to those millions of Indians? And if he doesn’t wouldn’t it be counter-productive trying to say things that one doesn’t know? And for every such millions there are at least a hundred urban Indians who Kolatkar can talk to, only in English. How does talking to them instead of the millions constitute an act of treason? In all fairness, I must read Jejuri first to judge Nemade. But then there are questions which spring to your mind without the inner judge’s consent.

The essay goes on raising many such pertinent questions in reader’s mind.

In fact, estrangement becomes, once more, a form of cultural distance, and the notes a narrative about alienation; a narrative, indeed, of semi-articulate but deep undecidedness and uncertainty about what constitutes, in language, poetic wonder, citizenship, nationhood, and in what ways these categories are in tension with one another.

or

But surely there’s a third level in the poem, in which a significance is ascribed to the mundane, the superfluous, that can’t be pinned down to religious belief; and it’s this level that Jayakar herself finds inaccessible, or refuses, for the moment, to participate in.

And then we’re back at the exoticism vs defamiliarisation — the following is very very jargony, but the point that it is making is worth mulling over:

I think Jayakar’s and Nemade’s response to the superfluous and random particular in Jejuri (comparable, in some ways, to the impatience Satyajit Ray’s contemporaries felt with the everyday in his films) is symptomatic, rather than atypical, of a certain kind of post-independence critical position, which obdurately conflates the defamiliarisation of the ordinary with the commodification of the native. With the enlargement of the discourse of post-coloniality in the last two decades, the critical language with which to deal with defamiliarisation has grown increasingly attenuated, while the language describing the trajectory of the East as a career has become so ubiquitous that, confronted with a seemingly mundane but irreducible particular in a text, the reader or the member of the audience will almost automatically ask: “Are you exoticising your subject for Western readers?”

All in all a very gripping read, the essay itself. Now it’s time for me to go hunt Jejuri.

***
1. Nemade got into limelight due to his Marathi book Kosla which I’ve read. Curiously, Kosla is inspired from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and is sort of an Indianized version of the book — where the protagonist, a loser of sorts, struggles at coming to terms with the way the society around him is. He has done a brilliant job of localizing the angst. But then isn’t this parroting of sorts too? How does this parroting become more acceptable?

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5 thoughts on “The Unintentional Exoticising

  1. anonymous says:

    Dunno if I quite understood everything that was being said.

    Perhaps I’m being unbelievably naive, but I do believe writers write because they have an urge to write about something that has touched a deep chord within them. I’d like to think that the audience being mainstream or fringe has little to do with the actual writing. However, I don’t think being market-savvy is a bad thing.

    There will always be the players to the gallery and the true performers. The latter will stand the test of time because they are true to themselves and in what they speak/write.

    ano

  2. anonymous says:

    “In fact, estrangement becomes, once more, a form of cultural distance, and the notes a narrative about alienation; a narrative, indeed, of semi-articulate but deep undecidedness and uncertainty about what constitutes, in language, poetic wonder, citizenship, nationhood, and in what ways these categories are in tension with one another.”

    Asuph,

    First, have to agree with you and say that the literary reviews in ‘The Hindu’ newspaper are quite
    interesting reads!

    This particular review by Amit Chaudhuri and your thoughts on them.. seem remarkably intense and deep! For me, the lines above capture express the essence of the “tension and conflict” which ‘native’ writers face..so well.

    I am not sure if these are ‘conscious or subconsious’ conflicts ..and therefore the writings may be seen as unintentional exoticising(to me, anyway!)and it is difficult to judge them…perhaps only the writers themselves can give us some clarity about what were the intentions behind them!
    No matter what the intentions maybe, in the end- the uniqueness of the writer’s style, originality of content and the passion with which they are expressed is what makes it appealing (to me anyway!)

    Maria

  3. asuph says:

    Ano..

    Perhaps I’m being unbelievably naive, but I do believe writers write because they have an urge to write about something that has touched a deep chord within them.

    I think writing, like any professions, has it’s temptations. So a writer might write for fame, sell-out, be pressurised…

    I’d like to think that the audience being mainstream or fringe has little to do with the actual writing.

    Actual writing? Real writing? Yes. Then it becomes circular. I agree that this is how it “should” be. but is it?

    However, I don’t think being market-savvy is a bad thing.

    Keeping the normative evaluation apart, if you use your knowledge of a native culture to ridicule it, for you know there is a market for that, that’s an act of treason. But I was merely questioning if it’s right to “decide” someone is doing that just because s/he “ended up” exotifying it? It’s the intentional vs. unintentional exotifying that I wanted differentiated (and i belive so does the reviewer).

    regards,
    asuph

  4. asuph says:

    maria, thanks for the comments…

    .. perhaps only the writers themselves can give us some clarity about what were the intentions behind them!

    yes. in the absence of that knowledge (i.e. in the real world ;)) we’re left with guessing… and it’s always risky to guess motives. more so to assume our guesses are right…

    -asuph.

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