Literary questions

It’s no secret that Amitav Ghosh is one of my favorite writers (not just Indian favorite writer). So on a Sunday morning I checked the Hindu Literary Review (which is another favorite of mine) and there was this Ghosh interview, I had to read it. The interview probably deserves a blog on its own, but what got me more interested is a reference about “Anxiety of Authenticity”. So I dig it up, and there it was: Vikram Chandra’s piece entitled, The Cult of Authenticity.

Some time back I wrote a blog, The Unintentional Exoticising, that tried to do a Devil’s advocate, or rather sympathized with another Devil’s advocate. At that time I wasn’t aware of this Vikram Chandra piece, or I wouldn’t have bothered writing that blog. True, the piece is slightly (?) long and repetitive and even polemic in nature — the last kind of inevitable after the barrages from the other side, yet it is a much needed voice from that side — the voice that we need hear a tad more often, to compensate for the noises from the other side of the other side.

Chandra talks about this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” predicament of the Anglo-Indian writers, a vernacular as pure Vs english as impure generalization, identities of cosmopolitan Indian writers, futility of notions of Indianness and authenticity and so on. The issues of “intent” are covert, but they interest me, always:

It apparently never occurs to Dr. Mukherjee that style is something that one feels in the pit of the stomach, that Narayan may be interested in a minimalistic representation because it grows from the marrow of his Malgudi bones, that perhaps when Narayan sits down at his desk with his pen and his paper, he is not thinking of his pan-Indian or international audience, not any more than Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver were thinking of their audiences in Ghaziabad and Vishakapatnam when they chiselled their laconic turns of phrase. But no, in this understanding of the universe, to write in English is to be transparently vulnerable to the demands of the market, any market. And conversely, to write in anything but English is to be preternaturally chaste and upright.

It’s a pity that the essay is so long that one is prone to jump forward just when he actually delivers the punch.

All art is born at this crossroads of ambition and integrity, between the fierce callings of fame and the hungers of the belly and the desires of one’s children and the necessities of art and truth. Michelangelo knew this, and Ghalib knew this. There is no writer in India, or in the world, no artist anywhere who is free of this eternal chakravyuha, this whirling circle that is life itself.

And while he’s at it, he even questions the questioners motives:

… the most vociferously anti-Western crusaders I meet are inevitably the ones who are most hybrid. It is these comfortably situated citizens, these Resident Non-Indians, who, beset by a consciousness of their own isolation from “Real India,” feel an overpowering nostalgia for an Indianness that never was, for a mythical, paradisaical lost garden of cultural and spiritual unity…

Intent again, albeit through a excerpt by Jorge Luis Borges, who ends up dismissing intent as insignificant in the larger scheme of things:

I believe, moreover, that all the foregoing discussions of the aims of literary creation are based on the error of supposing that intentions and plans matter much…. Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask. I believe that if we lose ourselves in the voluntary dream called artistic creation, we will be Argentine and we will be, as well, good or adequate writers.

And Chandra chips in with this fabulous one-liner:

To be self-consciously anti-exotic is also to be trapped, to be censored.

In the end Chandra asks, “How should a writer work, in these circumstances?” and comes up with his own answer: ignore criticism, beware of praise, write freely, don’t think about either audience or critics, be local and global at the same time, be fearless, and most of all covet the goddess, of good writing. The answer couldn’t have been more difficult.


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