Thursday, June 19, 2008

Real Indian Writing?

A House For Mr Biswas
By V.S. Naipaul

I’ve always been uncomfortable with most of ‘Indian English’ fiction that stagger the shelves. Even if one or two of the writers actually live in India, and have not been living in England or the US since their Oxbridge-Harvard days, they are from the upper echelons of Indian society, the super-sophisticated, westernised, English-speaking cream, and their fiction is everything they are. Half of them went to St Stephens (the Indian Eton) and on to oxbridge.

I did not imagine that Naipaul, of all people, Trinidadian, only Indian twice removed, would portray a world and people I know intimately. The vast Indian middle class, people with their eyes to the west but feet firmly entangled in a history and culture which they view with myopic eyes, and with little understanding. The people in Naipaul’s early novels (of the mid twentieth century) are the family I’ve grown up with.

Mid to upper caste, not necessarily Brahmin, lower-middle class to middle class people, who slave themselves to educate their sons. Tellingly characterised, is their pride in being old-fashioned juxtaposed with their pride in their children holding new-fangled views. Says Mrs Tulsi in pg 211 about her son disagreeing with her views: ‘…Owad is going to college, reading and learning all the time. And I am very old-fashioned.’ She spoke with pride in Owad and pride in her old-fasionedness.’

Shama, Mr B’s wife, holds her ‘bureau’ close to her heart, a piece of steel furniture with a secret locker that I’m intimately acquainted with, as it travelled many one bedroom tenements with my parents and me. The one steel bureau (Godrej most preferred) that comes with the dowry and lasts an entire lifetime, how did it survive the boat to Africa and then all the way to Trinidad?

The sullenness that characterises familial relationships, boy am I familiar with that. I come from a people that only smile at strangers, because they feel warm and friendly only with strangers, for whom they throw open their doors and hearts. With family, one is usually sullen. Like Mr B’s sister Dehuti, whose sullenness holds no meaning, and is an attitude fixed by habit, simplifying relationships (pg 326)

School. I remember how strange and exciting my English lessons used to be, how exotic the idea of playing pranks and sharing picnics. In our school, there simply was no time for play. Bullies did not exist because of the limited time we spent in the play fields unsupervised. I suffered school just like Mr B’s son Anand, who realises that ‘Pranks’ were only permitted in English Composition. (pg 403). Like Anand, we had to endure ritual before every exam (He was given many blotters, many pencils, a pencil sharpener, a ruler and two erasers, one for pencil, one for ink. Shama, braving his anger, sprinkled his shirt with lavender water when he wasn’t looking. She put a dry lime in his pocket to cut bad luck) pg 496.

While by no means can I call Naipaul's writing, Real Indian Writing, as, of course, India is one country characterised by its resistance to be characterised, whose identity is its many identities, whose voice is its plurality. Naipaul's diasporic Indians are the most real for me; these are the people, the masses, that masala-movies were originally made for; these are the conservative, ever-suspicious, comical Indians with hearty sullenness, who indulge in everyday melodrama to survive the hammering mundanity of their ration-shop-lives.

I belong now to a new caste (separate from the society from which it has been released, pg 604), created by the very education for which my parents have slaved, like Naipaul’s parents slaved. I can see why Naipaul has been consistently famous for being bitter and twisted, and terrible at relationships. Patrick French’s excellent biography attempts to throw light on him, and as French says, how hard and how terrible it must be for Naipaul to have struggled desperately to move from the margin to the centre, and I imagine, how excruciating to find himself viewing the oppressed, his own people, through the eyes of the oppressor, to whose side he’s crossed? (Emanuel Litvinoff)