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January 23, 2011


Just read the first piece by Bal... related thoughts, which are however not about the British element at all:

I am unable to mention off the top of my head a single (who appeals to me and is both critically and commercially successful) Indian writer in English who is still active, and mostly resident in India.... in fact I can't think of anyone from a humble background (living in India or abroad) who is still active.

Bal says "What would be a reasonable salary in London is outrageous in Delhi. A residence in Golf Links or a farmhouse in Mehrauli is perhaps not the best beginning to an Indian sojourn, especially when you add to this a lack of knowledge of a local language..." I recently read Aatish Taseer's "The Temple Goers" in which the protagonist is just the kind of person Bal refers to. I believe Taseer has written a reasonably good book without pretending in any way to bridge the gap between himself and "the real India". At least some part of Bal's critique is about writers not knowing "the real India". What is that anyway? Several books could be written analyzing various (fiction and travel) writers' conception of "the real India" and of their having "discovered" it. I do think at least a few writers are acknowledging their own (elite?) place in society.

As for the Jaipur Literary Festival, I could not agree more with Bal about its general poor quality if nothing else. Maybe most such events are about the glitz and the glamour, but that's all there was to Jaipur, hardly any intelligent discussion whatsoever. They invited Hanif Kureishi to a panel discussion about (forget the exact topic) the experience of being a diasporic writer. As Kureishi made it clear all through, he doesn't see himself as a diasporic writer at all but as a British writer. His curt responses to most questions precluded any real discussion. I myself like Kureishi's writing, but it was clear they had invited him just because he was a big name British writer. And if their defence is "we wanted to get somebody from the diaspora who doesn't see himself as such so we could get a fresh perspective", I don't buy it; I prefer to think the organizers were just stupid. As for "literary tourism" (the Kerala quote towards the end of Bal's piece), I agree there as well. There was more than a reasonable amount of "Rajasthani color" at the event, designed no doubt to dazzle a non Indian audience. It is interesting that the festival manager talks of the impressive locales that Kerala has to offer, and not the rich literary culture of the state (of which I admit I am not very aware).

Borrowing from the boxing match flavor of your title, here's Mishra vs. French.

I find it hard to motivate myself to read about these storms in assorted teacups. The one book I have read by Dalrymple (The Last Mughal, based on Bahadur Shah Zafar)was quite interesting. Likewise, Patrick French's account of the Indian independence movement, called Liberty or Death, was a racy read with a fair number of interesting details. I can't vouch for the quality of other books by either Dalrymple or French. The criticisms of their writing, or their blind spots, or their attitudes and tendencies for self-promotion, are perhaps valid,but I don't particularly care. If they can come up with reasonable writing once in a while, I am not complaining.

I am not well read except through samplings, but I like Paul Theroux' writings on India. Where others might see poison pen, I see hints of empathy. I specially like his short story 'A Love Knot' for its India & Boston themes. His 'Elephanta Suite' might make him a target.

vp, did you see French's rejoinder to Mishra's review of his book?

Anyhow, this post got me thinking and I'll soon have a longer essay up on the politics of language, literature, and colonialism.

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