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The Literary Slumdog Millionaires

By Farzana Versey

21 January, 2011

One fine day somebody wakes up to the fact that William Dalrymple is a Scot and he has taken over the Jaipur Literary Festival like one of the White Mughals he wrote about. There is the cry about racism. It is a bit surprising because Mr. Dalrymple has been ‘doing’ India since 1984. His work is not superficial; the adulation he has been receiving all these years is.

We did the same with Mark Tully, making it seem like he was doing a favour by staying in our humble little environment and anointed him as an ‘expert’.

The recent controversy has made the political personal and lost merit. The accusation by the political editor of ‘Open’ magazine is that Dalrymple is sitting in judgment and the festival works “not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment”. I wonder how by listening to a few British authors Indians get tied to their establishment, when not many of them are royal poets or poseurs. If this criticism is in any manner valid, then one ought to take exception to all those Indians who take their literary critiques and analyses to British and other foreign publications and expose our India to them. Let us get this clear: such festivals are meant for networking and if foreign writers were not invited very few Indians would turn up. Everything else is a whitewash job, and the white is just a colour.

Dalrymple had written in The Daily Beast, “One of the things people like best about Jaipur is that we are completely egalitarian. There are no reserved spaces for grandees, no roped enclosure for our authors; they mingle with the crowds and eat with them on a first-come, first-served basis. In as hierarchical a country as India, this is rather radical. Last year, there was a flurry of press when an Australian volunteer usher rather peremptorily asked two beautiful young women to move out of the aisle as they were blocking an exit, apparently unaware that the women in question were Julia Roberts and the adored Bollywood goddess Nandita Das. To their great credit, both women moved immediately and without complaint.”

Here lies the problem, and it includes his lack of knowledge of what Bollywood goddesses mean to the Indian. Or is he cleverly transposing a Hollywood biggie with an art house actress deliberately to show that ‘his’ India is not populist? In fact, his response to the racist diatribe included a precious phrase, that it “felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant’s letterbox.” Surely, Mr. Dalrymple, must you do a Danny Boyle? In the other piece he wrote, “Last year Namita (Gokhale, the co-director) programmed a whole raft of Dalit or ‘untouchable’ writers from across India. I was skeptical that we needed quite as many as 30 Dalit poets to make the point, but I couldn’t have been more wrong: The Dalit sessions were the most crowded and exciting of the festival.”

This is utterly offensive. If he must explain the term Dalit then there are other ways in which to do so; Dalit writing and the Dalit people have broken the untouchability wall. Anyhow, this sort of tokenism is part of the literary scene. A couple of years ago at the same festival they found a new voice in Baby Halder. She had penned her story of being an ordinary person. She had to play the role even in the literary meet as she said, “Somehow people look down on a maid’s work. Why are only those who type away on their computers considered professionals? I think all of us have a spark. It just needs to be lit. I will always work in my employer’s house. I find time to write between daily chores. Or sometimes late into the night.” This would obviously be considered newsworthy. The headlines followed the pattern: “From Maid Servant To Writer”.

It is the culture of ‘luminaries’ that should be taken to task for it ceases to be egalitarian. This is the new colonisation where power rests and is vested in the popularity charts. Why is the event being held at the Diggi Palace and not in some less fancy location? Possibly because, as Dalrymple writes, “Behind us, invisible yet omnipresent, we have the mighty engine of the Indian economy, growing at 9 percent a year, and the rapidly expanding publishing scene and fast-growing book market that this has engendered.”

Most of the events are sponsored. When the writer speaks, there will be banners behind that might be completely antithetical to her/his literary and social concerns. No one will talk about these issues because they want to leave that little opening and possibility for their future contracts. How many even care about how the distributors influence publishers? From my own experience, I know that my subtitle was changed from ‘An Indian Muslim Woman in Pakistan’ to ‘Being Indian in Pakistan’. The reason is that the distributors thought it might be mistaken for an academic book on Islam. The alteration happened too late and I had to just go along with it, although each word in the subhead had relevance to the text and my personal take and neither the blurb nor the title conveyed any interest in an Islamic exploration.

The battle of the books is really a reflection of the changing face of writing where often an audience is programmed and so is the author. Why dismiss an outsider when our own Salman Rushdie sidelines literature in Indian languages? Why do we hail the diaspora writing and get goosebumps over every little nostalgic moment in a designed for a western audience exotic narrative? The definition of the exotic has changed. Caparisoned elephants have made way for white elephants and the new maharajahs are the corporate czars. Taking on India is as lucrative a proposition as it once was to write about the ‘fallen angels’.

The so-called famous recluses are, in fact, pushed by the publishers in television ads before the book is out and there is lobbying for awards. A wry commentary in simple Net lingo is on. This is colonisation. Publishers are scouring social networking sites to pick up confessions and these get propped up as ‘chick/boy lit’. Or they grab the IIT-IIM-based narratives not because of their writing skills but due to the fact that these are the kids who will be part of the economic jump-start venture that is India Incorporated. These books are priced low, so they have an initial pick-up and become bestsellers. In an almost vulture-like manner, writers are now churning out books on Kashmir because they sell.

Sometimes, books are covertly sponsored by the corporate sector committees and we even have the cringing sight of some publishers giving talks at such launches. Needless to say, the big guys buy off most of the copies.

Today, book launches hardly have an audience unless they are clubbed with “cocktails”. One pulp fiction Indian writer had years ago, upon getting bad reviews, got so angry that she wrote a scathing column where she mentioned how the reviewers came and drank her husband’s expensive Scotch. Embedded in this rather casual and callous remark is the manner in which the writing scene has been in India. The status quo also encourages literary atrophy.

Scratch the skin and you will find a fabricated mask.

Farzana Versey is the Mumbai-based author of ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/



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