“You should write a novel,” the husband of an old English friend remarked to me over a drink at the Groucho Club some ten years ago, “With a name like yours you could even win the Booker Prize.” Being a successful cartoonist with an impish ability to extrapolate the absurd, his aside was remarkably prescient. As the Bangladesh-born Monica Ali joins the impressive list of south Asians to hit the Booker circuit, it is conventional wisdom that London’s ethnic experience makes good literature and even better commerce. So unlike 1958, when a struggling V.S. Naipaul lamented the difficulties “for the exotic writer to get his work accepted as being more than something exotic, something to be judged on its merits”.
To Naipaul, the secret of success lay in “Finding the Centre”, a euphemism for securing a prominent place on the display table of the Waterstone’s branch in Surbiton and Salisbury. It meant transcending the tyranny of subtitles at the ICA and the sectarian adulation of a concerned BlackWriters’ Collective meet in a Vauxhall community centre. It meant discarding the tag of ethnicity, the proportional representation inherent in contemporary multiculturalism and being truly accepted. Sans that most devastating of all put-downs, condescension.
Not that Naipaul is an over-colonized oddity. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane may be centred on the grim lives of the Bangladeshi underclass in Tower Hamlets, an experience she has been personally a few steps removed from. However, even she was anxious to be spared the slightly dubious honour of being perceived as an authentic voice of the tower blocks, sweat shops and bad curry houses. An Oxford graduate of mixed parentage and married to a middle-class white professional, she has been careful to delineate her first novel from the indifferent protest literature that once emanated from the ethnic ghettos of Britain.
The metaphorical bleaching of Monica Ali was a considered marketing strategy. When The Guardian — “the mouthpiece of infuriating sanctimoniousness” — nominated one Maya Jaggi, a literary critic of Asian origin, to write her profile, she apparently balked. Her publicist wrote to the newspaper that Monica “feels that Black and Asian writers are often talked about and presented solely in terms of their race, whereas she would like to be seen as a writer who is naturally concerned about issues surrounding race, but would also like to be seen and judged as an interesting writer too”. Could they, therefore, send someone else, someone with, say, less ethnic baggage'
It is a familiar problem of positioning. “I have written three books in five years,” complained Naipaul in his 1958 essay, “and made £300 out of them. The Americans do not want me because I am too British. The public here do not want me because I am too foreign.” In a more market-savvy environment, Monica Ali was grappling with the same problem as Naipaul. Unfortunately, her attempt at “finding the centre” was considerably more tactless. She narrowly averted what could have proved a very damaging controversy.
The emergence of the Naipaulian man (or woman) may invite the loud derision of the angst-ridden outlander at literary workshops but for the non-white writers in the English, the periphery counts for very little. Despite its energetic publishing industry, the Indian market alone cannot sustain an English-language writer. Khushwant Singh could be an exception. The Indo-Anglian novelist, invariably an indifferent Rushdie clone, needs his handsome pre-publication advances from London and translation rights negotiated at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The subaltern historian looks to the post-modernist network in the American universities to fund his research. The book launches in the hotels of Delhi and Mumbai are high on publicity but low on returns. The Indian glitterati love a free drink; they don’t read books.
Arundhati Roy, one of the few resident Indians who plays in the big league, writes only infrequently for a purely domestic audience. Her polemical interventions are aimed at the burgeoning global constituency of anti-WTO activists, peaceniks, Greens and the permanently aggrieved. She deftlycombines Indian nationality with global citizenship; the colour of the East and the concerns and idiom of the West. She has done for the loony Left in India what Edward Said did for the Palestinian suicide bombers, made them respectable on the American campuses.
It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to suggest that some of this intellectual convergence is contrived. The understandable tendency to anticipate what will sell on both sides of the Atlantic has generated some unwarranted hype and nurtured many publishing disasters in India. At the same time, it has negated some of the post-colonial angst associated with the use of English in India. Today, there is a greater ease with the idea of cross-cultural appeal, even if the applications are sometimes a trifle recondite. As India unburdens itself of the socialist legacy and seeks out the world, there is little opprobrium attached to the quest for the “centre”.
It is not a recent phenomenon. After William Dalrymple’s deification of the White Moghuls as precursors of multiculturalism in Britain, there is a strong case for reassessing the pejorative connotations of Brown Sahib. In an unintended sort of way, Sukhdev Sandhu’s London Calling, published in August, does precisely that. A dissection of how Black and Asian writers have imagined London over the ages, he argues that the colonial encounter was richer and more complex than is admitted by the custodians of post-colonial guilt.
Far from being painted as the citadel of exploitation and racial prejudice, London was in many ways a cultural ideal for every aspiring writer from the Commonwealth. “It’s a city they come to,” writes Sandhu, “not as economic migrants or political refugees, but in order to be educated or to become writers.” Nirad Chaudhuri, an incorrigible show-off, knew the names of almost all the streets of central London even before he set foot in England. Naipaul contrasted the “municipal order of each day” in London with the insularity and “darkness” of life in Trinidad. In anticipating a contemporary trend, the West Indian writer, George Lamming, insisted that “each exile has not only got to prove his worth to the other, he has to win the approval of Headquarters, meaning, England”. Even the historian and cricket writer, C.L.R. James, who I interviewed in 1986 in his cramped flat on Brixton’s Railton Road, better known as the “frontline”, seemed more at ease with traditional English values associated with Sir Frank Worrell than with his Black Power surroundings.
Predictably, Sandhu has been accused of revisionism, of taking the sting out of the underlying fury of the colonized and of conflating the experiences of Naipaul with the raw, angry, pidgin verse of Linton Kwesi Johnson. The critics may have a point but they also miss out the changing contours of the “centre”. The imperial romanticism of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim has yielded place to Hanif Kureishi’s raw indictment of suburban respectability and his celebration of non-gentrified London. At the same time, it has been enriched by both Naipaul’s resolute defence of conservatism and even Meera Syal’s self-deprecating humour. Monica Ali isn’t London’s New Big Thing because of some affirmative action. She is big because the “centre” has been enlarged, democratized and injected with cosmopolitanism.
The implications of this shift are profound. The time for protest literature has passed. The walls between the colonizer and the colonized have collapsed. Anti-imperialism is now a meaningless slogan. The Brown Sahib has been upheld by history, by the market and, above all, by the Mother Country.