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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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VOICES OF THE SAME POVERTY

To italicize or not to italicize. For Indian writers selling their English novels in the literary emporiums of the world, this apparently trivial decision has become absolutely crucial. There will have to be many Indian words in the ‘rich weave’ of their prose, especially the food words and the dirty words. Glossaries have become passé, but should the reader be thrown in at the deep end of postcolonial hybridity, or should they be helped gently along' Humankind cannot bear too much Otherness. Vikram Chandra, for instance, took the tough line. His Sacred Games, set largely in modern Mumbai, is full of the rawest Hindi slang, but there are no italics. Just nine-hundred, typographically undifferentiated pages. It works powerfully for the Indian reader, even if 900 pages is hard work. But no Booker for him, not even the shortlist.

Kiran Desai is another kind of writer. She goes in for the italics, and even for the English translations often slipped in quietly, like a practised cicerone, as if this is how the back-and-forth people naturally talk as they skate between Kalimpong and New York. And sure enough, it worked for Desai’s judges. “‘Humara kya hoga, hai hai, humara kya hoga,’ he let his voice fly. ‘Hai hai, what will become of us'’ ‘Shut up,’ said the judge and thought, These damn servants born and brought up to scream.” This is a beautifully potted vignette of a certain idea of India made up of bilingualism, inequality (i.e. servants) and a colonial past. The screaming servant is a Nepali cook whose son is trying to pull himself out of illegal immigranthood in New York; the judge a crusty, Naipaulian old colonial in Kalimpong; and the whole scene is being presented through the eyes of an Indian girl in her late teens. She is the judge’s orphaned granddaughter, who will later lead a listlessly globalized life. There is even insurgency in the air: the Gorkhas are about to rise up in the hills. The servant is screaming because the young Gorkhas have just looted the judge’s house.

It sounds simplistic and mean-minded to reiterate the cliché that most commercially successful English novels by ‘Indian’ writers are principally written for Western readers, and in being so they tell certain stories, over and over again, recreate certain moods, tones and atmospheres, and recycle images, tropes and vocabularies that give back to this market exactly what it expects, knows and likes to hear. Then, with a further turn of the screw, these expectations and this taste for the ‘Indo- Anglian’ — together with the words, images and stories they produce and are fed by — cross the seas and come back home in a strange critical circuit. “We” begin to like these words, images and stories too, and begin to see and read them, and therefore ourselves, in their mirror. The Booker has become an important critical judgment, and to the Indian reader, Arundhati Roy would not have been Arundhati Roy had she not got the Booker, and even if she had gone on to write more and better novels after the first one.

As literary criticism goes, what I have just written is pretty crude. But perhaps there is no more nuanced way of putting this, because the phenomenon I am trying to describe here is essentially unsubtle and rather old. It is tied up with such tattered old binaries like East and West, Us and Them, and with something that Edward Said had begun to describe in the late Seventies. And at this point, I find myself trying desperately to avoid using the words, ‘Orientalism’ and ‘exoticization’, for they are such dreadful clichés, and are so often used by people who are vilely envious of, and full of personal malice against, successful writers who are given thousands of pounds as advance or prize money for their novels. But while reading Kiran Desai in the light of her winning the Booker, I suddenly realize, with a bit of a shock, that it is impossible to make sense of such a prize as the Booker, and of what is happening to it, without using this worn-out, and slightly tiresome, critical vocabulary.

What Desai gives the Booker panel is Incredible India as Beautiful Writing. The stories are of loss and humiliation, displacement and dispossession — the rich music of victimhood is never not heard. But that makes it all the more poignant and beautiful, testing every skill that she may have honed at her creative writing course at Columbia University. None less than Borges provides her with the right words, in the epigraph, for expressing these feelings: “My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty./ They speak of homeland.” And hence, this Beautiful Writing should not only tell the right Stories, but should also foreground the right Issues. That here, too, Desai has been successful or lucky is best proven by the opening paragraph of Pankaj Mishra’s review of her novel in the New York Times: “Desai’s extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980s, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel.”

Both Desai and Mishra, with their impressive command over the interconnectedness of “every contemporary international issue”, are important literary figures in the “post-9/11” literary universe. Each, in his or her own way, lives out the privileges and pitfalls of somebody who is described on dust-jackets as “dividing her time between places”. Their books are ‘about’ so many things that can be listed in abstraction from the books themselves that it is often more stimulating and entertaining to hear them talk about their own books than to actually read them. Mishra’s recent nonfictional writings have explained the Budhha to the Western world and taught “India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” how to be “Modern”, while his literary journalism has explicated the nuances of Indian life, literature and history with remarkable adroitness. But his one novel so far has died a quiet and unsurprising death.

Kiran Desai, too, seems to be the sort of author whose beautiful writing and global empathies — the ability to perceive, understand and express the connections within a complicated existence in the world — would make a wonderful travelling belle-lettrist. Desai would be what Mishra is already: an ideal writer for the distinguished reviews that come out from London and New York, writing with equal ease about books, people, ideas and places for readers who are compelled by what Desai describes as “a desire for something beyond their own existence”. That is an admirable achievement. But the eminent women and men of letters in the Booker panel might still have wished to discriminate between belles-lettres and superior fiction.

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