| Writing to live
In the first volume of his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel Garcia M'rquez recounts a telling episode. As a young writer living in Colombia, Garcia M'rquez sends off his first novel to a competition in Spain. To his great joy and surprise he wins the first prize, which includes the publication of the book by a prestigious imprint in Madrid. What Garcia M'rquez sends off to Spain is a manuscript, written in the powerful, local Spanish of his region, what he gets back is a 'corrected' proof from which all the edges of his own language have been edited out, in which a ghost of his original story is now laid out in the buttoned-up, haute-bourgeois language favoured by the literary establishment of the mother country.
Garcia M'rquez puts aside this 'publication' and, despite the 'prize', it takes him another three books before he is recognized as a great genius of Spanish literature. Writing to live and living to write from his late teens, it takes Garcia M'rquez till his late forties before he can make a living from writing fiction. It takes even longer for the English translations of his work to make him world-famous.
Across the quarter-century that Garcia M'rquez struggles, contemporaneously with other unknowns such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cort'zar and Carlos Fuentes, there is only one name from the entire continent of South America that is properly recognized in world literature ' Jorge Luis Borges. This doesn't stop the marginal writers and critics from writing, reading, dreaming and banging caf' tables as they sit over their coffees and beers arguing at regular tertulias ' the South American version of the adda.
This was a time when there were, of course, no mega-dollar advances, no Booker Prizes, no TV interviews and the only people who made it to the equivalents of Page 3 were the filmstars, shipping magnates and debauched royalty. This was also the time when 'Art' came exclusively from Paris or New York, 'Literature' from Britain, France or the United States, 'Cinema', again, from these same countries and continents. The post-war world of art and literature was a flat, North America- and Western Europe-shaped slab floating above an undifferentiated abyss of the 'obscure', the 'parochial', the 'minor' and the 'local'.
While I have no wish to indulge in any false nostalgia for a time I did not experience, I find it helps to remind myself of the odd, anti-linear, slow, seemingly hopeless, sometimes accidental and often poetical tectonic shifts that brought about the far more complex intellectual landscape we inhabit today. Also, it is good to be able to recognize the un-dead cadaver of the old, Euro/US flat-world-view whenever it rises to ambush us, which it still does, and often.
To take just one example, it's worth examining the two or three interconnected 'debates' that have been set up around contemporary Indian fiction written in English.
The first among these is the latest phase of the 30-year war between V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. Put simply, the Naipaulites deride Rushdie for what they label as an 'imported' and 'imposed' genre of writing ' Magical Realism ' which they claim is a superficial and gimmicky way of portraying the realities of the subcontinent. In this, the Naipaulites disingenuously ignore two things: our own, homegrown narrative traditions which long preceded Garcia M'rquez's incorporating of his own culture's non-realistic, epic-poetic story-telling modes and, secondly, the fact that for many people it was Rushdie's early work that exploded open possibilities of different modern fictional depictions of this region, far more than the prissily 'correct' and 'realistic' cadences of Naipaul's own writing, itself heavily indebted to the 19th century European novel. On Rushdie's side, in their eagerness to turn Surajmal the Clown into Lord Vidiamort, a kind of Dark Wizard from eastern UP via Trinidad plantation (though, like J.K. Rowling's villain, Naipaul too does strive ceaselessly to hide his 'mudblood' antecedents), Salmanites are obliged to skim over the fact that Rushdie has now become a parody of himself, a kind of hopped-up Peter Sellers-like character, adorned by glamour, money and an array of ersatz Indian accents, with nothing very much at the core except the damned good occasional mimicry of a politically engaged essayist. The fact is, both Naipaul and Rushdie are pathological egomaniacs, both kala aadmis acting out their little putul naatch for a gora audience; the fact is, the contributions of both to 'Indian' and World literature belong well in the past and have very little to do with what is exciting and new in Indian writing today.
Taking off from this crude puppet-theatre, what is 'exciting and new' in Indian writing is, again, defined by too many people according to parameters laid down by publishers' marketing managers in central London and Manhattan: The New Rushdie/The New Naipaul, Booker/No Booker, Looker/Non-looker, Pulitzer/No Pulitzer, Top Ten Bestseller/ Non-bestseller, and so on. A bizarrely wide range of people continue to leap headlong into this trap, from jumped-up gossip columnists trying to be Books Editors of national magazines to my friend Willie Dalrymple, writing recently in The Observer, London. Dalrymple, someone who you'd think would know better, spends many words insisting that there are not too many talented or interesting people writing from within India, that the 'Indian' or 'Sub-continental' competition for the Booker Prize will come from the recent crop of British and American writers of South Asian origin. These POSAOs, sailing out of Bradford, Brick Lane and Jersey City, will rule the international literary waves for the foreseeable future, or so we are told. Okay. Maybe. Good for them. But, so' So, what does this have to do with the price of rice in Jhumru Talaiyya, Bhopal or Lake Gardens' Does Indian literature, in whichever language, vaporize itself because no one with an Indian passport has won a Booker or a Nobel for x years' Does the fact that publishers in the West don't yet have the nose, time and space to recognize a work make it mediocre'
Talking about J-Talaiyya and Bhopal, another little idea that's been slimed into the general argument is about the origin of the writer. This, too, has to do with the needs of the Western world: is he or she from an 'elite' institution in India' In which case, pip-pip and Ram-Ram, for not only are you genetically out of touch with Indian 'reality', you have no hope of ever getting in touch. If, on the other hand, you are from a 'small town', an Allahabad, an Etawah, a Nagpur or Kanpur then, talent or no, you should be fast-tracked to getting a licence to Represent India in Literature. It's like saying you can only write about America or England if you're from Smallburgh, Ohio or Milton Keynes. As a model for a literary quota-system this has, so far, been only lightly sketched out, but it is an idea towards which all sorts of people, including editors from Western imprints, may soon start to genuflect. Even if it comes out of a plush office on Fifth Avenue or Bloomsbury, this is ultimately a small-town mentality perpetually and desperately searching for another: we want the 'real India', yet another exotica guide-book, but an easily digestible one, written in idiot-prone prose, that we can massage into the final marketable product.
It's a khichuri of absurdities that a young Garcia M'rquez might have savoured as he went around scribbling on his small roll of newsprint: Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the centre of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm'Hungrily absorbing the city and the world, even as he passionately recreated his provincial home town of Aracataca, the banana company Garcia M'rquez wrote about was American and the leaf storm was one made up of humans following the crazy gold rush of an early multinational. The company comes, takes, destroys and departs, leaving behind decrepit compounds fenced by rusting barbed wire. It might be a slightly magical stretch to compare Western publishing houses to the United Fruit Co. and the whirlwind to the literary one that seems to be dying down in the small town called India, but there's a warning lesson for us in that text, both in its content and in its form.