WAYS OF AN ANTIQUE LAND - Anglophone Indians and their odd habits

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By Mukul Kesavan mukulkesavan@hotmail.com
  • Published 6.09.07

Every English-speaking Indian man between 25 and 60 has written about the Hindi movies he has seen, the English books he has read, the foreign places he has travelled to and the curse of communalism. You mightn’t have read them all (there are a lot of them and some don’t make it to print) but their manuscripts exist and in this age of the internet, these masters of blah have migrated to the Republic of Blog. A cultural historian from the remote future (investigating, perhaps, the death of English in India) might use up a sub-section of a chapter to explore the sameness of their concerns. Why did a bunch of grown men, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, write about the same movies, novels, journeys and riots? Why Naipaul? Why not nature? Or Napier? Or the nadeswaram? Why Bachchan? And not Burma? Or Bhojpuri? And, most weirdly, why pogroms and chauvinism? Why not programmes on television?

This seems mysterious but isn’t. Our historian will have to be content with the ordinary cause instead of the off-centre insight. The obsession with Hindi movies is the easiest to explain. In the life of every anglophone Indian occurs an epistemological break. Those of you who think this means a letter-writing recess should know that this is a precise way of describing a big change in knowing things. The big change comes about when the child acquires English. All the stuff the child liked before learning English becomes connected with uncomplicated enjoyment in the grown-up’s mind because the child is father of the man. (I know Wordsworth wrote that line but it needs another ‘the’.)

Since English becomes the language in which he learns things, the Indian man begins to associate Hindi films with unlearnt pleasure. This is a delusion: metropolitan children begin learning English around the time they go to school and how many Hindi films can you remember seeing before you were five? Or six? Somewhere in the range of not many and none. This doesn’t matter because the adult middle-class Indian male, now socialized so thoroughly into English that he finds it hard to summarize an abstract thought in his mother tongue, begins to see Hindi films as the lost hinterland that connects him to the Bharat that isn’t India. The Hindi film becomes his passport to des and his ability to write about Hindi films demonstrates (both to himself and the world) his authentic connectedness. None of this rules out the possibility that he actually enjoys Hindi films: it just explains why he writes about them.

He reviews English novels for the opposite reason that he sees Hindi films: if Hindi films are his umbilical connection to his authentic mofussil self, reading and writing about English fiction is the open sesame that gives him entry to a properly metropolitan world. His delight in Hindi films springs from a precious, nurtured state of innocence whereas his connoisseurship of English fiction allows him to be knowing in a cosmopolitan way. The ability to put out a view about the ouevre of Robert Musil or Anthony Powell or Machado de Assis (for him these are all English novelists because he reads them in translation) is for him the literary equivalent of a one-arm push-up: something most people can’t do.

He travels and writes about his travels for reasons very similar to the ones behind his interest in English fiction, but on the whole he does this less successfully. Travel writing, as invented by English and then American writers, is a form of amused knowingness. Reading Robert Byron or Paul Theroux is a bit like tuning into Radio Supercilious: the funny bits, such as they are, are generated by the discomfort of travelling to out-of-the-way places or via encounters with amusing aboriginals. This form of knowingness isn’t easily replicated: you have to be First-World and better off than the natives. If you’re Indian, this is a problem, so the dominant form of Indian travel-writing is the short magazine article because it’s hard to act richer (or whiter) than you are for any length of time. The scope of knowingness and sophistication is consequently limited. It isn’t a coincidence that writing about food and drink is the fastest growing segment in Indian journalism because writing about Chinese restaurants in Juhu is a way of travelling without a passport, of being sophisticated on a budget.

(Interestingly, on the rare occasions that Indian writers attempt travel books — Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land, Allan Sealy’s From the Yukon to the Yucatan — they produce work that in tone and form redefines the genre because they treat the landscapes they move through as dense, real places, not as props and cues to help the sophisticated traveller to rehearse his world-weary routines.)

But it is the English-writing Indian’s interest in communalism, particularly his near-obsessive interest in the way in which majoritarian politics picks on religious minorities, that would draw the attention of our historian. Perhaps he would take his cue from that acute critic, Lal Krishna Advani, who coined a useful term for this tendency: pseudo-secularism. In this view, since the majority of secularist critics are nominally Hindu, this peculiar interest in Muslim or Christian welfare is to be charitably understood as a form of misguided chivalry, misguided because it’s the Hindus who are harassed and discriminated against in the name of secularism. When a critic of the Advani school isn’t feeling charitable, this chivalric tendency is put down to the self-hatred that afflicts deracinated Hindus. Other hostile observers see the ‘secularist’ tendency as an extension of the knowingness and superiority affected by the Anglophone Indian in other matters, such as fiction or travel-writing, a posture intended to place the posturer above the common herd.

Whatever their explanation, these regularities in the behaviour of Anglophone Indians await their historian and their anthropologist; the purpose of this piece is limited to persuading you that their habits are odd enough to be interesting.