Library of India

Amitav Ghosh and Aravind Adiga: two ways to write English in India

One represents the past and one, the future, of the use of the English language in Indian fiction.

At the Mumbai launch of Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh was asked about the future of India-China relations. He hastily dismissed the question, suggesting that there was little hope for mutual understanding between two countries increasingly blinded by the pursuit of wealth.

The dismissive response might surprise readers impressed by Ghosh’s deep engagement, in all three Ibis novels, with the rich history of India-China relations and by his clear love of Chinese language and culture. But, in fact, Ghosh’s concern with the past of India-China relations has little to say about the present or future of the two countries. The tragic fate of Ah Fat, a child born of the illicit love of Parsi businessman Bahram Modi and Chinese boatwoman Chi Mei, indicates Ghosh’s bleak vision for the future of cosmopolitanism after the brief heyday he describes in the novels.

Ghosh’s novels, like so many others from his generation, captures a fleeting time before the fixing of identities, when borders emerged and disappeared, when opportunity-seeking men (and women) made their fortunes from the sidelines of grand historical transformations, and before the richness of History was foreclosed by the narrowness of the nation-state. Although many of these transformations were made possible by empire, in Ghosh’s novels they cannot be contained within empire’s restricted script.

Empire might be their cause, but the multilingual lives and transnational loves that make up the rich histories of nineteenth-century travel and trade emerge as empire’s excess. This is the delight of reading Ghosh. But underneath these stories, and increasingly evident when you hear Ghosh talk about his works in person, lies an existential sigh, a frustration that the cosmopolitanism of the past is no longer possible.

Ghosh is not alone in narrating the demise of cosmopolitanism – it is evident in the works of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai and others. Rushdie’s most explicit lament over the loss of this cosmopolitanism appears in The Moor’s Last Sigh, which contrasts the rich religious and cultural interchanges that took place in Moorish Spain to the increasingly rigid, masculine chauvinism of 1990s Bombay. Unlike Rushdie, Ghosh’s novels do not represent this decline; there is, rather, a sense of doom that hangs over them all. Ghosh does not need to say, Look how low we’ve come, but reading his novels from the viewpoint of the contemporary gives rise to that expression nonetheless.

India and China

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is also located at the place where India and China meet, but its vision of this relationship is entirely in and of the present. “Sir. Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English”, Adiga’s narrator, Balram, begins his story to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier. Immediately, the India-China relation is presented as farce.

Adiga might agree with Ghosh that this “alliance” is little else than a mutually mistrustful race to global superpowerdom, but that becomes the point of his novel, which refuses to romanticize the past. The novel is structured as a series of letters from Balram to Wen Jiabao, and the way Balram opens and closes the various letters reiterates how closely his work follows along the contours of the ever-unfolding present.

“That was at 11:37 p.m. Five minutes ago”; “It is a little before midnight now, Mr. Jiabao. A good time for me to talk”; and “11:52 p.m. – and it really is time to start”; “But that will have to wait for tomorrow, Your Excellency. It’s 2:44 a.m.”; “That is all for tonight, Mr. Premier. It’s not yet three a.m., but I’ve got to end here, sir”; and “Alas: I’ll have to stop this story for a while. It’s only 1:32 in the morning, but we’ll have to break off here. Something has come up, sir – an emergency. I’ll be back, trust me.”

How different is this world, ready to erupt out of the novel and into our own, from, for instance, Ghosh’s description of the British land auction which would divide up the newly acquired island of Hong Kong: “The Rustomjees, a Bombay family, acquired more land than any other group of bidders, amassing no less than 57,600 square feet. Seth Hormuzjee Rustomjee alone bought six lots, a total of 36,000 square feet, for £264.”

The stately dignity of that auction, the dogged way in which a handful of Parsi businessmen scraped their way into the center of global capitalism in the nineteenth century, contrasts wildly with Balram’s casual, offensive speech and his dystopic vision for personal advancement: “Before we [begin], sir, the phrase in English that I learned from my ex-employer the late Mr. Ashok’s ex-wife Pinky Madam is: What a fucking joke.”

The end of cosmopolitanism

The fucking joke might well be the end of cosmopolitanism, not only because it refuses the aesthetic sanctity of literature and blends high and low cultural forms, but also because it marks the end of a certain Macaulayan vision of the English language. As much as English was a deliberate policy of colonial education, early Indian English writers enjoyed writing in the language and many felt that it brought them into erudite company.

You can see that love of English in Rushdie and Ghosh, and you can see its absence in The White Tiger and other recent novels. English represented a broad vision and outlook that could transport readers out of the present and into an entirely different world. In Flood of Fire, this outlook is embodied in Neel, the multilingual translator and wordsmith who finds himself working for the Chinese during the war, in another example of Indo-China cosmopolitanism: “Sometimes I would come across groups of Tibetan monks. Recognizing me as an ‘Achha’ they’d smile and nod. I would have liked to speak with them, but there was no language in common. The monks speak very little Cantonese.”

Now, English has become the difference between “piJJA,” “piZZa,” and “Peet. Zah,” as the characters in The White Tiger debate among themselves. And of course, the language used to describe the food itself: “I had to hold my breath as I stood there waiting for them to finish. The stuff smelled so awful.” An idiom torn down from its universalist aspirations to translate across the world’s languages has now become the commodified sign of American fast food, consumed in a posh New Delhi apartment by two shallow villains and their murderous driver.

There is delight in reading this as well, in witnessing the collapse of this colonial language into profanity and distaste. Via The White Tiger, Ghosh’s English seems staid and somewhat foreign. Ghosh’s English stands in an enclosed time of his own. That is the pleasure and the frustration of reading him.

Adiga tells the story of the present, and Ghosh’s trilogy reads like a paean for a lost time. Adiga allegorises the future of the Indian novel, and Ghosh memorialises an Indian English whose time has come and gone.

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