I do not know if I am a nationalist or an anti-national. What I do know is that I am Indian. “Indian” here refers to something that is both abstract, and yet specific and graspable. It does not have anything to do with what’s mentioned in my birth certificate or my passport. I don’t even have a passport. It’s to do with place. It’s to do with location. It’s about where I come from and where I choose to be.
Arjun Nath, in his memoir about heroin addiction, White Magic (a very Indian book about a universal drug), makes a nice point about families, about how we love our families, but don’t necessarily like them. I love India. I might not necessarily like everything about it.
When I came back from Oxford in the year 2000, someone I met at a party asked me: “Did you fail your exams or something?” He found it odd that I had chosen to return. I came back because I missed the familiar cycle of seasons, I missed being around my parents, I missed the dusty north Indian plains. But more than any of this, I came back because my gut told me to. I had a vague inkling that I wanted to be a writer. Bit by bit, month by month, I realised that I’d made the right decision. As a writer, my material was here. This is what I was going to write about.
I’ll give you a small example. The other day, I went to buy cigarettes from Prem, the grocer down the road from me in Dehradun. I gave him a fifty rupee note; he gave me back the change, but on reaching home I realised I had left the two-rupee coin in the shop. I went the next day. Prem said, “Acha, kal voh orange toffee ke dabbe ke upar jo do rupiye the, voh aapke the?’ He charged me two rupees less for the new packet that I bought.
The amount was “adjusted” – a word we cannot do without in India. A short story began to take shape in my head. I am yet to write it. I might never do so. But that is not the point. I understood something about this exchange, in a way that I wouldn’t have if I’d left a dime on a shop counter somewhere in the Midwest. I know Prem the grocer, I know Parle orange toffees and I know the two-rupee coin intimately, in a way that I’ll never know the Average Joe, Skittles candy or the dollar bill.
For a writer it is important to read minds and read between the lines.
I could spend ten years in Chicago, but I wouldn’t have the confidence to write about it. I wouldn’t be able to second-guess what the person sitting next to me in a bus is thinking or would do next. And if I can’t hazard a guess about what she is thinking, I’m going to lose her as a character in my writing. I will be forced to resort to cliché and stereotype. VS Naipaul has for most of his life lived in England, but has written only one novel, Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion, set in that country and with English characters.
Saul Bellow’s Chicago was very different from Nelson Algren’s Chicago. Bellow’s biographer, James Atlas, writes: “Bellow prided himself on his streetwise grasp of the city, but Algren still lived in its midst, inhabiting a bonafide dump on Wabansia Avenue.” Atlas goes on to describe a meeting between the two Chicago natives, arranged by a third, David Peltz, which took place in a Polish saloon: “Algren was waiting in a booth when they arrived, wearing army fatigues – to let Bellow know ‘You weren’t in the army like I was.’” They quickly got into an argument, and Bellow left. The town wasn’t big enough for both of them.’
In her introduction to The Collected Stories, Eudora Welty writes about the murder of Medger Evers, a Civil Rights activist, which took place in her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. She writes a short story based on this for The New Yorker. Even before she has laid down a sentence, she feels that she knows the murderer: “I thought with overwhelming directness: Whoever the murderer is I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind.”
I am at home in the world but I am so only in India, and in India, only in Dehradun, Allahabad and New Delhi. It is important for me to inhabit the here and now of my society. Palpability is paramount. I would have made a terrible writer-in-exile, writing only from memory, even though I know that some of the finest writers, James Joyce comes to mind immediately, have done it. Like any writer, I reshape my society in my imagination. In doing so, I don’t alter truth in any way; in fact, I try and get as close to it as possible.
We choose to be Indian in different ways.
This week, Madboy/ Mink, a Bombay-based two-piece band, will play their 19th Indian city. They sing in English, their fashion sense is universal urban-hip and they don’t use Indian instruments or sounds in their music. And yet, they are an Indian band. Indians have downloaded their music. Indians have gone in large numbers to attend their gigs. They have become stars of the underground circuit – in India. They are not known abroad – they might be in the future, they might not. What matters is that their reputation has been made here – India has made them who they are.
The publisher Ravi Dayal spoke English in an Oxbridge accent. At OUP India, he started their academic list and many of the titles he brought out, particularly in the social sciences, including several by left-leaning academics, are recognised as classics all over the world. He wore khadi kurtas, smoked bidis, drank Blue Riband gin instead of imported Scotch and drove a Tata Sumo.
The poet, critic and translator, AK Ramanujan writes about his father in his essay: Is there an Indian way of thinking? Ramanujan’s father, in his dress sense, switched aesthetic idioms effortlessly: “My father’s clothes represented his inner life very well. He was a south Indian Brahmin gentleman. He wore neat white turbans, a Sri Vaisanava caste mark (in his earlier pictures a diamond earring), yet wore Tootal ties, Kromentz buttons and collar studs, and donned English serge jackets over his muslin dhotis which he wore draped in traditional Brahmin style. He often wore tartan-patterned socks and silent well-polished leather shoes when he went to the university, but he carefully took them off before he entered the inner quarters of the house.”
He was also both a mathematician and an astrologer, and so attracted two streams of visitors to his house. The Ganges of American and English mathematicians flowed peacefully alongside the Yamuna of local astrologers and orthodox pundits.
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
There are many. The Hindutva fundamentalist misses this point completely. In her yearning for an underlying saffron-hued Vedic unity, she is not very different from the secularist Nehru craving a unity in our diversity, or from the Sahitya Akademi’s slogan: ‘Indian literature is One, though written in different languages’. The Akademi’s slogan rings slightly hollow. Forget about a national literature, very often it is the case that there’s little unity within a writer’s own oeuvre.
But should we be anxious at all about what Ramanujan calls ‘unity of viewpoint, a single supersystem’? As Vilas Sarang writes, ‘Indianness by itself cannot become a criterion, or guarantee of aesthetic value.’ In fact, the insistence on Indianness ‘may result in subtle cultural and chauvinistic pressures, stifling the poet’s individuality and idiosyncrasy. Let the poet be himself; by being himself, the poet, in fact, contributes to the definition of Indianness.’
Indianness is an inescapable fact of life for those of us who live and work here. It doesn’t have to be foisted upon us. It is natural that a writer will write about the place he is in. ‘But,’ as Dom Moraes reminds us, ‘it is not, surely, necessary for him to drag the place in by the heels to such an extent that its presence obliterates what he is saying.’ Amit Chaudhuri’s excellent novels are an example of this.
Let the poet be himself. Let India be itself. The two will still nest together.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s book of stories Eunuch Park was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Hindu Fiction Prize.