|William Dalrymple at a book launch at India Habitat Centre|
Bal made some pertinent points in his article. Is the British-author William Dalrymple the best person to organise the premier literature festival of India? Can’t we find someone home grown to head it? And what’s up with this British fixation – why don’t American authors or American books make as much news? And when did foreign correspondents become the expert commentators on India and everything that happens there, in the first place? Aren’t we Indians better placed to make that assessment?
But I also have three problems with Bal’s article.
First, the standard of English newspapers and magazines in India is rather low. The entry requirement for people wanting to become English language journalists in India is a basic ability to read and write in English. A bit of training in reportage and writing is preferable but not critical. The problem is that without training in good, sharp reportage, commentary sounds empty.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog pointing out the appalling language gaffes habitually made by the National Cultural Editor of the Hindustan Times, one of the largest selling English language newspapers in India. A number of comments in his defence basically asked why pick on him when everyone else is equally bad. To me that says a lot about the sorry state of Indian English newspapers – and I say this, fully aware of the irony that I myself was trained in the same industry. I am open to the idea that perhaps, I am a terrible writer too because I am the product of the environment around me – and it wasn’t generally a very invigorating environment as far as English language or reportage are concerned.
It would be dishonest of me if I didn’t accept that the standard of research, reportage and editing of British newspapers is far superior. Maybe that is why British foreign correspondents’ books on India inspire greater confidence among both Indian and foreign readers: A well-written copy is just more acceptable than a more authentic but poorly written one.
Bal also seems to have ignored the role British Council has played in encouraging a cultural scene in India. For the longest time in Mumbai, the only place I could turn to for any literary or cultural consumption was the British Council. There were no bookshops, good libraries, or clubs to turn to for book festivals, readings, book launches and panel discussions. And the Council embraced Indian authors in English with great enthusiasm: In fact, I was introduced to the writings of many Indian English authors at the British Council, not at school or college or through the Indian media.
But naturally, the Council also encouraged British authors and artists in India. But if the toss-up was between having British authors being promoted in India and not have any platform for Indian authors at all – I would each time choose the former. The British Council's dominance may be waning now, but I am still grateful to it for maintaining an oasis of art in an otherwise fairly unstimulating cultural scene of Mumbai till the 1990s.
Perhaps, the greater visibility of British literature in India over American literature is simply the result of a British Council being more active than the American Cultural Centre.
Finally, Dalrymple may be British, but all his books on India have been thoroughly researched and beautifully written. His knowledge of Indian culture is far superior to many Indian cultural writers. He is also a tireless and passionate ambassador of South Asian culture – whether that is self-serving or not is another debate all together. And he is an incredible networker and marketer. On the whole, he fulfils the categories necessary for organising an Indian literature festival.
If ones ethnicity and background were such an important criteria for selection, why didn’t we all protest when Fareed Zakaria was made the editor of the Time magazine?