Monday, January 17, 2011

William Dalrymple: are literary credentials not enough?

William Dalrymple at a book launch at India Habitat Centre
I was a little surprised today to find an article in The Independent about a minor literary slugfest going on in India.  I thought that Hartosh Singh Bal’s article in Open magazine, accusing the Indian literati of a colonial hangover, was a brave and interesting stand. But I didn’t expect to read about it in a British newspaper.

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?


Arun said...

"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 "

You leap from newspaper editing and reporting quality to quality of books! There are people other than journalists who are writing books :-)

What a foreign correspondent or writer sees in India, and what an Indian writer sees, can be quite different. The foreign correspondent almost always fills up the book with the trash they see in India, how things dont work etc (may be with some sops to jugaad, IT, spirituality, bollywood...), while the Indian one can look a lot more deeper (and of course, write equally well!!). Even then the firangi's books are more famous or gets more attention simply because - he or she is a firang! Indians simply love to hear the firang talk about apna Bharat!

globalbabble said...

Hi Arun,

The argument against foreign correspondents writing books on India was made by Bal. I was merely pointing out that their books are better written.

I have read only two books by Indian writers on India that were very good: Butter Chicken in Ludhiana and India After Gandhi. Perhaps, you can suggest some others.

In return, I would suggest you read Edward Luce and his book Inspite of the Gods or any of Mark Tully's books or even VS Naipaul's A Million Mutinies (since he doesn't consider himself Indian, I don't either). After you have read those, I will suggest further reading.

Mumbai Paused said...

A book you will probably like: Following Fish By Samanth Subramanian

Arun said...

Frankly, I dont know. Amitav Ghosh's books, may be. Nehru's Discovery of India. God of small things(A. Roy), A fine balance(Mistry), Samskara (U. Ananthamurthy), Hungry tide (Ghosh) - all are fiction, and I am sorry about that, but what I mean is, what they see and write about is very different from an English or Western author. Especially the vernacular writers. Samskara is a good sample of that, but there are enough number of other books. In Malayalam, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, SK Pottekad, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, Kamala Das... After reading books like that, books from the Western authors on India seem extremely shallow. I didnt like Mark Tully's books much, nothing very special, and I've not read Edward Luce or A Million Mutinies. However, City of Djinns itself starts with the uncomfortable life the writer had to face in Delhi, yeah, certainly worth writing about, but wonder why all the Western authors have this thing in common? Paul Theroux's books for example.

"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?"

"A Black man of Kenyan parentage as President of the US is not the symbolic equivalent of a White man of American parentage (one whose CV focuses only on his achievements in the US) becoming President of Kenya." - in Bal's second article.

globalbabble said...

Hi Arun,

I am guessing that foreigners often start their books by pointing out the inconvenience of life in India because life in India is uniquely inconvenient. It is only the truth. To gloss it over would be dishonest. I am tough enough to be able to take such knocks as long as people are able to see beyond that - and many writers do.

Yes, I enjoy Indian fiction writers too. In fact, I don't know of any foreign fiction writers who have set their books in India.

But we were discussing foreign correspondents and their works of non-fiction that Bal mentions. And such books usually fall in the broad category of journalism. And my point was that there is little training in research and reportage given to Indian journalists, hence we have few Indians writing books on India. Those who do are usually trained extensively abroad.

Interestingly, Arvind Adiga had an article on the same subject in Sunday Observer:

I would be stunned if any white man (no matter how good his CV) becomes the president of an African nation. Can you name any from the last decade? Even Sonia Gandhi understood the perils of it and cleverly stepped aside.

The world has come a long way from the colonialism. Racism exists in today's world too, but it's politics functions very differently and in far more complicated way than Bal suggests.

Arun said...

The Browns and Blacks look at the White with a complex, and the reverse. Mandela wanted to keep even the well meaning white out of the ANC, to give confidence to the Africans that they can do it themselves. So in Africa or India, a white starts off with a comfortable, superior position, he is exhibited all over the town and his opinions are really really valued and sought, while in the West, the blacks and the browns start inferior, and have to work harder to achieve equal level.

Thinking about it, Gurcharan Das's India Unbound is a book liked by many (not me :)), and so is Shashi Tharoor's books (which I detest).

globalbabble said...

I am glad we agree on something - a mutual dislike for Tharoor's book :-)

I mean to write a blog on my understanding of racism. Because it is a complex, tangled issue. However, I don't take the easy, silly route of whites exploit blacks and it is all so horrible. That view is fast changing - and the change is coming from the young, coloured intellectuals. That is what I like the most.

When I do, I'll leave a link on your blog.

Meanwhile - the best book written on India by far is Ramchandra Guha's India After Gandhi. I don't know if you have read it? If not, do.

globalbabble said...


Thanks. I'll definitely check it out.

Arun said...

Cool. Meanwhile, check - this :-) And an exhaustive list of books on India: here.

And Naipaul is not white,a major différence :-)

globalbabble said...

Hi Arun,

I read that piece. But it wasn't really connected to Bal's original article. The original article was not about whether Dalrymple single-handedly put together the festival or with the help of others - it was about what we feel about foreigners and whether our admiration was somehow misplaced. Then it became about racism after Dalrymple answered to the article.

Naipaul has always dismissed his Indian heritage and has adopted more whiteness than most white people. And as his books explain, he visited India because he knew nothing about the country. And he writes about India as a foreigner not as someone with any connection, affection or understanding. That is what makes the books so hugely uncomfortable but quite pointed.

Race, after all, is not about colour but the power dynamic behind it.

I don't know how much you know of Naipaul or if you have ever read his books - but it would be worthwhile to find out more. He is a curious, somewhat nasty character.

PS: How did you get a hyperlink in your comment. I just can't seem to.

Arun said...

Thanks for your response.

I have not read a single Naipaul book yet, even though I've read a lot of stuff criticizing or attacking him. When I wrote he is not white, I meant - he is not white, yet he is more White than the whites themselves stems from some complex in him, so he is not the typical white foreign correspondent or traveler writing books on India, he should not be clubbed with them. Something like that :-)

Anyway I will read a book by him soon - in the literature library in my University in France, he is not in the Indian section, I guess he's in the Caribbean one. There are tens of books by him and about his books, while the whole Indian authors section has may be two dozen books, half of which is Rushdie :)

About hyperlink: I used HTML tag:

like - LTa href="" GT LT/aGT replace LT with < and RT with > to get Google

globalbabble said...

Giggle - I liked the 12 books in Indian section, half by Rushdie, bit.

But then again, I don't think Indian universities will fare any better. In India when someone like Rohinton Mistry writes a lovely book about Mumbai, what do we do? We get it banned from our universities!

And no one can blame Shiv Sena of admiring foreigners ;-)