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Why Indian writers crave 'British approval'

Soutik Biswas | 11:04 UK time, Friday, 21 January 2011

William Dalrymple

Delhi's literary salons are abuzz over a bitter row between a British writer and an editor on an Indian magazine. Some believe the spat between William Dalrymple and Open magazine's political editor Hartosh Singh Bal will cloud Asia's best-known literary festival in Jaipur which Dalrymple co-directs with Indian writer Namita Gokhale. I suspect, like most controversies, this will actually end up helping Dalrymple, Bal, Open magazine and the festival, not necessarily in that order.

In a rather dishevelled and provocative opening salvo on why Indians writing in English crave "British approval", Bal took a swipe at Dalrymple describing him as a "pompous arbiter of literary merit in India". He skewered the Jaipur festival - which opened today - for its obsession with British writers: "If Jaipur matters as a festival, it is because of the writers from Britain it attracts." The festival, he wrote, "works not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment". And if Dalrymple appears central to our literary culture, signed off Bal, it says "something more damaging about us than about him".

Dalrymple hit back with an acerbic rebuttal using strong language. He described Bal's piece as "blatantly racist", saying it "felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant's letterbox".

He tore into Bal's argument that the Jaipur festival was a British jamboree - British writers "brown, black and white" make up a "minority within the minority" of foreigners, he wrote, adding that two thirds of the writers invited were Desis (South Asians).

On the face of it, it is difficult to contest this defence - the festival's two key international speakers are Turkish (Orhan Pamuk) and South African (JM Coetzee), there are sessions on literature from India's neglected north-east, from Palestinians, Israelis and Pakistanis. Minority and Dalit (Untouchable) writing features too. Dalrymple also accused Bal of "double standards and reverse racism".

Bal picked up the gauntlet, denying the racism barb and said that Dalrymple did not know "what it means to suffer the indignity he so easily cites in his defence". He added: "I have had to stand in a London tube as drunk football falls pouring out of a match called into question the race and origins of people such as me."

The dust-up has predictably raised the hackles of commentators both in India and Britain - The Telegraph in London called Bal's piece a "nasty piece of journalism"; respondents in Open magazine worried about Dalrymple's literary influence in India and accused him of writing shallow books on Mughals.

But for the personal attacks on both sides, this appears to be a stale debate. Indian writers have benefited from British approval for nearly a century now. WB Yeats introduced Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali (Song of Offering) to the world in 1912. It became his best known work in the world and won him the Nobel Prize. The doyen of Indian writing in English, RK Narayan, was introduced to the world by Graham Greene who recommended his debut novel to a publisher, leading to its publication in 1935. Salman Rushdie won the Booker for Midnight's Children a good half a century later.

The debate about whether Indians writing in English look for approval from abroad - or to foreign publishers and awards - also has a sense of deja vu about it. One of India's award-winning writers Shashi Deshpande has argued that Indian writing in English smacks of post-colonialism. She has said that such writers "do not know any Indian language well enough" and that "the outsider's assessment still remains the privileged one". Writer Meenakshi Mukherjee has dwelt upon Indians writing in English being gripped by an "anxiety of Indian-ness" - "Indian-ness" being a quality their books needed to travel abroad.

One leading Indian writer I spoke to said that he never understands this grouse. "England and America are bigger markets. It's natural to care. Having a home market is good, but it is still small. The good thing is that it is growing." Many writers agree that it is odd that literary festivals in India should be run by foreigners. But why moan about it, they say. If we feel strongly about this, should we not mount alternative events instead? So is this all, as a writer friend wonders, just a storm in a teacup?


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  • 1. At 12:56pm on 21 Jan 2011, Ananya78 wrote:

    Why do we not launch book festivals which are not run by foreigners? What prevents us? And why do we whinge all the time?

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  • 2. At 1:52pm on 21 Jan 2011, GWTW wrote:

    I do believe that Bal has a point but he need not have employed such an acerbic tone. Nor did I care for Dalrymple's response, which was equally harsh and what is worse, crude. I listened to the discussion between Kishwar Desai and Bal on BBC Radio today and did not relish the Moderator's query- shouldn't an Indian literary festival be providing a reference point to the UK because many of its writers write in English? By this yardstick, should British Museums not be giving credit to all the countries from which their displayed artefacts have been looted, including the Jewel in the Crown? The double standards of the Western world are indeed appalling!

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  • 3. At 2:15pm on 21 Jan 2011, oldmachead wrote:

    Hmmm ... sounds like Bal had an unpleasant experience in the UK. His retaliation is to hit out at Dalrymple.

    Best to ignore him.

    Sounds like the Jaipur festival covers literary figures from around the world and is good for India. Isn't that what matters?

    Sounds like a tempest in a teacup. Time for people to grow up!

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  • 4. At 3:26pm on 21 Jan 2011, gaoth wrote:

    Sounds like Bal denied racism by instead coming up with a bland generalisation. Great article.

    And Yeat's was an Irish, not British writer.

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  • 5. At 3:29pm on 21 Jan 2011, mikethelionheart wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 6. At 4:15pm on 21 Jan 2011, Essar wrote:

    Firstly, the whole affair does seem to be a tempest in teacup. However, there is another related issue that is more complex and may get stoked inadvertently if the primary focus of the literary festival is English based literature.

    To this reader it seems that many Indians are also adopting English at the expense of respective Indian languages. This reader often finds that regardless of their proficiencies in English, many Indians often converse amongst themselves in English even if everyone present has the same mother tongue! Furthermore, often they mix words mostly from Hindi - to create a despicable variety that may be called "Hinglish"! To make matters worse, even the mainstream Indian media also joins in the same!

    Adoption of English is certainly good - but does not have to be at the expense of one's own Indian mother tongue. And why is this important? This is important because there is a vast body of literature and other cultural items developed in a variety of Indian linguistic mediums over the past eons. Access to such a vast body of wisdom in the heritage will be missed without adequate language proficiency.

    Even though this reader agrees with GWTW regarding the tussle between Dalrymple and Bal (although Bal did discharge the first salvo), there is a definite disagreement on the comment regarding the "...double standards of the Western world" only. Sadly no community - NONE - is immune from double standards, aka hypocrisy. The Western world has it and so does the Eastern world (or for that matter, Northern and Southern worlds as well).

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  • 7. At 4:23pm on 21 Jan 2011, Essar wrote:

    Comments made by mikethelionheart:

    Sadly you are profoundly mistaken - spending "...a lot of time in India.." notwithstanding!

    However the good news is the a sample size of one is statistically totally irrelevant and the comment can be cast aside with perfect ease.

    And yes, everyone has to grow up.

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  • 8. At 4:24pm on 21 Jan 2011, ibiza6403 wrote:

    Bal's argument is blatant jealousy. Think of the hoopla if there were a British literature event and then a white English author decried the fact that the event was co-chaired by an Indian? There would be huge hoopla and everybody would condemn the white English author. As a person of Indian-origin, we should be proud that this festival is being run on merit rather than nepotism or cronyism. Can only people of Indian origin be interested in Indian literature and culture? Why is it that Britain is always seen as a pernicious influence? I think Mr. Bal needs to grow up and realize that racism can be felt by everyone, including Whites.

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  • 9. At 4:51pm on 21 Jan 2011, BottomOfThePyramid wrote:

    My initial impression of Bal's first piece was that Hartosh Singh Bal has a major chip on his shoulder and/or is a publicity-seeker.

    My opinion, after his rebuttal, did not change.

    As has been pointed pointed out by numerous commenters and Dalrymple himself, the nature of audiences, sessions and speakers at JLF destroys Bal's claims. Pre-JLF, Indians complained that no-one was taking notice. Now, Bal has found a new grouse.

    In terms of approval, I think there is a larger phenomenon at work here. When it comes to politics and diplomacy, successive Indian Governments always sought the approval of the US in the post-Cold War 1990s period. Registering complaints against what they perceived as 'transgressions' by Pakistan occurred regularly. This probably happened because the US was seen as the world superpower at the time.

    Similarly, Indians have traditionally grown up on a diet of British literature, reading about well-established British literary awards. It is natural to think of Britain as a leading literary power.

    Apropos 'celebrity' writers getting more attention than 'great writers [from Europe]', doesn't the celebrity culture pervade all aspects of public life? Who does Bal think would get more media attention during red carpet movie award/music events?

    As for any ongoing need for British approval, more and more Indians in the middle-class see the US as their choice for higher education, etc. American television and cultural influences, American slang, trends are all more prevalent in India today. Gone are the days of domination of English public-school and Oxbridge-educated grandees in the Indian political and diplomatic circles. It therefore baffles me how Bal finds this particular kind of cultural cringe to be very strong in India..... And his tone in his first piece is shockingly offensive (as with most such offensive pieces, a result of his ignorance).

    To me, Bal's pieces suggest his refusal/inability to accept Dalrymple as an Indian writer. And refusal to accept that a British-born writer could head a major Indian literary festival without it having imperial-colonial implications.

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  • 10. At 5:00pm on 21 Jan 2011, Jamie Kitson wrote:

    4. At 3:26pm on 21 Jan 2011, gaoth wrote:

    > And Yeat's was an Irish, not British writer.

    He was born before partition, so technically I believe he was born in Britain.

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  • 11. At 5:13pm on 21 Jan 2011, B_Pinto wrote:

    @ mikethelionheart : I totally agree with you.

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  • 12. At 6:06pm on 21 Jan 2011, sheling wrote:

    It's a little bit amazing to note that, of all the people bluffing and blathering here in the most esoteric tones, not one person has chosen to mention a crucial fact: across the whole of India, English is the unifying language.

    Any writer wishing to achieve major sales and recognition - even within just India - will be published in English and the various other languages (29 are official; more are recognised as informal national languages) spoken across the sub-continent.

    Given the huge number of separate languages, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Indian authors write in English because it's the one language most Indians speak.

    Perhaps the major problem is that Western commentators take having a single language in our home countries for granted?

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  • 13. At 7:38pm on 21 Jan 2011, buckeridge wrote:

    10. At 5:00pm on 21 Jan 2011, Jamie Kitson wrote:

    He was born before partition, so technically I believe he was born in Britain.

    No - he was born in Ireland. The fact that it was occupied by the British at the time is irrelevant.

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  • 14. At 7:49pm on 21 Jan 2011, Sanji-san wrote:

    This reader believes that at least in part, the English language Indian writers do seek the approval from the foreign - esp. the British - critics. And in a country so large, and with such a large population who understands English very well, that may seem odd - but in itself it is not necessarily a negative thing. It is when this tendency translates into a habit of writing for the foreign critic and starts defining the content of the literature that I believe the true negativity comes about. Any work originating from a country must necessarily be colored by the local culture and must depict the complexities and subtelities invovled in that culture. And this becomes difficult - sometimes impossible - when the language chosen is not native. Somethings are just inexpressible in one language - single words can cary the weights of entire ways of thinking and theres precious little that anybody can do to express that in a foreign language that simply doesnt carry that style of thinking.

    However, a very large number of people in India study English as a language from kindergarten. So it is not surprising at all that many people talk amingst themselves in English - esp. if they dont know each othrs' mother tounges - something that is very common in India. You can also say that the advent of 'Hinglish', where english words are very liberally splashed around in an otherwise Hindi dialouge, is just a consequence of the youth adopting english into their daily lives. This phenomenon is bound to increase in the increasingly global India with a rising economy and a booming educated urban middle class. Thus, it is entirely possible that this tendency of 'seeking outside approval' might die out as newer blood refreshes the literarry scene and finds it proud feet propelled by an all round growth of the country's prospects.

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  • 15. At 10:09am on 22 Jan 2011, GWTW wrote:

    To ESSAR,

    Sure all worlds are guilty of hypocrisy but wouldn't you agree that with "great power comes great responsibility?" And what would you have to say about this form of doublespeak

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