Not an ‘Indian’ writer

Move on,already Whenwill the ‘IndianNovel’ be morethan tigers, spicesand elephantsshutterstock/elenanayashkova

Janice Pariat   -  BUSINESS LINE

As authors we must have the freedom to claim imaginative spaces and a ‘nowhereness’

Not long ago, a friend and I indulged in a weekend movie marathon. A Wes Anderson movie marathon. We were very methodical about it. Beginning with Rushmore (1998) and moving on to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Moonrise Kingdom (2012; my favourite) and eventually, his most recent, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

“I wish,” I declared, at the end of it all, “I could write like Wes Anderson.”

Admittedly, it wasn't quite the reaction my friend was expecting.

Mostly people claim they love the filmmaker’s cinematic style — playful, vintage, beautifully quirky — or intrepid subject matter. His carefully curated soundtracks. His penchant for symmetry. For visual patterns and bursts of colour.

“Do you want to write movie scripts like him?” my friend asked tentatively.

No. I was speaking of something else. The freedom to claim imaginative space.

Which doesn’t mean I’m not free to write what I wish to. Or am being directly censored in any way. But let me explain. One of the first rejection letters I received, for foreign rights for my novel Seahorse, was from a kindly British publisher who, before explaining why the novel was not for him, took the trouble to describe why he thought it was an ambitious work. He begins: “Its engagement with Indian postcolonialism is apparent throughout.” “No,” I shouted out loud, but he continued regardless for an extended paragraph. It’s apparent, he stated, in the reclaimed British memorial in North Delhi. In (rather mystifyingly) the location of the “other” in members of the opposite sex. Even the mere mention of Alexander’s impact on Indian/Buddhist art and its subsequent hybridity was viewed as a provocative postcolonial move. “But this is a novel about the fluidity of time and gender and memory,” I muttered feebly. “About placing the search for beauty at the centre of human existence.”

Yes, I’ve read Roland Barthes. I know the author is claimed dead, and interpretive authority now lies squarely in the hands of the readers, but this kind of interpretation, I think, is symptom of a deeper malaise. As the rejection letters trickled in (yes, such is life), I noticed a few recurring concerns. And, annoyed as I might have been, for them to denounce style, character, plot, it was far worse to catch the underlying implication that Seahorse was not quite an ‘Indian novel’.

Over the summer, a friend I was visiting all the way in Italy, was facing a similar problem. He’d been rejected by an Italian publisher because his novella — featuring an expat Indian living in Rome, rootlessly, irreverently wandering its ancient streets — did not deal with ‘Indian’ themes. He too was exasperated. What the hell did that mean, we complained over our aperitivos? Dusty villages facing drought? Mangoes? The City in New India? Caught between the ancient and the modern? Wrestling with economic change? Else, were we forever relegated to writing about (shudder) the Immigrant Experience? The splitting of our lives between the East and the West. The splitting of our tongues between English and insert name of quaint, preferably almost extinct, regional language. Or (that indefinable, intangible term) ‘poverty’? Are we doomed to be forever postcolonial?

I’m not implying that we ignore that we live in a decidedly skewed world whose inequalities were shaped by Europe’s horrendous imperial ambitions, or the insidiousness of contemporary colonisations, and the capitalistic power structures they support. In no way am I dismissing literary attempts to counter these concerns, to dismantle, explicate, question, condemn. But my grouse is with the ‘West’ that gives itself far too much credit. The (ex) Empire continues to write back, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or doesn’t occupy itself with anything else apart from colonial experience. The ‘West’ that allows for imaginative freedom only to its own (dare I say, White) writers. And by extension, its other creative practitioners. For them, just as it always has been, the world is theirs for the taking. Anderson’s movies occupy an imaginative ‘nowhereness’ that’s accessible only to the privileged. The ones for whom artistic identity isn’t already predefined. For whom history can be shrugged off lightly. For whom the gaze of the audience, critics, and sponsors isn’t already narrowed by preconceptions and expectations. Worse, artists and writers from former colonies that are mostly celebrated in the West are the ones that best fit these customised suits.

In light of this, I’d like to claim for myself (and everyone else facing similarly worded rejection letters) what Jason Hill, professor of philosophy at the College of Liberal Art and Social Sciences at DePaul University, calls “the right to forget where one is from.” He suggests that self-transformation only truly springs from embracing forgetfulness, that attachment is what makes difficult the resocialisation of self and values warranted by this process. But what’s more important is that this erasure of self is acknowledged by others. That our ‘belonging’— and everything that entails — isn’t persistently pinned on us over and again. Destroying any attempt at truly ‘decolonising’ the future by forever viewing others as past colonised selves. Remember, people have the right to forget.

( Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse)

Follow Janice on Twitter @janicepariat

Published on September 25, 2015

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