The tunnel vision of the white reader

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on November 16, 2019 Published on November 15, 2019

Small world: ‘Meanwhile, the unselfconsciously prejudiced white reader needs to ask her navel the question: “Why does literature written in English elsewhere have to be explained to me?’   -

As editors and publishers mollycoddle them, the white reader must ask herself why English writing from non-white writers must be ‘explained’ to her

One would think that the literary sensibility (and instinct) is universal. Indians tend to take this for granted. If one reads and writes in English in India, one’s ambition is to read everything that has been written or rendered in English, regardless of which country it comes from. Reading about another culture can be difficult initially; we might find some details unfamiliar. That only encourages us to have patience. There is no scaling back of reading ambition.

This is how we grow up. When we start putting out books of our own, we take it for granted that the world will be interested in reading us as well. It is not. There can be two reasons for this: One, that what we’re putting out is substandard; there’s a manufacturing defect. Perhaps this is why to land a job teaching creative writing in an American university, one needs to be published by an American publisher. HarperCollins US is acceptable but not HarperCollins India. It’s like an American dentist endorsing Colgate made in Florida over Colgate made in Mumbai.

The other, more likely, reason is that the white reader is closed for business. White readers, authors and publishers don’t think of the literary sensibility as universal. Indians must then be mutants who are able to read works of literature from other cultures and face no problem in doing so. Alternatively, it could be that the white reader is the most insular, provincial, confined reader around. This should make us Indians champions rather than mutants.

In my 20s, when I was a student at Oxford, white kids couldn’t quite figure out why I liked punk rock, Philip Larkin and Blur. “It’s sooo British,” they said. I was also into grunge rock, from across the Atlantic, and totally got what was happening in Seattle (I’ve never set foot in America to this day). There was also Dil Chahta Hai to keep up with, not to mention the first books of Raj Kamal Jha and Pankaj Mishra. All done with effortless superiority.

It’s not so for the white reader, who is a mollycoddled infant led by the hand by an overly concerned editor and publisher. The editor will tell the Indian writer that “this wouldn’t work for my reader”. Why? Your writing was not especially tailored for us but we still read all of it, derived pleasure and faced no real obstacles in doing so.

The white person is innocently perplexed about what I could possibly like about English bands who sing about park life, cups of weak tea, their class system and country homes. In Acrylic Afternoons, a song by English rock band Pulp, lyricist and singer Jarvis Cocker croons: “Can I stay here lying under the table together with you now?/ Can I hold you forever in acrylic afternoons?/ I want to hold you tight whilst children play outside/ And they wait for their mothers/ To finish with lovers/And call them inside for their tea/ Oh, Wayne, Julie, Diane, Heather, Rachel, come home/ Ooh come home for your tea.” This love song about clandestine assignations doesn’t work for an American listener (Pulp never really made it in America) but it works just fine for me. The more local a work of art is, the more rich in provincial detail, the more universal it gets.

Why are white bands not interested in Indian bands? Why is the white listener or reader not using the internet to expand their horizons? While the Hindu Right would have us convinced that India’s chhavi has waxed in desh-videsh, the truth is that even for the most literate listener or reader there, India remains a fuzzy blob of barefoot poverty and colourful Bollywood.

My interest in short fiction led me to the discovery of Bernard Malamud, Bruno Schulz, Weldon Kees, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vilas Sarang, and, most recently, Mary Miller, who lives and works in the American South. There is another forgotten American writer called Beth Nugent, who wrote a terrific collection of stories about unmarried brother-sister couples cohabiting. Why do we always discover them but they never us?

Our desperation to be acknowledged by the white man has led us to the ghetto of ‘identity’. Special issues of American magazines in which Indian writers appear are dedicated to this withering theme. The last thing on my mind when I write a sentence of fiction is ‘the body’, ‘immigrant’ and ‘identity’. Forsaking all aesthetic norms, the Indian writer then dances on the exotic world stage of ‘identity’. The tragedy is ours because we lack domestic numbers when it comes to readership. The world is what it is but the relentless cosmopolitanism of the Indian reader can only be an asset in the long run. Meanwhile, the unselfconsciously prejudiced white reader needs to ask her navel the question: “Why does literature written in English elsewhere have to be explained to me? Why do my editors always feel that I won’t be able to follow a simple story? Why can’t I make an effort, search for this literature and give it a chance?” As En Vogue sang: “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BUSINESS LINE



Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on November 15, 2019
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