In Defense of India's Literary Culture (Dalrymple, Bal, Jaipur, etc.)

There's an interesting -- though rather awkward -- debate up right now at Open Magazine, between William Dalrymple and Hartosh Singh Bal. The starting point for the debate is the status of the annual Jaipur International Literature Festival, which will be occurring this coming weekend in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Before getting into the ins and outs of the debate, here is what one probably needs to read.

1. Here is Hartosh Singh Bal's starting volley:

2. Here is Dalrymple's response, "The Piece You Ran is Blatantly Racist":

3. And here is Bal's response to Dalrymple's "racism" charge:

4. Here is a further response by Pramod Kumar, who claims that actually the Jaipur Literature festival was not exactly William Dalrymple's own idea in its original inception:

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I should begin by saying that I'm predisposed not to think very highly of Hartosh Singh Bal, because of the asinine essay he published in the same magazine in 2009, "Oh, For a Book to Ban!" (Chandrahas Choudhury at The Middle Stage responded to that essay ably here.)

To put it as succinctly as I can: I'm not really inclined to care very much what a literary critic who doesn't read books thinks.

That said, Bal, in his initial piece in the new "Open" debate, does seem to have improved, and done some journalistic homework this time around. He does make some valid points about some of the the problems with India's literary culture: there's no question that there is still a fair amount of symbolic and financial dependence on the West (though arguably it's as much the U.S. that drives that as it is the U.K.). Reading his essay it seemed to me that his target shouldn't be Dalrymple per se, but rather the overly deferential way Dalrymple is received by some Indians. Moreover, his complaint with the Jaipur festival isn't about the festival per se -- by all accounts, the festival is diverse and inclusive, though it certainly does trade on the celebrities that fly in to participate -- but again, the matter of perceptions. (It might be interesting to ask some Indian readers not clued into LRB and NYRB channels whose name means more to them: Ian McEwan, or Shobha De? William Dalrymple or Amitabh Bachchan?)

That said, I think it's worth pointing out some things about India's English-language literary culture. First, as someone who started out studying the first big wave of Indian English authors -- Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Anita Desai, and so on -- one of the things I always used to lament was the fact that all of these writers felt they had to leave India to make their careers happen. It was partly a symbolic matter -- they did want recognition from the London  literary establishment -- but it was at least as much financial. Anyone in their position in the 1970s would have done the same if they could, without really skipping a beat.

One sign of things changing is that that is no longer the case. There is a new vibrancy in the Indian publishing houses, and the Indian branches of transnational publishing companies (i.e., HarperCollins India and so on) that might well allow current and subsequent generations of writers to make a good living as writers without leaving India. Some of the younger writers whose books I've read and enjoyed in recent years fit in that category: Chandrahas Choudhury, Amit Varma, Samit Basu, Deepanjana Pal, and Dilip D'Souza come to mind (there are many, many others). Perhaps they are not getting paid on the scale of Arundhati Roy or Vikram Chandra (i.e., with the huge advances from American publishers), but the last I checked they seemed to be doing just fine.

The issue is not a lingering "Raj effect", it's whether there are publishing houses that can edit and produce serious books, whether there are journalists and magazines that can review those books, and finally whether there are readers who can buy and read those books. By almost any standard, the literary climate   (again, only talking about English for the moment) is much better now than it was 20 years ago. Why isn't that the real story here? At one point in his initial essay Bal asks, "How did a White man . . . become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?"  Someone only becomes an arbiter if others elect to make him one. Dalrymple is certainly influential, but there are plenty of Indian critics who can also be held up as "arbiters", including the afore-mentioned Chandrahas Choudhury; we might also mention Nilanjana Roy as a possible candidate for "Arbiter". Bal's piece, in other words, seems to be symptomatic of the very disease he claims to be trying to diagnose. 

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I'm not going to go out of my way to defend Dalrymple here; he's perfectly capable of defending himself. I do think Bal was mistaken to focus on a "Raj" connection for Dalrymple, since Dalrymple really does not stand for that -- as anyone who's read his major books would know. (See: "The Last Mughal" or "White Mughals") For his part, I do think Dalrymple should probably not have responded to Bal with the "racism" charge, since it has proven to be a distraction from more substantive issues. (The cartoon was probably racist; the essay itself was more misdirected than anything else.)

Again, I think the substance of Bal's initial engagement with "Dalrymple" was more symbolic than real -- more focused on the problems with the Indian readers' deferentiality to Western authority -- so it's unclear why Dalrymple was even really his particular target. Isn't the real target Bal wants the Indian English reading public?

The best way to help foster a more intelligent literary culture, one that is driven more by ideas and substance than by cheap postures and obvious symbolism, is to actually focus on substance. How much more interesting would it have been to write a piece about the 2011 Jaipur International Literary Festival focusing not on Dalrymple and Ian McEwan, but on the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif (who is participating in the festival this year), or the great Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, one of the key figures in the Nayi Kavita [New Poetry] movement? Or the great Chinese, African, and Pakistani writers who are all gathering there this year? The saddest thing about this whole argument is that with all this vitriol we've wasted what might have been a good opportunity to have a different kind of conversation.