Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Myths and Legends of Indian English Fiction

Shruti Rattan

An emerging Indian writer who writes in English relates this story with great relish. Closing his eyes, leaning back, he begins:
"Six years back, I was sitting in my drawing room in Salt Lake Kolkata. Copies of my newly published novel stood in precariously balanced stacks all over the limited floor-space. In front of me sat my extremely helpful elderly neighbour, looking politely impressed, but with pointed reservations.

Shruti Rattan is a fictitious character who appears in Arunabha Sengupta’s latest novel The Best Seller.
An Amsterdam based researcher on political science, she is also a talented author and compulsive punster.

“He was a decent, diligent writer of fiction and plays in Bengali and had been a disciple of Buddhadev Guha, one of the vocal traditionalists who had waged a full throttled war against Indian writers writing in English.
          “ ‘You write excellent English,’ my good neighbour said generously, ‘But, I have got to tell you something. You have to start writing in Bengali too...’
“ ‘Well ...’ 
“ ‘Don’t worry, literary sense comes from within. The language is just your vehicle. But, unless you write in your mother tongue, you will always be limited. You won’t be able to capture the nuances.’
“Being close to thirty years younger than him, I did not really want to get into a debate. I had diagnosed this to be one of those topics where conviction towers over senses while the gentle breeze of arguments only heat up the environment without bothering the rational acumen. Globalisation, Global Warming, Social Networking, Scientific rigour of
Economics, the advantage of using MBAs, American Foreign Policy and the merits of Sourav Ganguly’s batsmanship are but a few examples of this genre of debate.

“However, I did mumble the names of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. Predictably, this did not make much of an impact, since he had not heard of either.
   “I had to make do somehow with a focused discussion on the mango of the season and its exponentially increasing price.”

The arguments of the venerable gentleman are valid to some extent, if one deals with the age old depiction of rural India, the interactions of the village folk and the daily lives of the
erstwhile middle class man still not convinced about battling the bureaucracy to obtain a useless document called the passport. At the same time, R.K.Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and the rest of the old brigade have done a wonderful job of telling the tale of the common Indian man in the adapted language. The late Professor P.Lal, with his one man enterprise The Writers Workshop, did show that English could be the means of narrating Indian lives as
well as rediscovering the wealth of traditional wisdom.

On the other hand, when the setting changes to the modern world of corporate environment, repeated ventures abroad, a cast of characters from all over India and the whole wide world, writing in the vernacular can be a handicapped handful. Whereas the open world makes us take the tone of irony inherent in the English language more and more, it is
the depiction of the novel nuances of the modern day cubicular world that can take a severe beating if attempted in the native languages. 

Versatility of an author and his finesse with words can always achieve the telling of a tale, but modern day writers generally find it easier to speak about the global landscape in the global language than the local one.

In two excellent articles in journals published in France and India, eminent literary reviewer Dr. Shyamala A. Narayan of the Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi, voices the same thoughts.

“Literary production in all the genres of Indian English literature has gone up significantly in the last two decades.  The debate about the legitimacy of Indians writing in English, because it is a foreign language (it was “unpatriotic”) died out by the 1970s.
The condemnation of Indian English writing returned in the nineteen-nineties, now in the guise of “Nativism”, the argument that true literature has to be born of the local milieu. Nativist critics like Bhalchandra Nemade have pointed out the intimate link between culture and language. It follows axiomatically, they believe, that Indian English writing has no locus standi, because the English language did not take birth in India. But creative writers, publishers and the reading public are undeterred by such considerations, and Indian English writing, including drama, flourishes as never before.  Girish Karnad, the eminent playwright, makes Manjula, the protagonist of his monologue  “Broken Images” (2005)  discuss this issue: 
A pundit for instance has stated that no Indian writer
can express himself – or herself – honestly in English. “For Indian writers,
English is a medium of dishonesty.” Of course, one could also ask how many
Kannada writers are honest in what they write in Kannada. But if you did that
you would be immediately condemned as a traitor.  (Karnad  192)”

 (Shyamala A. Narayan, Recent Trends in Indian English Literature, Commonwealth Essays and Studies  ed. Marta Dvorak, Paris, Vol 31.2
Spring 2009 pp.5-14)

The definitive differentiator which leads more and more Indian authors to take up
the pen in English is that life has changed. The texture of the world and lives undergoing a paradigm shift with the coming of the computer age and the internet, social networking and so on, the social issues have also metamorphosed into their new mutated forms. As Narayan says: 

“The novel is concerned primarily with social issues. Indian English novelists, including the “Big Three” (Anand, Narayan and Raja Rao) and Khushwant Singh, Manohar Malgonkar, Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sahgal, Arun Joshi and Chaman Nahal wrote about the society of their time — common concerns included the village, Indian conditions
like arranged marriages, caste and untouchability, plantation labour and the class struggle. They presented the India of holy men (Narayan’s The Guide, Bhabani Bhattacharya’s He Who Rides a Tiger) and Maharajas (Manohar Malgonkar’s The Princes is the best example). Or they present East-West encounter in various modes – the philosophical in Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope, the comic in Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans. Young novelists of the twenty-first century depict a very different kind of society, they describe the section of society they know at first hand.  They write about  life
in the IITs and IIMs, the experiences of  young MBAs when they start working, software professionals, call centres, matrimonial websites and twenty-twenty cricket.”


     While it is difficult to detail the conversation of the village panchayat, or the intricacies of a mid day card game between idle housewives of the suburban India, in English, when describing the life of a computer programmer, an MBA or a software process consultant, the language is blessed with an already rich vocabulary which eliminates the need of laborious reengineering in local languages. Especially Indian languages are restricted in this regard because the adequate knowledge of English in the native speakers ensured that a technical
– and by extension a social – vocabulary for these professions did not need to be reconstructed in the mother tongue.

     Hence, Shyamala A. Narayan does not find it difficult to read and enjoy the
offerings in English with their modern day subject matter. 

Three novels about software professionals stand out: Arunabha Sengupta’s Labyrinth (2004) and Big Apple Two Bites (2007), and Priyo Ghosh’s You are Fired (2005).

 Shankar Roy, the protagonist of  You are Fired,  has a degree in information technology, and lives and works in Singapore. When his company is unable to land a lucrative contract because of a rival firm’s chicanery, he is fired. We are shown the
sudden change in their lifestyle; he and his wife Anu have to move out of their big house into a poorer neighbourhood.  Roy starts questioning the values of corporate life; instead of looking for another job, he steps in to help his neighbour, a Chinese widow whose store is running at a loss. He uses his knowledge of  software and information technology to build it up into a thriving business.
 Labyrinth shows two brilliant engineeringgraduates caught in the labyrinth of a huge software company “Adieu Consultancy Solutions” (modelled on Tata Consultancy Services). Kiran Arothe is a senior software engineer, who has joined A.C.S. because they promised to post him in Bombay after the initial orientation. A.C.S. is shown as a soul-less company, interested only in profits. When it comes to recruiting young people like Vikram Gupta from college campuses, they paint a rosy picture of their future career; once they have been inducted, they are made to sign a three-year bond. But youngsters still leave, in spite of this. So the Vice President, Digambaram, and Dr Nageshwar, head of the Human Resource Department, get the brilliant idea of making the youngsters submit their original  certificates. How Vikram manages to outwit the company, and get justice for Kiran Arothe, forms the plot of the novel. Vikram Gupta is a refreshingly different protagonist;  he does not suffer from any deep-seated anxiety, or worry about the clash between modernity and tradition in India, his concerns are more mundane. The Bengali Vikram dislikes everything in Chennai — the food, the climate and the work atmosphere. His longing to return to Calcutta, to his mother and dog, is vividly portrayed. He has problems renting accommodation (and A.C.S. is unhelpful).  “Renting to bachelors is always a big problem” says the landlord’s daughter, so Vikram claims that he is going to get married soon. This leads to some  hilarious situations in the novel, especially after Vikram meets and falls in love with a young girl whose sense of humour matches his own. There is a wide variety of characters. There is no attempt to present all managers as villains and the young recruits as angels. 
            Sengupta’s second novel, Big Apple Two Bites features a more experienced software
professional who is sent to the U.S.A. as a consultant. His
two visits to New York (the “Big Apple”) in 1998-1999 and three years later, are recounted in the second person, adding a touch of freshness to the narration. The first person (autobiographical) account is fairly
common; here the novelist manages to sustain the technique of referring to the protagonist in the second person right through the book: 
And it is solitude that you crave. You want to get away from the crowd and open your new book. The one you bought the day before. The impromptu party in the Clifton apartment made it impossible for you to read it the previous evening. You dearly want to make up for lost time. (Big Apple Two Bites 5) 

The higher management in the software company seems to have grown even more unethical, regarding everything in terms of dollars. They have no qualms about dismissing hard working young engineers, once the project is over, they care only for their own advancement. Big Apple Two Bites  shows the varied responses of Indian professionals visiting America. Some grumble about the food and culture, others
direct all their efforts towards saving money. Sen’s time in New York revolves around the Japanese martial art form Aikido, and an attractive colleague, Allison Palmer. His American colleagues are individualized — while Bruce and Allison are warm and welcoming, others resent the Indians who seem to be taking jobs away from them. Maureen says about Indians, “You have a dog? I thought
they ate dogs in India … Well, what can people do? They don’t have enough to eat. . . So they eat whatever is available . . . dogs. . . jobs. . .”  The novelist deals with great sensitivity with the issue of outsourcing, an issue which is of concern to many in India.
    (Shyamala A Narayan The Software Professional in Indian English Fiction, The Critical Endeavour Vol. XV, June 2009, pp.22-33.)

It is the familiarity with English language that makes India a major force in the IT Industry.

Coming back to the concern of Sengupta’s friendly neighbour about the local nuances, there are moments when they do creep into the foray. And in that case, it is not too difficult to extend the English Language to absorb the new word. Shyamala A. Narayan explains this as she talks of the technique used in Sengupta’s Big Apple 2 Bites, in which the main character expounds on dhop, a Bengali word which is a curious enhancement of the English ‘lie’.

  Sen calls his presentation “A load of dhop”, a Bangla word he finds hard to translate. He and his room-mate Aniket (another Bengali) “have had a philosophical discourse on the role dhop plays in the industry”, and the conclusions they reach are illustrated in the novel:

Dhop flows through the veins of the corporate world like sustaining lifeblood. It is
like prana, like chi, the primordial cosmic force of the industry. Flow­ing from all the levels of organisational hierarchy to oth­ers. From superiors to subordinates, from middle manag­ers to upper management, from upper management to the customers. As one progresses up the ladder of the corpo­rate hoopla, one graduates to different levels of  dhop. At the marketing stage, it reaches the hands of magicians, the artistic alchemists of dhop, those creative craftsmen who can metamorphose dhop from one form to another, extend and expand it to limitless proportions — ultimately performing that transformation, that black magic that con­verts dhop into green-backed dollars. Akin to converting energy into matter. It is the miracle of one of these gurus of dhop that has made you travel across the world to try to create your own brand of dhop involving Neural Net­works. At the extreme top of the management, there are people like Chiranjeet Kar and Ravi .. .  for whom life and dhop  have lost the sense of duality, who live, be­lieve and propagate dhop. (33)
These novels point to serious issues like the ethics of corporate management and the importance of human bonds, even as they depict the lives of software professionals. The language does not draw attention to itself, both Priyo Ghosh and Arunabha Sengupta are interested primarily in telling a story.   

The question remains whether these writings in English do capture the essence of India. However, this statement itself is vague. India is complex and the essence is intriguing because it is elusive. Ms Narayan does sum it up neatly as:

“Many of (the) new novels are simple entertainers, but some have a deeper significance, even though the mode is social comedy. Another criticism levelled against these new novels is that  the protagonists are confined entirely to urban life (in Singapore
and New York) and  metropolitan India; but no work can encompass the whole of India, and the software professional and the metropolis are as much a part of India as the farmer and the village. The important thing is that stereotypes, whether in terms of characters or situations, are avoided.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment