01 June 2007

Look back

In one of my recent posts on the contemporary Indian novel, I had mentioned a point raised by Salman Rushdie. That of the tendency of Indian authors living outside India to look back at their old country with a sense of nostalgia, with “some sense of loss.” As expressed in their writing, this feeling seems to be common among all immigrant authors – ‘immigrant’ from the perspective of the new country – and is perhaps because they wish, as Rushdie suggests, “to reclaim” what they no longer have.

This may be true for Salman Rushdie, and more so for authors like Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth who were born and brought up in India, but I am surprised when people include V S Naipaul and Jhumpa Lahiri in this list of Indian authors. After all, to reclaim, you must possess it first; and neither Naipaul nor Lahiri were born, or ever lived, in India. So, when Naipaul and Lahiri “look back” what do they see? Do they see the India you and I live in? What is it that makes them “look back” and see India, a place they have never lived in, nor experienced the way you and I do everyday?

This reminds me of an interesting comment that Amitav Ghosh had made at the 2002 International Festival of Indian Literature at the Neemrana Fort Palace in Rajasthan, which I quote here from a February 2002 News India Times article ‘Two worlds of Indian writing meet, hesitantly’ by Anindita Ramaswamy:

“...Amitav Ghosh, who is equally at home in New York or Kolkata, told IANS that he sees himself clearly as an Indian writer. “I think an Indian writer is one who is willing to be called an Indian writer. For example, Naipaul, who has never lived in India nor has written much about India, I am sure feels that he is an Indian writer.” Ghosh said that the definition of Indianness surfaces more prominently when one is abroad.”

Mr Ghosh, I am an ardent fan of yours, but I cannot agree with you here entirely. In fact, I’m not even sure if you are 100% sure of what you are saying. Having been an immigrant myself, I can confirm that the ‘consciousness of being Indian’ surfaces when one is in a foreign land. But, to include in it people who have never been Indian is a fallacy. I believe Mr Naipaul’s writing is a product of his imagination and his skill. I applaud him for that. I cannot call him an Indian writer.

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