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Reflections

Tradition and the IWE writer

SHASHI DESHPANDE

To which tradition does an Indian writing in English belong? Will we have a thriving tradition if writers write only for today and not for the future? SHASHI DESHPANDE


Literature does not begin and end with ourselves. It is a long chain of which all writers are a part.


Writers rarely trouble themselves with abstract questions about writing. However, very early on in my writing career, I found myself troubled by the question of where my writing belonged, a question which, perhaps, came out of the absolute isolation I was working in, of not knowing who my readers were. Many years later I tackled the question differently, asking, “Where does Indian Writing in English (IWE) belong?” and found what seemed to be satisfactory answers. Nevertheless, despite the hosannas that had begun greeting IWE, a vague sense of uneasiness lingered. It was only when I read a review of Zadie Smith's essays ( Changing my Mind) that the uneasiness turned into a question. The review, referring to Smith's “congenial attitude to the literary past”, reminded me that her novel On Beautywas modelled on E.M. Forster's Howards End. And it struck me then, that it was possible for Zadie Smith to connect herself to a much earlier writer only because she had so completely absorbed and assimilated Howards End. In fact, she had possessedit. Which could happen only because she belonged to the same literary tradition that Forster did. And then the question came to me: What tradition does IWE belong to?

The complex multilingual nature of Indian literature will not allow for such a clear line of tradition as F.R. Leavis drew in The Great Tradition. For him, the tradition of the great English novel began with Jane Austen and led to George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad and D.H. Lawrence. Things are not so simple for IWE. Even when we accept that IWE is a part of Indian literature, we will have to agree that each Indian language ( bhasha) has its own distinct tradition. However, while different bhashashave much in common, it is difficult to see a connection between IWE and any one of them, or trace the influence of any one of them on IWE — or vice versa. A tradition is created and seen by way of influences and influence is not an osmotic process; writers have to read the books to be influenced. And the truth is that most IWE writers do not know any Indian language well enough to read and “possess”, like Zadie Smith did Howards End, the books of that literature.

Anxiety of identity

Perhaps, because of its very short history, a comparison with American literature may be more apt, since American literature started from scratch after America became independent. A very interesting theory put forward in an essay by a feminist critic Nina Baym (in The New Feminist Criticism) is that early American critics felt that, having liberated themselves from England, they could not have English literature as the standard of excellence for American writing. They therefore decided on “Americanness” as a standard, which became part of the American tradition. IWE writers, on the other hand, suffered from what Meenakshi Mukherjee calls the “anxiety of Indianness”, “Indianness” being a quality their books needed to travel abroad. IWE was also almost parasitically dependent on the appreciation of English critics, on endorsements from English writers. And it allowed English critics and writers to establish a standard of excellence for itself. Which is why the outsiders' assessment still remains the privileged one.

In any case, it is early days as yet in terms of a literary history, and it seems more fair to say that IWE is in the process of evolving a literary tradition. But apart from enough time, a tradition needs “a mass of (women's) novels, excellent, fair and wretched” which, as Ellen Moers says in Literary Women, helped Jane Austen “to study and improve upon” and achieve classic perfection. IWE certainly does not have such a mass of writing as yet. On the whole, I can only agree with Meenakshi Mukherjee that IWE has had a “discontinuous tradition” and that there is no “genealogy that can be traced satisfactorily”. For example, there was a sudden break from the past in the 1980s when IWE became global. Writers were no longer interested in earlier writers or their writing; their models were novels which found approval in the West. Writers of these novels became the face of IWE and post-colonialism its new slogan.

Ignorance of the past

Recently, there has been another change. Young writers, whose novels have become best sellers and are toasted as the new successes of IWE, are even less linked to the past. In fact, there is a woeful lack of what has always been a part of creating tradition, which is, writers reading one another. I was appalled to hear a young and successful writer declare, not apologetically, but with arrogance, that he did not read any of the early writers. This is not a solitary phenomenon. A friend who teaches a creative writing class was shocked to find that none of her students had read the great writers whose writings were offered as models. A publisher, mentioning young writers' aversion to revising and editing, said angrily and despairingly, “they don't even read themselves!” Even rejection of one's literary past is better than such wilful ignorance, because rejection can, as it did with Jane Austen, lead to original creation. Northanger Abbeyis both a parody of the Gothic novels popular at the time and the beginning of a new kind of realistic writing. But Jane Austen had read all the writers she rejected.

In an editorial, the editor of Phalanx, an e-journal, has some interesting things to say about young IWE writers. They are, he says, preoccupied with the personal voice, indifferent to what literature has traditionally been and done, indifferent to the past of literature. Like most generalisations, this may not be true of all young writers. Unfortunately, the glitter of success and the glamour of celebrityhood can dazzle talent and lead it astray and an eagerness to succeed will encourage imitativeness rather than inventiveness. Perhaps every aspiring writer should be told to read Virginia Woolf's statement: “without the early writers, Jane Austen and the Brontes could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer …”, to understand that literature does not begin and end with ourselves. It is a long chain of which all writers are a part. Good writers write not only for today, but, they hope, for tomorrow as well. Whereas, books which come out of the purely personal are like bubbles; they vanish, leaving nothing behind for the future. If writers, in their pursuit of success, abandon the aim of literary excellence and join publishers in dumbing down readers' tastes, what lies before us is, sadly, a dead end.

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