July 11, 2020
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Rushdie And The Sea Of Prejudice

A '50 years' anthology of the finest Indian writing marred by tall claims and inexcusable exclusions

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Rushdie And The Sea Of Prejudice
The Vintage Book Of Indian Writing, 1947-97
By Salman Rushdie By Elizabeth West
Vintage; Distributed by Rupa & Co Rs 340; Pages: 578
AN anthology is essentially a deception. A publisher's strategy for wringing the market cynical twist more. At can whet appetite, not satisfy it; at worst, it can foster the illusion of knowledge, acquainting you with all the right names, whom you then no longer need actually read. Since celebrity and commerce are inextricably linked in the modern world, publishers need big names as anthologists. It's doubly helpful if the big name also writes some kind of introductory essay, tying up his material and its themes—the essay then becoming a kind of template for whatever the arbitrary grouping yoked together. In this scenario, Vintage Books, UK, have managed to put together the ultimate masala: a huge occasion, 50 years of Indian independence; the most happening camp in world literature, Indians writing in English; and stirring it together as anthologist and essayist, the most famous Indian writer in the world, Salman Rushdie.

And the entire world knows Rushdie stirs a mean curry. Occasionally singeing his own tongue. This time is no different. The volume he has edited is called The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997. Rushdie could have played it safe and restricted his playing field to Indians writing in English, an impressive enough arena. But why would Rushdie, who even as he first exploded on the international scene declared that all his life he'd wanted to write "capacious novels"—a brash claim he has lived by—why would he become suddenly modest in the role of anthologist? Consequently, Rushdie has erred, or sinned if you prefer, on two counts. First, by being immoderately ambitious in assuming that he could straddle the literatures of so many languages. And then, by being so amazingly arrogant as to declare, in his essay, that virtually none of the writing done in the last 50 years in languages other than English quite measures up.

It is a staggering claim; and someone close to Rushdie, some friend, acquaintance, editor—someone who spends at least a few weeks a year in India—should have flagged it down. Rushdie has included 32 writers in his 'definitive' anthology. Only one of them, Saadat Hasan Manto, did not write in English. In other words, O.V. Vijayan, Nirmal Verma, Gopinath Mohanty, Qurratulain Haider, Ismat Chughtai, Ananthamurthy, Mahasweta Devi, Thakazhi Pillai, and Basheer did not make the cut. Nor did Manik Bandopadhyaya, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Sunil Gangopadhyaya.

This is how Rushdie states and defends his position: "Prose writing—both fiction and non-fiction—created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the '16 official languages' of India, the so-called 'vernacular languages', during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books."

So far so good. Then he goes on to admit that this is "a large claim, and while it may be easy for western readers to accept it (after all, few non-English-language Indian writers, other than the Nobel laureate Tagore, have ever made much of an impact on world literature), it runs counter to much of the received critical wisdom within India itself. It is also not a claim which, when we set out on the enormous and rewarding task of doing the reading for this book, we ever expected to make. The task we set ourselves was simply to make the best possible selection from what is presently available in the English language, including, obviously, work in translation. " And now the moment of discovery: "To our considerable astonishment, only one translated text—S.H. Manto's masterpiece, the short story Toba Tek Singh—made the final cut."

On the other hand, take a quick look at those who did. Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayan-tara Sahgal, G.V. Desani, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Kamala Markandaya, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Ved Mehta, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Satyajit Ray, Salman Rushdie, Padma Perera (Hejmadi), Upama-nyu Chatterjee, Rohinton Mistry, Bapsi Sidhwa, I. Allan Sealy, Shashi Tharoor, Sara Suleri, Firdaus Kanga, Anjana Appachana, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Githa Hariharan, Gita Mehta, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Ardashir Vakil, Mukul Kesavan, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai.

OF these, many have written a mere one book. Of course such minimal production is no reason for disqualification, particularly when the book is a pathbreaking masterpiece like Desani's Hatterr. But would anyone even dare suggest that most of what has been included above even comes close to the ingenuity of Hatterr? And then there are some—Kiran Desai and Ardashir Vakil, for example—whose books must have been just manuscripts when Rushdie decided to include them in his landmark anthology on Indian writing.

Is Mr Rushdie telling us that Shashi Tharoor, Padma Perera, Firdaus Kanga, Satyajit Ray (!!!), Anjana Appachana, Ardashir Vakil and several of the others—fine writers though they all are—rate for more than Vijayan or Nirmal Verma? Even in translation? For Rushdie, in an attempt at preempting criticism, has covered his flanks in his introduction by asserting that there "has long been a genuine problem of translation in India—not only into English but between the vernacular languages—and it is possible that good writers have been excluded by reason of their translators' inadequacies rather than their own". Now there is no disagreement on this, and this is a litany constantly sung in Indian literary circles. It has mostly to do with the economics of the business: on the one hand a small market makes it unlucrative for the truly gifted writers to spend painstaking years translating, on the other bad translations further depress the market. But even in this dismal scenario there are some good translated works available. Let's take Vijayan for example. His masterpiece, The Legends of Khasak, Malayalam literature's watershed book, ranks right alongside Desani and Rushdie himself in its wonderfully magical conjuring. It may be smaller in canvas—not leaping across continents and aeons—but it is far more rooted and humane. And the fineness of touch that the international literary savants crave, the perfectly honed sensibility, the sense of balance that keeps a sentence surefooted on the tightrope over the chasms of sentimentalism, parody and overstatement, this Khasak has. Even in translation. If Rushdie had to include only ten writers and not thirty-two, Vijayan should have still been there.

There are many other outstanding books and writers, in translation, who come to mind. There is the sprawling Paraja by Gopinath Mohanty, very impressive even in its English version. There is Srilal Shukla's devastating Raag Darbari, with its Catch-22 class of black humour and satire: none of the writers included in the anthology can match his comic energy. Apart from the well-known and the famous, there are the odd gems one encounters every now and then in unhyped translations. Some years back there was the translation of a novella called Carvalho by Kannada writer Puranchandra Tejaswi, which was a stunning revelation of the class and sophistication of ostensibly mofussil writers. Carvalho in theme, resonance and narration could knock quite a few of Rushdie's charmed 32 clear out of the ring.

Rushdie goes to some length to defend the legitimacy of Indian writing in English, and to scoff at those who would scoff at him, pointing out the irony of the fact that the language used for the purpose would be English. Rushdie is needlessly prickly. Few would dispute the legitimacy of English as an Indian language of great creative potential; and it's also admissible that the school of Indian writers working in English could well be the most dynamic. Thanks in some large part to Rushdie himself, there has been a fabulous flowering of talent in the last two decades, and its range and variety is beginning to increasingly dazzle. But that also has to do with media and money. Rushdie's anthology would have been a very fine one, if it had confined itself only to those writing in English. Here too, of course, there are some notable omissions. No Kiran Nagarkar, no Bharati Mukherjee. The greatest of them all—arguably??—V.S. Naipaul, is not there by his own volition: Rushdie does not tell us his reasons, but gives space to discussing him in his essay. Some of the included have suffered through sloppy subbing. Githa Hariharan has been spelled three different ways, while Firdaus Kanga is at one point Firdans Kanga.

Rushdie has erred in attempting too much, and with too little humility. He has charted a wonderful river in spate, but wants us to believe it is the sea of stories. But this one time we refuse to succumb to his magic.

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