Imagining India -- A midnight misreadingS. Prasannarajan
The midnight child has grown old. Exiled by his own story, trapped inside his own metaphor, he is today a bearded Jehovah of despair. His anxieties are as ancient as the first cry of Saleem Sinai. His neurosis is as awesome as the last hurrah of Moraes Zogoiby. We are with the god of big things, of hope abandoned. The private kingdom of Salman Rushdie mimes the public sorrows of his homeland. He and India are of the same age, almost (he is older by a few days), but at least for him, fifty years of independence mean nothing more than a middle-age irony.
So Rushdie seeks to make the best out of this cheerless scenario. He puts aside that perforated sheet of memory, and, from the remoteness of banishment, surveys the distant landscape of freedom. What does he see there? Not the sandy vastness of Jahilia, but a brighter space of myriad parodies. A celebration by midnight grandchildren. One is photographing history through a borrowed Rolleiflex; one is shooting a white-faced monkey so that he may become the heir apparent to Scheherazade; and many others are singing the ballads of a new Aryavarta. What a chutnified spectacle! It's my tissue, it's my life, Rushdie sighs like that Scottish Dolly.
Hence this judgment from the midnight grandfather: ``The prose writing -- both fiction and non-fiction -- created in this period (1947-57) 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 eighteen `recognised' 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. The true Indian literature of the first post-colonial half-century has been made in the language the British left behind'' (The New Yorker, Special Indian fiction issue, June 23 & 30, 1997).
Salman playing literary Salieri to the vernacular Mozart? Let's not be harsh, and mean, like the professional Rushdie interrogators. And let's place him outside the bracket: his eternal homecoming is one of the finest moments in fiction, not of the last fifty years, but of the entire century. No one else has better imagined post-Independence India, and no other Indian writer is as hopelessly subordinated to history as Rushdie. In the chaos of his garam masala prose merge the sighs and sorrows of India. Everything else is incidental -- the market, the cloning, the Dolly-like authority of biological possession. The post-Rushdie proliferation in the oriental bookshop is a tribute to the regenerative force of that first cry in Midnight's Children. Every subsequent word written in the overwhelming shadow of the doppelganger is only a priapic parody of the original. But it has been a ``valuable contribution'', nevertheless. Very voluminous as well.
Now, at long last, there is something called Indian literature outside India -- graspable, identifiable, readable. Perhaps as definable as the Latin American literature. The empire has accepted it as a literary sundowner. The market has legitimised it as India's mother tongue. For a generation which was born and brought up in English, Rushdie made storytelling possible. But are their stories ``proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the vernacular languages?'' The question is as problematic as defining India. Rushdie has pitted the linear progression of Indian writing in English against the anarchy of vernacular writing. But most of Rushdie's children, with some rare exceptions, are novelists of `education'. Imagination is secondary. That may perhaps explain why the history captured by Mukul Kesavan's Rolleiflex is as dry and heartless as a doctoral thesis (Simon Schama's history is more imaginative).
Elsewhere in this world, novelists are declaring that memory is art's alternative to history. In the package deal of post-Rushdie fiction, India is an avant garde tourist creation. And so photogenic. Borrow another Rollieflex, or, like Vikram Chandra, shoot another monkey.
Is then the other India, the vernacular India, aesthetically superior? There are of course quite a lot of social realist junk, meta-copies of distant metaphors, experiments which owe their failure to second-hand bookshops. But there are also writers who are crying out for a Gregory Rabassa, an Edith Grossman, a William Weaver, or a Linda Asher translators who have made Marquez, Eco and Kundera international bestsellers. At least one of them, whom Rushdie has condescendingly mentioned in his New Yorker essay (which also happens to be his introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing), is a novelist punished by the remoteness of his own language. In the marketplace of India Imagined, O.V. Vijayan is as remote as Malayalam. His Khasak is an invisible country; the sheer magic of his ancestral saga has been denied an international audience.
He epitomises the loneliness of vernacular writing. As the Malgudi of Narayan, an exaggerated national monument, epitomises the banality of Indian writing in English. In languages like Bengali, Marathi and Kannada, you may find other examples. Travellers in the silk route between Narayan's Malgudi and Arundhati Roy's Ayemenem are unlikely to be aware of the enchanting bylanes of the vernacular countryside.
The countryside needs a tourism promoter. A translator who may not be as good as a Rabassa. ``The job of translation is a trial-and-error process,'' writes Umberto Eco, ``very similar to what happens in an Oriental bazaar when you're buying a carpet. The merchant asks 100, you offer 10, and after an hour of bargaining you agree on 50.'' True, even such a bad bargain may not fully work in Indian languages. To begin with, let the Sahitya Akademy find its translator from outside the classroom. Let the publisher accept the reality that vernacular imagination can be saleable if it is professionally translated. So that Rushdie can read pages other than his children's.You may have to wait till the next commemorative pause for that to happen. When India whispers its own story in translated language, Rushdie as well as the international aficionado of oriental imagination will realise that the empire has been writing back not in English alone, that there has been other stories as searing as Saleem Sinai's, that there are places more enchanting than Ayemenem.
Copyright © 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.