As someone who has several friends ploughing a furrow in the writing field I attend a fair number of literary discussions, often in a supporting capacity. At events featuring authors from the Indian sub-continent there is one word that crops up in every single discussion. Sometimes it is an accusation hurled from the audience; sometimes it is used by one writer against another. You may have already guessed that the word is ‘authentic’.
This year, for the first time, I even heard authors invoke inauthenticity in order to deflect a perceived potential missile. One example came during the Asia House literary festival in London, when Neel Mukherjee, author of A Life Apart, was asked if he would consider writing a book set in modern-day India. He said if he did so, without first going to live there for a few years, the charge of ‘inauthenticity’ would be levelled at him, seeing as he is a resident of London. I can understand that he feels removed from the pace of change in India and wouldn’t be comfortable basing his own work in its contemporary culture, but what he articulated was a charge that several writers from the sub-continent, or those of that ethnicity, face – or fear facing.
Last year, at an event at Foyles, held as part of the London Book Fair, four Indian debut novelists read from their books. Three of them were based in India, so didn’t need to feel anxious that they might be labelled as foreigners commenting on a country they didn’t reside in. Yet it took no time at all for audience members to ask them if they were an authentic representation of their country.
One of these authors was a product of her metropolitan education: a successful career woman, a mother to three children and now also the author of a bestselling chick-lit novel. Her book followed the classic Mills & Boon template, but with the twist of local slang and local snobbisms employed to make it funny and entertaining to the city women in India who are her readership. The second author had written a book about cricket, while his day job was as an editor for an English-language newspaper. The third was one of India’s first graphic novelists, Amruta Patil. And the fourth was Jiwan Namdung, from Darjeeling in West Bengal, and a leading light in Nepali Indian literature. He read a prepared statement in English, which I’m guessing was his fourth language, and his debut book, unlike the others, was in Nepali, not English. For the other three, English was their first language, or certainly the language of their education, although all were tri-lingual at the very least, as you have to be when you are peripatetic in India.
So I have to admit I did a double take when I heard the question ‘did they consider themselves authentic?’ I looked closely at these four people. Each one was true to their own background. That background did not happen to include a mud hut in early life, but that did not disbar any of them from being truly representative Indians.
I propose that we ban the word ‘authentic’ from our vocabulary when talking about writers as people. It is permissible to say that a voice sounds authentic, or a story sounds authentic, or a memory for that matter; without applying this adjective to the actual writer. I find it astonishing that one person can point to another and accuse them of not being ‘authentic’. Whose definition of that term are they using? I hope that any writer of South Asian ethnicity who is accused of not being authentic enough because of their life history or where they reside asks the questioner how they came to the belief that one person is an authentic creature and the other is not.
After more than fifty years as a post-colonial nation, we in India are in the process of learning to love our pre-colonial past, but we can’t roll back history and pretend that the urban communities who communicate mainly in English don’t exist; or that they are irrelevant to the country; or that the Diaspora can somehow be ignored if they are branded inauthentic. These are the same people who show an interest in history and preservation of ancient traditions – perhaps because they have the global education and perspective to appreciate what is changing, for better and for worse, and they have the means and the inclination to record it.
Which brings me to the response from SJ Ahmed to my first article. She has rightly stated in her blog that the Diaspora ‘use a different prism to refract the lives of the Indian subcontinent.’ She also ponders who they view as their readership, coming to the conclusion it is a solely Western audience. I’m not in complete agreement with her on this point. I am sure that these novelists, like most writers, wrote the stories they wanted to write. The books may have been edited for a particular readership, but then that’s the way publishing works.
Ahmed worries that literature from the sub-continent is being colonised anew by ‘the brown middle-class men in their thirties and forties,’ writing about a part of society (the poorer communities) that they do not inhabit. While it is good to examine the reasons why middle-class men (and women) write about the under-class, I’d like to stress that such writing is not questionable. Who else other than writers are going to write about all of humanity? Fiction as a craft demands imagination and empathy – if the people who are writers (whatever their background) don’t focus on people from other environments, then who will? All over the world writers stray out of their ‘natural territory’, but it seems Asian authors are the group most likely to be picked on for this.
In the Victorian era, a reasonably prosperous Charles Dickens took it upon himself to write stories about the underprivileged in England, presumably for other educated and prosperous people to read. In his case, he had worked in a boot-blacking factory and could draw on his experiences. Some years later, in the early 1900s, Premchand in India was one of the first writers to eschew escapist fantasies in fiction and write about everyday lives using the Hindi-Urdu dialect of ordinary people in North India. He too, could draw on his own experiences of misery. But the majority of writers in the sub-continent do not come from an underprivileged background, for obvious reasons, and those who do are not always able to communicate in the same language as their differently educated peers, or even in the same language as the next state, so their stories do not reach a broad readership.
It is left to the English-educated (and yes, privileged) minority to broadcast the stories of all communities. I don’t think they have to be rural farmers to write about the travails and labours of subsistence-farming. We don’t want our crime writers to all be criminals, do we? If it is the ‘brown middle-class middle-aged male’ (bmmm) who will uncover and convey the stories we have been deaf to before, then all power to them.
Who would have thought I would write a blog in defence of the ‘bmmm’? Life brings its surprises. And as I research this, I am pleased to discover that none of this is new. Back in 1935 Mulk Raj Anand, born in Peshawar, educated at UCL and then Cambridge, was dedicated to writing about the lower castes, starting with his first novel Untouchable, which he wrote while living in London.
Another issue which Ahmed raises in her article is that in real life women have an unfair deal even in the middle classes, but this is skated over in the novels she mentioned. It may be true that, although male novelists are sensitive to this inequality, they address it in an implicit manner, portraying society ‘as it is.’ This is a generalisation, but I will explore this further in a future article, where I will focus on the women writers who address the circumstances of middle-class women in their novels.
I’ll end this post with a last question on the ‘a’ word. Two of the books I’ve mentioned above also reveal a new(ish) strand in literature from India: A Life Apart has a homosexual protagonist, and Kari, the graphic novel, has a lesbian narrator. The first books dealing with the experience of gay people in Indian cities were published a few years ago and therefore these two books have not provoked any undue controversy because of the sexuality of the characters depicted. This acceptance of gay culture extends only to a sliver of the country’s population, of course, but it is still an ‘authentic’ acceptance. At the event I attended, Patil, holding on to her privacy as much as she could, did not disclose her own past sexual experiences even when asked bluntly by someone in the audience; and I in turn, was tempted to ask that person: if the author was to declare that she had never had a lesbian experience, would it make her story less authentic? Would it matter? I think that was the point Patil was trying to make: read the book and leave the author alone.