September 27, 2009

Thought of Industry

I think Hartosh's anger is more towards the fund-explosion in the publishing market, given the rising numbers of reading-English speakers in the Indian metropolis. My parents who were educated in English hardly had a habit a bit of looking out for new stuff being written. Good writing, in their heads, had to be written a century ago and had to be somewhat canonical. Dickens from the industrial England, Shorotchondro from late-colonial, caste-patriarchy-poverty-ridden Bengal and maybe Rushdie as the most modern name in the list of Good Writing. I was very excited reading Hartosh's article at first, and his irreverence is indeed contagious. A large chunk of writing coming out of the new publishing industry explosion is simply an economic phenomena. There is a market, there is marketing, there is enough raw material and a mechanism to channelise it, hence large number of finished products. The raw material, in my mind, is the large population Delhi/Bangalore/Calcutta public school youngsters, who THINK. And are the first in the generational line of English-speaking Indian gentry who can THINK for a LIVING. This is the kind of thing my parents warned me against. But it seems they were wrong, because they miscalculated the vast economic that were to take place on the metropolitan landscape in India. One does not need to get an engineering degree and join the ranks of the cyber-coolies who can’t THINK, to keep body, soul, medicine bill, school fees together. One can now be an INTELLECTUAL without worrying about daily bread. The curious darkside of this so-far-so-good story is that now there is a rank of the INTELLECTUAL. We multiply at a feverish pace in publishing houses, art shows, media companies, research thinktanks and social science departments in America. This is the consumerism of thinking.

It is not surprising, to dilute Hartosh’s tone of shock and awe, that a large number of such finished products should be mediocre. That is also not to ignore that a large chunk of anything written under the specifics of a time and place and very often, ‘conflict’ (be it holocaust, partition, sepoy mutiny or communal riots) are caught in the metaphors of the particular social and political theatres that produced the writing. And that needn't necessarily make them mediocre. So I have no grudges against the Adigas, Bapsi Sidhwas and Amitav Ghoshes on the theatre that they choose to stage their writing on. They are all speaking to the time and place they are entrenched in. It is a curious limitation of ‘literature’ that it comes out of and goes back into the mind that is equipped to think and articulate thinking in a coherent script (even if artificially scripted to be coherent to please the postmodern-wallahs) – a script that is mostly embedded in the material worlds of time and place that it comes out of. If the standard of literature is to lie in the measure of explicit communication of the most intricate of thoughts, then the Adiga and the Amitav Ghosh can be compared without bringing in what they write ‘about’, just as a Ghosh-Updike comparison may be possible. I read Rana Dasgupta’s Solo recently, and was somewhat let down by the lack of texture of the spatial moment. While an old-fashioned Rohinton Mistry (hackneyed as he is in the line of South Asia Emergency angst writers) could probably describe every crack on the staircase of the Parsi apartment block, Dasgupta fails to describe what is particularly ‘Sofia’ about his protagonists’ narrative. And hence, Sofia passes the reader by somewhat like the blonde-nymphette in the backseat of Sohail Khan’s car riding up the Alps.

While applauding Hartosh on his eulogy of the little, unknown author who didn’t have the resources or ‘connections’ to move and shake the resource-bed that is Delhi, I must also caution Hartosh against the ills of romanticising the obscure and parochial. A lot of eulogised Bengali poetry from the 60s up until today rides on the power of the aesthetic of semi-urban nothingness. As an adolescent, I was a huge fan of poets like Joy Goswami who endlessly crafted the defeated yet fiery small-town woman jilted by the big-city boy. Clueing into the new urbane of small-town Bengali women who are aspiring to win television dance contests and frequenting health clubs, I am almost annoyed at Goswami’s endless investment in the poetics of feminine defeatism. So the new euphoria of shopping malls is our reality calling for a new poetique, as much as the new economy of writing-professionals call for new critique that goes beyond the categories of good and bad literature.

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