Monday, September 10, 2012

Mind the Gap

I was in Class VI when I chanced upon ‘Room on the Roof’ by Ruskin Bond. The book belonged to an older cousin who had it as her school text in Class X. I read it in one ecstatic gulp that lasted a little over an hour. For days afterwards, I fantasized about growing up to be this writer who lived in the hills of Dehradun, met fascinating characters and wrote about them.

A good thirty years later, my son’s English teacher was delighted to hear we had been to Bond’s home town to meet him and he was asked to work on a collage with the author and his stories as the theme. Coincidentally, my son also happened to be in Class VI at that time. I hope I am not in a minority when I say Bond is the most influential Indian writer of our times for all those who have had the privilege of being educated in English in post independent India although I have never come across any power list that features him. Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked 'Power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.'

Power lists and the legitimacy of those who feature in it are not the only disagreement I have with Shashi’s Deshpande’s recent piece in The Hindu on the waning influence of artists and writers titled ‘The Case of the Missing Artists.’ Deshpande raises many pertinent issues. When she says ‘There are no debates about ideas, only controversies, often created by the media itself,’ we can instantly relate it to how the Jaipur Literary Festival was hijacked by the absence of Salman Rushdie this year.

However I don’t agree with Deshpande when she laments the dumbing down of language and literature in India and the gap widening between serious and popular works and their creators. This division has always existed world over. The gap is very much present between Ian Mcewan and Jeffery Archer in UK. In India, regional literature has always had this gap. I grew up in Bihar and read as many books in Hindi as in English and knew even in those early years that there was a difference between the works of a Gulshan Nanda and a Manu Bhandari. It didn’t stop me from reading both the authors just as I dug into a James Hadley Chase thriller and Gone with the Wind with equal relish.

The real issue as I see it is that for a long time Indian Writing in English was perceived to be an elitist preoccupation and protected by snobbery. The authors and the publishers colluded in this process and the works of writers like Ashok Banker who tried to negotiate the space of popular/ pulp fiction in the 80s and the 90s did not receive the attention they deserved. The emergence of a new breed of writers in the last one decade who are unapologetic about wanting to entertain the reader changed the rules of the game. Thanks to a Chetan Bhagat, an Amish Tripathi or an Advaita Kala, publishers are ready to give popular fiction its due. And if there has been a dumbing down by these writers of more serious fiction, I am afraid the first stone is inevitably cast by the writer of more serious works who is finding it difficult to share the identity with writers wanting to tell stories to entertain without bothering too much about the intricacies of the language. If by ‘badly written’ the allusion is to the language and grammar of these books, aren’t editors and the publishers as much to blame? Hemmingway may not have won the Nobel Prize in Literature if someone hadn’t fixed his spellings for him.

One should also add here that writers of popular fiction in India come from the same class as authors of literary works. Many of them are from premier management and technical institutes and gave up lucrative professions to write. If they write a particular kind of book, we have to assume they do it as much out of choice as writers of literary fiction. Yes, there has been a refreshing democracy in the Indian Writing in English space of late. But that has more to do with the fading away of feudal processes.

We don’t have palace writers and artists anymore and that may not be such a bad thing after all.

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