The Indian subcontinent (which includes the countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) has gone realistic. Not in daily life of course, which remains a zone of magic realism, or at the very least a zone where an elevated level of thought and patience is required, whether in politics, social mores, transport, or religious activities.
Recent literary fiction from the subcontinent, however, displays an impatience with the descriptive and romantic stylizing of twentieth-century novels written about India. Specifically, I am referring to the genre strangely called: Indian Writing In English, ‘IWIE’. To riff on this a bit: Geoff Dyer may write what he likes about Varanasi, but will not make it into this category. His grouping is ‘Britishers writing about India in English’, except that has not been named as a category of its own. If I (a Londoner by virtue of accidentally living here too long) write about London, my work may well be labelled Indian Writing in English; not just ‘Writing’. In English. However, I digress from the topic I really want to explore, which is...
What is real on the subcontinent? If you believe two books I’ve read recently, both purporting to ‘tell it like it is’ with no florid embellishments, then there is only injustice in this world. The dispossessed (mainly those born poor and women) are made even more wretched by the circumstances of their life, while those born to parents who have some wealth (either inherited down the generations or earned through the sweat of the father’s brow) enjoy the good life, often undeservedly so and at the cost of the dispossessed.
Harrowing though this underlying accusation may be these are not difficult books to read. The Man Booker Prize was won on the same premise in 2008 by a stylishly written polemic; well disguised, but a polemic nonetheless. The two books that have led me to believe that this pursuit of the underbelly is a broader trend were published in 2009, a year after the success of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. The first is In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Let’s categorise him, as we do everyone else, in his correct genre, which should be ‘Pakistani Writing in English’ – I don’t wish to inflame hungering tensions by lumping him with Indian Writing. The second book is Tarun Tejpal’s heavyweight The Story of My Assassins.
A peculiar note to the fundamental theme mentioned above is that all these writers: Aravind Adiga, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Tarun Tejpal, were not born in a village or into the underclass represented in these books; hence they write in English, had liberal backgrounds and are able to articulate inherent guilt, for the reading pleasure of others like themselves. Reality in the subcontinent.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a book of eight short stories, most of them detailing the romances and lives of staff who loyally serve the family of a prosperous landlord. It is a gentle and subtle exploration of Pakistani society, which lays bare the rigid class system in a most matter-of-fact and understated fashion. In this, it remains true to the mindset of those who live unquestioningly within the parameters of their allotted class. This is the book to read to understand the aspirations of Pakistan, of people going about their lives in the quiet and fragrant (or occasionally odorous) shadows. It shines a particular light on the compromised position of women in domestic service and the compromises they make to get by.
Religion is eschewed completely and I’m wondering whether this was deliberate on Mueenuddin’s part in order to shield himself, or whether he wanted to show that it played a negligent role in the lives of his characters. Either way, the book is a Pakistani anti-dote for those who only read bomb-blast headlines about the country and nothing else. Having said that, these sad and haunting tales do not lead to happy endings for their well-drawn protagonists.
In The Story of My Assassins, Tarun Tejpal has set himself the noble task of following the lives of the criminal small fry in India – in this instance, five men charged with trying to assassinate a controversial journalist (such as Tejpal himself) who publishes scoops that are unpleasant for the bigwigs of the country. The small fry take the rap while the big criminals – who naturally control everything: the government, industry and the newspapers when they can – are free to continue pillaging the country. The author weaves a large and complex web with several philosophical detours. This is a convoluted 500-page book that tells the story of the five assassins in minute detail: following their lives from birth (poor or underclass, in a village) to the reasons for their involvement in crime and the reasons they are made the fall guys.
The philosophy of the narrator, who is also the central journalist character, perhaps tallies with that of Tejpal, as much is made of middle-class guilt and the village/urban divide; of the elite and non-elite; and how language (the English language) dispossesses those who never learned it well enough to discourse in it.
What distinguishes The Story of My Assassins from The White Tiger is the many perspectives given full flow in the former, while the latter fixedly follows one star. Tejpal’s narrator takes on the do-gooders, to quote, ‘the world does not need to be fixed, it only needs to be balanced.’
For a squeamish reader like me the violence and brutality in this novel is unsettling. There are hardly any gentle folk in this tome, apart from the mothers of the assassins and the odd kindly uncle, and bureaucrats in their offices. Instead there are stories of excessive torture. But there is truth, as when one of the killers has an epiphany the first time he wields a knife to wound: ‘Violence is power. This fearful world, Chaku realized, was easily terrified by the mere shadow of a knife.’
Tejpal is unapologetic about this brutal vision of life in the village and in the dark side of the cities, often quoting Naipaul, ‘The world is what it is.’ And where Mueenuddin was restrained in his representation of oppression and corruption, Tejpal repeats the realism hypothesis in a direct manner. The journalist in his novel, in the midst of an argument with his mistress, reminds her, ‘The real world is run by men who have money and power.’
In the subcontinent, there is no arguing with that.