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SJ Ahmed
SJ Ahmed

Born in Saudi Arabia, brought up in Pakistan SJ Ahmed now lives in England. She was one of the editors of Mechanics' Institute Review 6. Her short story "Naveed" was published in Mechanics' Institute Review 7.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Broken Verses
Subjective Realism: Writing About Assassins and Other Wonders

When I came across Kavita Jindal’s Writers’ Hub blog, ‘Assassins, Other Wonders and Realism’ I had a strong sense of cosmic resonance – I have recently been thinking about a related question: how is it that writing about the Indian subcontinent seems only now to be shedding its cloak of romanticism and magical realism and is trying to engage with the issues on the ground? The only reasonable answer seems to me to be that the Diaspora from the Indian subcontinent is now seeing life in the ‘home countries’ in a more realistic light.

          In the past, the lack of cheap, fast communication meant that the Diaspora settled around the world had little access to the goings-on back home. The majority of communication was through letters, which were agonised over and often portrayed only the best aspects of life on either side. The lucky ones could afford yearly holidays back in their home countries, but were never there long enough to get beyond the hot weather, the warmth of their families’ affections and the all-enveloping smells. These limited contacts meant that the Diaspora were often guilty of mingling romantic longings for the home country with some easily recognisable clich?s. The small number of authors originating from these communities often produced fiction about their home country that reflected this romanticism. Authors such as Salman Rushdie excelled at this style of writing, wrapping up the whole package in layers of unencumbered prose.

          In recent years, modern communication methods and cheap travel have lowered the barriers that prevented the Diaspora seeing real life in their home countries. In addition, these people are now better educated and have much more confidence about analysing the communities from which they originate. Both Aravind Adiga and Daniyal Mueenuddin (whom Jindal mentions in her blog) have the privilege of a Western education and as a result seem to be using a different prism to refract the lives of the Indian subcontinent from that used by the likes of Rushdie and others who preceded them.

          It seems to me that the bigger question is, by writing in English, who do these writers view as their readership? Salman Rushdie’s writing can be viewed as directed at Westerners, who are expected to have a slightly hazy and romanticised knowledge of the Indian subcontinent. In the true style of a bazaar storyteller, Rushdie bent the cut and thrust of life in the subcontinent to suit his fiction. The form he used for Midnight’s Children resonated with his Western readership, who could see it as following in the footsteps of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Rushdie the bazaar storyteller manipulated the exotic details of life at key moments in the history of the subcontinent to produce the magical-realist novel that still has the ability to entrance the West’s literary intelligentsia.

          I find it harder to make any such assertions about Adiga and Mueenuddin’s readership. Both deal with themes that have little to do with the world outside the Indian subcontinent and they write about a social class that does not have the necessary education to be able to access their stories. Ironically, those with the money to buy an education (the upper and middle classes) have no interest in stories about the lower, serving classes. The kind of fiction that is popular with the moneyed classes in Pakistan, for example, deals with the actual middle class obsessions there, such as politics, written by the likes of Mohsin Hamid (author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Kamila Shamsie (Broken Verses).

          So perhaps one should assume that Adiga and Mueenuddin, with their focus on the lives of the lower classes in the Indian subcontinent, also have a readership located in Western countries. Testing this theory on Britain, a Western country with both a Diaspora and an appetite for Indian sub-continental literature, leads to a further question: do these writers assume the British readership to be the large Asian Diaspora that lives and works here or those with no basis in the subcontinent at all? I cannot see the Asian Diaspora relating to any of the lower, serving class characters in Mueenuddin’s In other Rooms, Other Wonders. On the other hand, Western NGO teams, who are likely to be familiar with the plight of similar individuals during the course of their work in Pakistan, may well recognise them.

          As I stumble over these questions, I am also entangled in the question posed in Kavita Jindal’s blog: why do liberated, middle-class authors write about a class that they do not themselves inhabit? It seems to me that this is partly to do with middle-class guilt (as Jindal mentions). But I also believe that Adiga and Mueenuddin are following in the footsteps of their predecessors, providing their Western readership with familiar caricatures and easy clich?, albeit ones relevant to those watching twenty-four-hour news channels rather than those brought up on stories of the Raj. The main theme of Adiga’s The White Tiger is the epic ascent of the almost Dickensian Balram Halwai from his poverty-stricken background in rural India to technology multimillionaire in the newly global India. Although the novel makes references to the problems faced by contemporary Indian society – the differences between city and village dwellers, religious tensions, the corrupt ruling classes, the lack of women’s rights – it never pauses long enough to explore them in any depth. Adiga maintains the novel’s frenetic pace by skating over these very real problems, which are faced by contemporary society in the Indian subcontinent, an exploration of which may have engaged Indian English-speaking readers.

          These Western-educated, newly confident authors are busy defining the Indian subcontinent in terms that suit their own perspectives and their largely Western readerships. Having lived in Britain for the last twenty years, I am used to the phenomenon of the ‘white, middle class, middle-aged man’, the omnipresent representatives of all views in Western business as well as cultural worlds. It seems to me that these writers are joining forces with the newly confident businessmen originating from the Indian subcontinent in creating the subcontinental equivalent: the ’brown, middle-class men in their thirties and forties’.


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