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.