A writer named Aloo arrives in America and gets embroiled in the debate on whether to continue saying tomAAto, or join the locals in saying tomAEto, or say tomAEto to locals and tomAAto to fellow desis. After the vast effort it has taken to surmount the US Embassy-which must count as one of the world's top 10 barriers along with the barbed wire of Gaza and the police of Lampedusa-poor Aloo tries all the 101 ways to stay. However, to save his pride he throws his inconvenient sharam (shame) down the drain and replies when Americans ask as they always do, "Are you planning to stay?"
"My subject is there in India ..."
But the market is here. There are tastes that will never be quenched. For example, like the Pashmina shawl, the arranged marriage story will always be in season. While Aloo immediately begins to sell the book that will support him like stock in Coca-Cola, this product of India's finest education (that is, brought up to leave) tries to find the opposite of an arranged marriage to increase his status in his own eyes, get a green card plus someone who can rent a car at the drop of a hat and drive him to Canada with aplomb. When lucky Aloo finds this pale creature, he has an excuse to stay, and once he has a green card he can safely begin to proclaim his heritage and feel nostalgia instead of terror while thinking about his motherland. He becomes a martyr forced to leave, which adds complexity to his character and creates the impression that he is not a drab immigrant like the rest, but an exile. Exile is a forlorn, literary feeling and allows him to indulge in moods of elegant grey.
Fulbrights and Guggenheims, lakeside conferences, a tenured platform from which to comment on his nation's relationship with the West, post-colonialism, India's nuclear programme ... he is like a fly in a box of laddoos. Only, he soon finds that he cannot stand the other flies among the laddoos and gets hysterically anxious on learning of each new desi writer's name. What if they usurp his position or get the same laddoos that would make his laddoos taste that much less good. "Which Indian authors do you like?" asks every journalist. Aloo says he does not read Indians and names Kawabata and Turgenev. "No Indians?" Pressed, he mentions the dead or dying. "I admire R.K. Narayan."
Oh no. There was that red-letter day when Salman Rushdie proclaimed that the best work out of India was being done in English-and they condemned him harsher than did the Ayatollah, whether out of indignation or oedipal fervour, it was hard to tell. Aloo immediately adopts the politically correct position and says Indian writers writing in regional languages are the best. Such as Mahashweta Devi. She does not write for the West. She is pure. Thus Aloo kills two birds with one stone: he does not help a competitor and comes off a patriot. He is just about to relax a little when Arundhati Roy with a love-across-caste-lines book does even better than Aloo did with his arranged marriage book, and goes on record to say that unlike the fancy fake pants that abound (like Aloo), she is the authentic product with an authentic Indian address, and without privilege-a claim that is hotly disputed. You are in the club.
I'm not in the club.
No-you spoke English, ate macaroni and sold yourself to the West just like the rest of us.
| PICTURE SPEAK |
|Shout, "Brave Third World woman overcoming all odds," and you will get to leap in the air and earn a million. |
I am not privileged-I grew up poor and alone, dark and female. (This is a mantra that unlocks many a door. Shout, "Brave Third World woman overcoming all odds," and you'll get to leap in the air and earn a million). Never was someone more adamantly invited to take a seat in the club. Never has it been so resisted. Aloo's wife can't understand the fight about who owns the Indian subject. Who owns India? The wife thinks everyone does. Aloo thinks all desis do. The desi writers writing in English in India think all desis living in India do. The writers writing in regional languages think they do, not the ones writing in English.
One morning, it's inevitable; Aloo acquires his own personal enemy. Someone from a small town in India he has never met has posted a hate note about Aloo's work as seen in the light of his current address, and all his well-meaning friends, expressing horror (not really), send it on. When Aloo's new book comes out, the critic cuts off his head on samachar.com. "Desis abroad are rotten-bad-egg-bastards with no talent except for the shabby talent of prostituting themselves to the West." The critic must have defined a larger hate for Aloo, for the critic becomes popular. "English is a foreign tongue and can never accurately portray the Indian reality," the critic writes in English. A year later, the man who hates Aloo is writing for England. He has caught the eye of an editor from the Times who likes to know the story behind the story. "Indian writers writing in English are privileged, come from Doon School and St. Stephen's, go to Oxford and Cambridge. They are not really Indian."
"You know how they are in India," says Aloo's sister in Ohio, when he calls her to complain. "You are sitting here getting invited to parties, eating smoked salmon and flying off to France-it bugs the hell out of them," she says. Meanwhile, just to make things more difficult, V.S. Naipaul, who has just been given the Nobel Prize for literature, returns the favour by announcing that the novel is dead. The next year he writes a novel and that year he doesn't announce that the novel is dead. The year after, the novel is dead again.
After 9/11, Americans agree. It's in the papers. Fiction cannot have the weight of non-fiction. Terrorists may have no shoes but they have raised the oil prices, they are running circles around George Bush and the novel, both amazed to be keeping each other company. Aloo reads Stein and Beckett to escape his horrible world-they didn't face 9/11, only World Wars, the holocaust, poverty, but that didn't kill their novels. There is joy here. And madness. Aloo howls that night at the full moon.
Brilliance creates desire for brilliance. Only the sublime novel can create the need for a novel ... Funnily, the cowbelt critic agrees with Aloo. It turns out he has an ulterior motive. The real thing will come along, he writes, and the real thing happens to be himself. The critic reveals he has just finished a novel on an authentic India-a torrid love affair between a white girl and an Indian boy against the backdrop of India's finest tourist locations.
On BBC radio, they ask Aloo, Why are you writing of India while living in the West? Scared, Aloo answers that art has no address, look at James Joyce, Henry James, look at Rohinton Mistry, who has lived abroad and yet can exactly describe the bathroom problems of an ageing Parsi gentleman in Mumbai. Methinks thou dost protest too much, says the BBC lady's sceptical eyebrow. Aloo gets the distinct feeling that she, too, would rather he returned to India and solved the West's immigrant problem.
The farce continues-when the real thing happens. The tsunami strikes and 2,75,000 souls are dead. It even drowns out news of two marines killed in Iraq on the front page of the American papers. The South Asian Journalists Association rises to the occasion and organises an Indian Writers Read to Raise Money for the Tsunami Night. Hundreds of desis attend. Aloo, in the interest of being authentic, now says tomAAto, no matter who he's speaking to. He is dressed in an achkan and has begun looking at real estate in Goa to counter the cowbelt critic with irrefutable proof of desire to return. Aloo reads. Magic realism has become a dirty word, so Aloo has replaced an elephant with a dog and has removed a beggar, for it feeds the preconceived ideas of India as a land of beggars. He is boring, but boring is ... authentic.
The next reader climbs the stage. Aloo blinks at the name announced-No! Surely not ... But it's him-the objective critic-turned-writer from the cowbelt! He has hopped over the insurmountable barrier of the US Embassy. Over the great barrier of the British Embassy. He opens his mouth and spouts a fancy pants English accent-he must have caught it like the flu, or else he was practising in the cowbelt a long time ago, plotting, planning. Aloo runs to catch him, this man who has ruined his life, but he's a master at slipping away. He has gone in a flash into the western world he wished to save from Aloo and keep for himself. He has gone away from this event held for those so poor they will never read or write at all-away he flies ... the only fly in the box of laddoos now.
On the other side of the world, the sun rises on another young writer in India, who is getting really mad. He is going to pick up his pen and he's going to tell the world the true nature of the beast. We know the story. It's an old Indian story. One that has never been sold to the West.
(The writer is the author of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.)