‘People like us’ and our right books: the politics of good prose

Posted on August 29, 2010


I am a snob in about every way as the word can be used. I almost always speak verbosely, using words that ought to be written quietly and not spoken out loud in everyday conversation.  I’ll watch movies which come with tags like Ingmar Bergman or David Lynch without knowing the first thing about them because they just have to be watched. I dress like a mannequin from the Fab India store and always walk around like I have a higher purpose in life, even if its just to fetch the groceries. I bought the first Godrej hand sanitizers that came out, and now carry it in my handbag as if it were the antidote to all evil in the world hurriedly squirting it over my palms every time I get down from bus or auto and am now waiting for bottle to be over, so that I can try the five other brands that are now out in the market, all launched within one week of each other.

When it comes to the issue of writing and reading, my snobbery knows no bounds and will brim and simmer without apology. Though I can’t make any claims to being well-read, I attach immense judgemental value on what constitutes good writing.

A few months ago, I was with a couple of friends and we were discussing pretty much everything under the sun. Over subway sandwiches, we sat in the courtyard of the dance department at two in the night and ranted about inter-religious and caste marriages, a conversation which deserves a whole post in itself. But somehow, as it often happens with conversations, we ended up talking about books.

One of my friends, who is the most wonderfully candid person I’ve ever known was telling us about how she found the sheer thickness of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy intimidating. It is not an uncommon lament. But both the other friend and I assured her that sticking through it would be a worthwhile exercise. We then got into the business of good books, always testy ground, when I complained that I hated the manner in which Chetan Bhagat has become the most recognizable face of contemporary Indian fiction.  Surely there were more deserving authors to bear the mantle.

This friend of mine, an unabashed champion of massy popular culture, argued that be as that may, a lot of young Indians who would have otherwise never picked up a book started reading only with Chetan Bhagat and that she was one of them and that people like me were not right in trashing him and his work.

My other friend, who is like my kindred soul in matters like this, jumped to my defence.  That wasn’t what you would call a reading habit at all, we obnoxiously held to our conviction mostly because we really did hate Bhagat. Not him personally as much as his brand of average prose. There were infinitely better books that one could read. In our heads, we really believed it was morally wrong for anyone to say they love books and then list One Night at a Call Centre on their Facebook pages.

Friend number one very politely told us that we were being condescending and that we were in the minority, so no one could care less what we thought. We knew that of course that she was right but it didn’t stop us from assuming our faux-pedantic high ground.

I don’t quite remember how we stopped talking on that particular subject. But ten minutes later, we were on Meera Nair’s Kama sutra, (I think it was because the first part of the film is based on an Urdu short story… can’t be sure)

While the conversation has since long, ended, the particular issue has stayed with me for quite some time now. The question of narrative versus form. Is what is being said important or is it the how and what in the end is good writing really?

To me, the ideal book is an effortless blend of story and quality prose and I truly think that majority of the contemporary Indian English Fiction is very high up there in that regard.  While it is admittedly writing itself into a larger clichéd South Asian identity narrative as seen through anglicized eyes trope, there is unquestionable richness to these stories that are told.

It is disturbingly easy for me to not account for the class privilege the authors have because I am utterly seduced by their “good’ writing and the issues they’re addressing: diaspora, urban life, contemporary relationships, and self-aware, self-deprecating colonial baggage. Subjects that suit my “liberal-arts college education” sensibilities perfectly and ones that make me think without making me cringe.

So in the game of hypotheticals, what happens to stories that don’t fit into this new cannon? Stories which might have something very important to say, but lack the readability to say it or the “good writing” for them to be taken seriously. Voices that will never be published by Penguin or Harper Collins and stocked in Crossword and Landmark, receive the kind of word of mouth that a Rana Dasgupta or a Jhumpa Lahri will invariably get.  Not even a “have you read this?” or “you must read this.”  For the sake of argumentative clarity, I am not including non-fiction, non-literary writing here at all, a genre, which comes with its own set of affectations and deserves separate scrutiny.

If one took a strictly market view, there is someone out there who laps it up. But it won’t be me or anyone I know. Fashioning a world view that is centred around one self is not particularly helpful or even scientific. But I think there is a fair case of ‘people like us’ that goes around in this country that decides what is standard.  “High-reading” comes with a mega-serious affliction of ‘people like us’. I remember gushing over a brilliant piece in Granta by Rana Dasgupta on the discontent of the mind-elite over the cultural encroachment of Delhi by the real-estate nouveau riche. It resonated with me because having spent six years in Delhi; I knew exactly what the author was trying to say. I recommended it to everyone I knew, insisting that they had to read it because it was the most eloquent piece 1000 word equivalent of what had been my resentment of the vulgar face of Delhi as opposed to the Habitat centre- IIC- LSR version of it that I knew.

‘People like us’ is the way which in which we, i.e. the Indian English speaking  elite with the sub-clause of intellectual  , go around spending our entire lives in a circle of referential texts thinking and wrongly assuming that we alone decide the right books and the right movies. We are very quick to acknowledge different voices but only so far as they fit into our virtuous othering paradigm.

All dissent is too internalized and academically clear in our heads that we don’t even realize that we  don’t care about other people’s issues unless it comes to us in  neatly written books again by someone like us who took on the brave  job of writing for them.  It’s an astonishingly hypocritical paradox of our lives, a trap of our own doing and one which, if I may be so bold, no one really wants to get out of.