While quickly scrolling down my Prismetic feed I came across this article from Amitava Kumar in which he laments the fact that contemporary Indian writers like Chetan Bhagat don’t write about the Indian caste system and the various ills that plague people trapped in its vicious circle. Writers like CB, says Amitava, don’t live and write in the world of reality:
The India in which Bhagat lives is a world removed from the one in which the UN Human Rights Council recently damned caste violence. Last month, I read this news report: “Atrocities against Dalit women include: verbal abuse, sexual epithets, naked parading, pulling out of teeth, tongue and nails, and violence, including murder. Dalit women are also threatened by rape as part of collective violence by higher castes.”
Since nobody writes about caste, he further bemoans, we no longer have a Premchand among us.
I totally agree that some of the caste-based atrocities in India are mind-boggling and vomit-inducing. I also agree that there have been great writers, Munshi Premchand for instance, who captured with great clarity and lambent articulation, the negative and positive nuances of rural India.
But as everybody knows, there are multiple India’s. Although personally I don’t have patience and time to read Chetan Bhagat simply because my literary proclivities lie in other realms, I see nothing wrong with what he writes and from where his readers come. In fact, these days when I travel in Metro trains, I normally see people reading one or another Chetan Bhagat book; I have never seen anybody reading one of the “serious” writers like Amitava Kumar (does he write books? I don’t know actually).
Except from Salman Rushdie, there is an underlying sameness among almost all writers of Indian origin who settle down in foreign countries. Even Salman Rushdie cannot resist the exotic Indian drop backs but he sprinkles his plots with lots of preternatural and surrealistic characters. But other writers seem to be constantly, let me use the cliched expression, selling a sort of “misery porn” they specifically write for a Western audience. Nothing sells better than self-flagellation coupled with self-loathing.
Hence, you are a serious writer only if you write about people being tortured, marginalised, victimized and persecuted. You should write about how people are forced to become Islamic terrorists or naxalites. You should write about the galling atrocities committed by upper caste Hindus on lower caste Hindus. You write about the dark alleys of urban slums in the great Indian metropolitan cities. You should write about what miserable lives people in India have and the so-called development is nothing but a hogwash. India is a country where minorities are perpetually being butchered and biased against, it is a country that mistreats its own citizens. You create profane caricatures of Indian mythologies.
I’m not saying that these conditions don’t exist. Such conditions exist in almost every country in one way or another. I’m also not saying that since they exist in almost every country they are acceptable in our country. Definitely not. But this doesn’t mean that you constantly peddle your own misery just to feel accepted as a serious writer.
The problem with writers who have settled abroad is that somehow they are unable to write on local themes. Again, Salman Rushdie tried that with The Enchantress of Florence but eventually he comes back to the good old couple of Akbar and Jodhabai after starting his plot in Italy.
Writing about Indian miseries is easier, because you don’t have to imagine much. Pick up any newspaper and you can find the story for your book. And this stuff sells good. The Western audience loves to read about the distant millions perpetually wallowing in casteism, backwardness, illiteracy, hunger and religious hatred. When they read this, they feel good about themselves. I’m not blaming them, even Indian audience loves to read the dark sides of Western lives.
I don’t know how Chetan Bhagat writes, but his readers are living comparatively comfortable lives. May be they go to pubs, they travel in cars and, as I mentioned above, Metro train, they lead the yuppie lifestyles, whatever. But he has an audience. And I see nothing wrong in writing for this audience. In fact we are desperately lacking literature that entertains people and makes them laugh. Why always make people cry? I don’t know if it is far-fetched or not, many claim that his books have rekindled peoples’ habit of reading.
Does it mean people should be encouraged to read pulp/chic literature? I think there is market for every type of literature, just as there is market for every type of music. People listen to classical music and people also listen to all those vulgar, computer-modulated folksongs that are so irritating that you actually want to murder those who compose them. But I definitely believe that serious literature doesn’t always mean that you have to mop around.