Friday, December 19, 2008

What Indians do-do in books.

This is going to be a long one, so anyone who can’t read beyond 500 words may wait for my next post and skip this one.

I just finished reading the Booker-prize winning book the White Tiger, which my friend Chiquita was kind of enough to gift me as a birthday present. It was excellently written and quite riveting. (Can you sense the ‘but’ coming? Here it is.)

I was unfortunately reading Shantaram simultaneously. So the whole effect was one of overkill. When I read one of these books, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by how well…sub-human and ridiculous… Indians are made out to be. Have you noticed? I can’t deny most of the stuff that is put in these books, I would be lying if I tried. Yes we live in the Turd World, 90% of people use the great outdoors as a Great Outhouse. I refrain from explaining further because you only need to pick up one of these books to learn all about this phenomenon.

90% of us are, of course, desperately, miserably, “the pavement is my home” kind of poor-- that’s true. And when you’re describing the conditions they’re in I understand that one needs to linger lovingly over each scatological detail – ostensibly to portray the sickening existence they endure. But, why, oh why…do Indian authors in English (which Shatantaram is not, we’ll get back to that book in a moment) feel compelled to describe the bowels of even the upper class (evil, upper caste, murdering raping) characters of the story? They go to their gold-inlaid, made-with-the-blood-and-sweat-of-downtrodden-untouchables bathrooms. So why this detailed inventory of what they did there for the readers? I’ll tell you why. Because it is expected of an Indian book in English. It’s almost as if the publishers send the draft novels back to the authors with a note: “Dear Indian Writer in English, there isn’t enough faeces and sputum in the ninth chapter. Please rectify this mistake. Regards, the Editor.

Apparently shit sells.

Do these Indian authors (all of whom invariably come from upper caste/upper class, western educated families, with the luxury to take a year or two off from paying bills, so that they can write a book on circus-freak, black-and-white India and get a Pulitzer prize from the West for writing a 'no-holds barred, gritty expose on Indian society') talk about their bowel movements at those posh wine and cheese parties they meet each other at? Would they even talk to a person who does? No. But when it comes to writing a book, they have to discuss it over two revolting pages for each character, in all its Technicolor disgustingness. The West reads it with fascinated disgust and showers accolades and prizes on these people for ‘telling the truth about India in all its shittiness’.

Do western people not go to the bathroom? If you read their books one might even think that is the case. And that’s how it should be, because it’s a foregone conclusion that all human beings do and there’s no need to dwell on such details just for cheap thrills.

Now that I’ve used the word “shit’ 24 times, “bathroom” 19 and “sputum” once, I shall expect my Booker at the address provided on my home page, thank you very much.

Moving on, I want to point out some things I have noted so far in Shantaram. You can still forgive an Australian for talking about Indian do-dos (after all kangaroo crap is perhaps the only thing you can step in over there) but what I find outrageous (though terribly entertaining) is the exaggeration. Apparently he saw a man with his head on fire running into the sea to douse it while he was riding into Mumbai on a bus from the airport. I have been to Mumbai and traveled that stretch he’s mentioned a few times and never seen a man on fire. Neither have I been in a car accident the very next day and been dragged out of the taxi by my stereotypical cheerfully amoral and perennially ridiculous Indian guide, just in time to be saved from being lynched along with the taxi driver by an Indian mob.

All the Great Indian Novel stereotypes are tiresome. There are millions of people in this country of all shades and beliefs and humours. Are we all to be divided into cruel overlords and tortured low caste farmers? This is not to say that the sordid stuff they put in books about India doesn’t happen at all (they DO happen, unfortunately) what I object to are the generalizations. I read with disbelief as Adiga made sweeping generalizations about how people treat drivers in India. My parents have hired a succession of 3 drivers over the last 10 years (the drivers leave when they get better opportunities, my parents didn’t kill them, nor did they hunt down and kill their entire families down to the last third cousin when they turned in their car keys.) and not once has their been any rumors of my family members asking these gentlemen to wash their (the former’s I mean) feet in hot water. Nor in cold water, I hasten to add. They have never been asked to sweep the courtyard or play ball with the children either. Strange but true. And as for their being asked to pour whisky for their masters from a bottle that’s always kept in cars for the purpose AS they drove, let me tell you I’ve never heard of such a thing in my life. And it hasn’t been such a short time for me in India either.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Adiga spent a lot of time in the West because he refers to the character throwing away food in anger in two places in the book. Indians, especially someone as poor as the protagonist, NEVER throw away food. At the most, you might throw away some on your plate that you JUST could NOT eat…but throwing your share of the chicken curry against a wall of your mud and thatch hut in anger? That’s just fiction. If an Indian family has an argument over dinner they shovel their food into their mouths as fast as they can and stomp off only when dessert is done.

I wish someone would write a book or two about the wholly different trials and tribulations of the middle class, maybe a family that doesn’t torture the help, if we can be so daring. Maybe we can just put a note at the beginning of the book that it is understood that these people DO go to the bathroom, but entire chapters have not been devoted to it in interests of brevity. Maybe this family’s problems can be more universal, like yours and mine…problems at work, problems in love, problems with parents and kids, making friends losing friends people dying (but not necessarily because an upper caste overlord beat them to a pulp because the temperature of the foot bath was wrong, or because they tried to escape from being a sex slave)…you get the drift.

I will personally give such an Indian a prize. The story might not be exotic or Booker worthy, but it’ll be a subtle story about lives many of us literate middle class professionals live; and thereby identifiable. Anyone brave enough for the challenge out there?


Akshat Kaul said...

I agree completely. Prize winning books shouldn't be full of crap.

Haimanti said...

see i have read very few of these authors, so, should not comment on them at all. But i totally agree with you. India is poor but we don't have to celebrate that! There are millions of Indians who are pretty well-off and they are not necessarily evil. That is why i love Amitava Ghosh, he writes about us and when he does write about poor India (the Sunderbans for example) he gives a very realistic picture. How these impoverished people can be happy and lead their life their way. anyway, sorry, for this looooong "comment", it's more like an essay for swapan da.

shah_of_blah said...

I beg to differ here.
these books are work of fiction and they intend to have enough drama to interest the reader, and indeed the writer.
When you say you haven't seen things, firstly, there are many things you might have missed but that does not mean they do not exist, & secondly, not everything that you see is worth a mention in a book in it's proper context.
you make a fair point nevertheless on writing for some select audience.
Like every product, every book is meant for certain target audience, not to mention what the author himself feels as worth the highlight so best thing that you could do is to read right stories rather than expecting others to write according to your taste.

Monica said...

Shasi...your anger is justified and I quite agree on the point that Indian Authors, atleast the ones who become 'popular prize winners' seem to use negativiy as their strategy and continue to portray India in the dungeons. What psyches me is not only non Indians, our dear Indians too seemt o enjoy and that is why what u say is right 'shit sells'

diya said...

Ushasi, I think this is your best post yet. And thank you SO much for writing it. I couldn't agree with you more on every point! I'm fed up to my back teeth with this Western quest for the 'real' India, which, as you say, must necessarily be full of shit. If you're going to go to India specifically to see the shit holes, then that's exactly what you're going to find - and then you'll come back to the UK full of edifying tales of the 'reality' of life you've seen. I tell you, it's one of the most annoying things ever.

Yesterday, at the pub, this guy was asking me about places to see in India, since he's visiting in January - and one of the first things he mentioned was the fact that people take a shit on the road. Now, I have lived through many things that are meant to be quintessentialy 'Indian' - insane traffic jams, cows on the road, babies being bathed on the street -but personally never seen this shit on the road business. Apparently, it's one of the sights. People just seem to find it so hard to accept that life in India might not the 'exotic' or 'crazy' reality they want to find - it might be very different from what they are used to, but can still be normal and everyday.

Ushasi said...

Thanks Akshat. :)

I agree, Hai, Amitava Ghosh almost doesn't fall in this category. One is not tempted to call his latest book the 'Sea of POOPIES' in the least. :D

Shah of Blah: In response to your comment, I repeat -- "This is not to say that the sordid stuff they put in books about India doesn’t happen at all (they DO happen, unfortunately) what I object to are the generalizations." But I agree, it is the writer's prerogative to put what is dramatic rather than mundane to make their works interesting. It's what is considered interesting that grosses me out.

Exactly Monica and Diya. Thanks for the support. :) (Though in the interests of honesty I have seen people taking a shit in public, but only in the morning and only by the slums beside the railway tracks. Again my point, if it's relevant to describe that in great detail in a book go ahead. what annoys me is almost every Indian writer in English considers it relevant to the point of boredom.)

Chiquíta said...

I completely agree with you on this..

shreyasi said...

Agree with you wholeheartedly and a well written post it is too. I read an Indo-English book not so long ago where the author claimed to have seen corpses floating in the Hooghly on a regular basis. I lived in India for 22 years, 21 of which was in Kolkata and so can claim to have had a look at the Hooghly every now and then, and can honestly say I never spotted a single corpse! Of course if you dredge the Hooghly, I'm sure you will find several, maybe even enough to stage a cricket match for stiffs, but where in the world can you go looking for the grim and the gross and not find it?? And what kind of person not only goes looking but celebrates it, perhaps someone a little bit gross and grim themselves, or just plain sad! Btw, I have taken up your challenge and will produce my long awaited novel sans any poo, as soon as I possibly can (in a decade or so, when my son no longer needs his mother 24/7)!!

shah_of_blah said...

let's start with facts. I have seen people relieving themselves by roadside, I have seen corpses floating in rivers,I have seen most of things Adiga mentions in his book, What i have not seen, or heard is people forcing someone on a horse and that kind of caste based atrocities so Amitav Ghosh does stand apart to an extent. That makes me a patho I guess.
It's not facts that hurt anyway, It's the portrayal, the judgment that a writer imposes on facts that is sometimes gross/crude/ insensitive.
White tiger is full of factual errors if one reads it carefully. One should judge it despite the 'selling crap' element.
I think there are plenty of non-crap writers or books around,
ind act even amid all the foul surroundings, the central characters have always been well-fed great Indian families Maharajah style.
@Diya- As for 'real' life, It's rather strange to say that life in slums is 'real' and life elsewhere isn't and vice versa.

Ushasi said...

Again, Shah, we are ALL saying that these things exist (including the caste-based torture which might not happen while people are standing around, hence your not seeing it). But it is not the ONLY reality. There are other realities in India which might be refreshing to read about, is all. No one denies that the rest does not happen. It's like ALL american books being about ghetto violence.

As for your reply to Diya's statement...isn't that what she was saying? :) Thanks for your comments though Shah, I love the fact that the post has generated debate. Keep writing!

Rashmi said...

Fantastic post! I completely agree with it. Chances of people finding shit when they go looking for it are quite high. AND chances of people finding their spiritual identity in Goa when they haven't "found" it in the whole of the western world are equally low! What a load of tosh. Bloody cheek!