If the book critic is, in John Freeman’s words, a ”public reader,” then Nilanjana Roy is that and much more; her blog The Akhond of Swat is the bustling agora of Indian letters (or at least Indian writing in English). The New Delhi-based writer (and her very engaged commentariat) tackle the latest books, book scandals (hello Greg Mortenson), news tie-ins (a round-up of Osama Bin Laden biographies) — as well as a host of questions specific to Indian publishing (notions of “authentic” Indian writing, translation issues.)
She started reviewing at age 17, “20 years ago, when Indian publishing in English was still young, and when readers like me switched between languages—Bengali to English, English to Hindi—without self-consciousness; we read the way we spoke, changing languages like you would the gears of your car.”
She’s been a book reviews editor at Outlook and Biblio, and today, when she’s not instigating debates over on her blog, she writes a column at the Business Standard and contributes to the International Herald Tribune. Warm, wry, and accessible to a fault– even when covering archaic rape laws or how parallel imports will affect the Indian publishing market — she is a bridge between text and reader, between the safety of our tastes and the terror of the new.
We chat about Rushdie vs. Naipal, the virtues of a “magpie mind,” and why critics shouldn’t review bestsellers.
We’ll get to more high-minded discussions in a bit, but I can’t resist asking about the feuds in Indian letters. What is going on over there?! Since January alone, there’s been Hartosh Singh Bal vs. William Dalyrymple, Pankaj Mishra vs. Patrick French, Mihir Sharma vs. Anand Giridharadas. As you’ve noted, it’s the same argument with many avatars that’s been happening for a long time: Who has the right to write about India? Who is Indian enough? Whence this anxiety of authenticity? Do you find these conversations and quarrels profitable, resolvable, or even interesting?
I used to run a litblog called Kitabkhana, and going through the archives is a great way to realize how much these feuds and spats resemble the grand — and petty — intrigues of the Mughal courts. Some of it just stems from a historical fondness for argument, and it’s not all bad: Mihir Sharma’s contrarian reviews can be cutting, but they also have substance to them, and you need a Mihir as an antidote to the culture of respectful politeness, or the mindless praise allocated to books that are seen to be successful.
Naipaul vs. Rushdie is a beautiful example of a feud that covers some serious ground — the differences between their approaches to history are sharp, and worth paying attention to, because each offers a distinct and mutually contradictory way of making a way in the world. It’s never been carried out by the participants themselves, but by groups of historians, writers, thinkers who fall into either the Naipaul or the Rushdie camp, and the disputes range from the absurd to the trivial to the deeply serious.
The obsession with authenticity, is to my mind an empty quest — you’re getting into a ridiculous debate over whether the urban Indian, for instance, will ever be as authentic as her counterpart from the village, you’re evaluating different ways of writing India and elevating one over the other as the only true way. But the exasperation, the sense of disenfranchisement on the part of writers who don’t have the kind of easy access a French or a Giridharadas might, the impatience with a West that seems to want only a certain kind of facile, tourist’s guidebook writing from India, that is not interested in more complex narratives — these are very real. Giridharadas and French are almost accidental targets — the real battle is over an anxiety over what kind of portrait of the country will emerge, and an impatience sometimes with narratives that either simplify or contradict the version a Pankaj Mishra sees as the true story, for instance.
The realities of the marketplace currently dictate that Indian writers working in Indian languages other than English will rarely find an audience outside the country; that causes bitterness. The marketplace also dictates that Indian writers in English will of necessity be judged, bought, sold and read by editors and publishers working to the tastes of the European and American markets, which currently control English-language publishing — a fact that is often distasteful, frightening, or daunting to many Indians.
Hidden under all of this is the real fear: that we are losing our own distinct voice, that we are losing the right to tell our own stories without glossaries and without the necessity of explanation, that we speak and write and think in a borrowed tongue — English is an Indian language, but it is still an alien Indian language. So all of this makes these spats interesting; resolvable, no, but profitable, yes.