An old photograph in a cheap frame hangs on a wall of the room where I work. It’s a picture, dating from 1946, of a house into which, at the time of its taking, I had not yet been born. The house is rather peculiar – a three-storied gabled affair with tiled roofs and round towers in two corners, each wearing a pointy tile hat. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ goes the famous opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there.’ But the photograph tells me to invert this idea: it reminds me that it’s my present that is foreign, and that the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time.
A few years ago I revisited Bombay, which is my lost city, after an absence of something like half my life. Shortly after arriving, acting on an impulse, I opened the telephone directory and looked for my father’s name. And, amazingly, there it was: his name, our old address, the unchanged telephone number, as if we had never gone away to the unmentionable country across the border. It was an eerie discovery. I felt as if I were being claimed, or informed that the facts of my faraway life were illusions: that this – this continuity – was the reality. Then I went to visit the house in the photograph and stood outside it, neither daring nor wishing to announce myself to its new owners. (I didn’t want to see how they’d ruined the interior.) I was overwhelmed. The photograph had naturally been taken in black and white; and my memory, feeding on such images as this, had begun to see my childhood in the same way, monochromatically. The colours of my history had seeped out of my mind’s eye; now my other two eyes were assaulted by colours, by the vividness of the red tiles, the yellow-edged green of cactus-leaves, the brilliance of bougainvillaea creeper. It is probably not too romantic to say that that was when my novel Midnight’s Children was really born: when I realised how much I wanted to restore the past to myself, not in the faded greys of old family-album snapshots, but whole, in Cinemascope and glorious Technicolor. Bombay is a city built by foreigners upon reclaimed land; I, who had been away so long that I almost qualified for the title of farangi, was gripped by the conviction that I, too, had a city and a history to reclaim.
Writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by an urge to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge – which gives rise to profound uncertainties – that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost: that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, lndias of the mind. Writing my book in North London, looking out through my window on to a city scene totally unlike the ones I was imagining on to paper, I was constantly plagued by this problem, until I felt obliged to face it in the text, to make clear that (in spite of my original and, I suppose, somewhat Proustian ambition to unlock the gates of lost time so that the past reappeared as it actually had been, unaffected by the distortions of memory) what I was actually writing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that: ‘my’ India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions. I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect, and I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was willing to admit I belonged.
This is why I made my narrator, Saleem, suspect in his narration: his mistakes are the mistakes of a fallible memory compounded by quirks of character and of circumstance, and his vision is fragmentary. It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost. But there is a paradox here. The broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed. Before beginning Midnight’s Children, I spent many months trying simply to recall as much of the Bombay of the 1950s and 1960s as I could; and not only Bombay – Kashmir, too, and Delhi and Aligarh which, in my book, I’ve moved to Agra to heighten a certain joke about the Taj Mahal. I was genuinely amazed by how much came back to me. I found myself remembering what clothes people had worn on certain days, and school scenes, and whole passages of Bombay dialogue verbatim, or so it seemed; I even remembered advertisements, film-posters, the neon Jeep sign on Marine Drive, toothpaste ads for Binaca and for Kolynos, and a footbridge over the local railway line which bore, on one side, the legend ‘Esso puts a tiger in your tank’ and, on the other, ‘Drive like Hell and you will get there.’ Old songs came back:
O my shoes are Japanese,
The trousers English, if you please,
On my head’s a Russian hat,
But I’m Indian for all that.
I knew that I had tapped a rich seam: but I’m not gifted with total recall, and it was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation, that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance because they were remains: fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities.
It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true: but the writer who is out-of-country, even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being ‘elsewhere’. This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.
The broken glass is not merely a mirror of nostalgia. It is also a useful tool with which to work in the present. John Fowles begins Daniel Martin with the words: ‘Whole sight: or all the rest is desolation.’ But human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all the senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death. The Fowles position seems to me a way of succumbing to the guru-illusion. Writers are no longer sages, dispensing the wisdom of the centuries. And those of us who have been forced by cultural displacement to accept the provisional nature of all truths, all certainties, have perhaps had modernism forced upon us. We can’t lay claim to Olympus, and are thus released to describe our worlds in the way in which all of us, whether writers or not, perceive them from day to day.
In Midnight’s Children, my narrator introduces, at one point, the metaphor of a cinema screen to discuss this business of perception: ‘Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up ... until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars’ faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions ... it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality.’ The movement towards the cinema screen is a metaphor for the narrative’s movement through time towards the present, and the book itself, as it nears contemporary events, quite deliberately loses deep perspective, becomes more ‘partial’. I wasn’t trying to write about (for instance) the Emergency in the same way as I wrote about events half a century earlier. I felt it would be dishonest to pretend, when writing about the day before yesterday, that it was possible to see the whole picture. I showed certain blobs and slabs of the scene.
A few months ago I took part in a conference. Various novelists, myself included, were talking earnestly of such matters as the need for new ways of describing the world. Then the playwright Howard Brenton suggested that this might be a somewhat limited aim: does literature seek to do no more than to describe? Flustered, all the novelists at once began talking about politics. Let me apply Brenton’s question to the specific case of Indian writers, in England, writing about India. Can they do no more than describe, from a distance, the world that they have left?
This is, of course, a political question, and must be answered at least partly in political terms. It should be said, first of all, that description is itself a political act. The black American writer Richard Wright once wrote that black and white Americans were engaged in a war over the nature of reality. Their descriptions were incompatible. So it is clear that redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it. And it is particularly at times when the state takes reality into its own hands, and sets about distorting it, altering the past to fit its present needs, that the making of the alternative realities of art, including the novel of memory, becomes politicised. ‘The struggle of man against power,’ Milan Kundera has written, ‘is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ Writers and politicians are natural rivals. Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory. And the novel is one way of denying the official, politicians’ version of truth. The ‘state truth’ about the war in Bangladesh, for instance, is that no atrocities were committed by the Pakistani Army in what was then the East Wing. This version is sanctified by many people who would describe themselves as intellectuals. And the official version of the Emergency in India was well expressed by Mrs Gandhi in a recent BBC interview. She said that there were some people around who claimed that bad things had happened during the Emergency, forced sterilisations, things like that: but, she stated, this was all false. Nothing of this type had ever occurred. The interviewer, Robert Kee, did not probe this statement at all. Instead he told Mrs Gandhi that she had proved many times over her right to be called a democrat.
So literature can, and perhaps must, give the lie to official facts. But is this a proper function of those of us who write from outside India? Or are we just dilettantes in such affairs, because we are not involved in their day-to-day unfolding, because by speaking out we take no risks, because our personal safety is not threatened? What right do we have to speak at all? My answer is very simple. Literature is self-validating. That is to say, a book is not justified by its author’s worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been done. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes which the author has been obliged to approach from the outside. (Just one example of this latter category: Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, a book which seems wholly to justify its use of Auschwitz, even though Styron is not a Jew, let alone a survivor of the Holocaust.) Literature is not in the business of copyrighting certain themes for certain groups. And as for risk: the real risks for any artist are taken in the work, in pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think. Books become good when they go to this edge and risk falling over it – when they endanger the artist by reason of what he has, or has not, artistically dared.
So if I am to speak for Indian writers in England I would say this, paraphrasing G.V. Desani’s H. Hatterr: the migrations of the 1950s and 1960s happened. ‘We are. We are here.’ And we are not willing to be excluded from any part of our heritage: which heritage includes both a British-born Indian kid’s right to be treated as a full member of this society, and also the right of any member of this post-diaspora community to draw on its roots for its art, just as all the world’s community of displaced writers has always done. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Grass’s Danzig-become-Gdansk, of Joyce’s abandoned Dublin, of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Maxine Hong Kingston and Milan Kundera and many others. It’s a long list.) On the other hand, the Indian writer, looking back at India, does so through guilt-tinted spectacles. (I am, of course, once more, talking about myself.) I am speaking now of those of us who emigrated ... and I suspect that there are times when the move seems wrong to us all, when we seem, to ourselves, postlapsarian men and women. We are Hindus who have crossed the black water; we are Muslims who eat pork. And as a result – as my use of the Christian notion of the Fall indicates – we are now partly of the West. Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools ... but however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. If literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles. Or it may be that that is what we must think in order to do our work.
Midnight’s Children enters its subject from the point of view of a secular man. I am a member of that generation of Indians who were sold the secular ideal. One of the things I liked, and still like, about India is that it is based on a non-sectarian philosophy. I was not raised in a narrowly Muslim environment; I do not consider Hindu culture to be either alien from me or more important than the Islamic heritage. I believe this has something to do with the nature of Bombay, a metropolis in which the multiplicity of commingled faiths and cultures creates a remarkably secular ambience. Saleem Sinai makes use of whatever elements from whatever sources he chooses.
I want to make one last point about the description of India that Midnight’s Children attempts. It is a point about pessimism. The book has been criticised in India for its ultimately despairing tone. And the despair of the writer-from-outside may indeed look a little easy, a little too pat. But I do not see the book as despairing or nihilistic. The point of view of the narrator is not entirely that of the author. What I tried to do was to set up a tension in the text, a paradoxical opposition between the form and the content of the narrative. The story of Saleem does indeed lead him to despair. But the story is told in a manner designed to echo, as closely as my abilities allowed, the Indian talent for non-stop self-regeneration. This is why the narrative constantly throws up new stories, why it ‘teems’. The form – multitudinous, hinting at the infinite possibilities of the country – is the optimistic counterweight to Saleem’s personal tragedy. I do not think that a book written in such a manner can really be called a despairing work.
England’s Indian writers are, of course, by no means all the same type of animal. Some of us, for instance, are Pakistani. Others Bangladeshi. Others West, or East, or even South African. And V.S. Naipaul, by now, is something else entirely. This word ‘Indian’ is getting to be a pretty scattered concept. Indian writers in England include political exiles, first-generation migrants, affluent expatriates whose residence here is frequently temporary, naturalised Britons, and people born here who may never have laid eyes on the subcontinent. Clearly, nothing that I say can apply across all these categories. But one of the interesting things about this diverse community is that, as far as Indo-British fiction is concerned, its existence changes the ball-game, because that fiction is in future going to come as much from addresses in London, Birmingham and Yorkshire as from Delhi or Bombay. One of the changes has to do with attitudes towards the use of English. We can’t simply use the language in the way the British did: it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free. But the British Indian writer simply does not have the option of rejecting English, anyway. His children, her children, will grow up speaking it, probably as a first language; and in the forging of a British Indian identity the English language is of central importance. It must, in spite of everything, be embraced. (The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation: I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.)
To be an Indian writer in this society is to face, every day, problems of definition. What does it mean to be ‘Indian’ outside India? How can culture be preserved without becoming ossified? How should we discuss the need for change within ourselves and our community without seeming to play into the hands of our racial enemies? What are the consequences, both spiritual and practical, of refusing to make any concessions to Western ideas and practices? What are the consequences of embracing those ideas and practices?
In common with many Bombay-raised middle-class children of my generation, I grew up with an intimate knowledge of, and even sense of friendship with, a certain kind of England: a dream-England composed of Test Matches at Lord’s presided over by the voice of John Arlott, at which Freddie Trueman bowled unceasingly and without success at Polly Umrigar; of Enid Blyton and Billy Bunter, in which we were even prepared to smile indulgently at portraits such as ‘Hurree Jamset Ram Singh’, the ‘dusky nabob of Bhanipur’. I wanted to come to England. I couldn’t wait. And to be fair, England has done all right by me: but I find it a little difficult to be properly grateful. I can’t escape the view that my relatively easy ride is not the result of the dream-England’s famous sense of tolerance and fair play, but of my social class, my freak fair skin and my ‘English’ English accent. Take away any of these, and the story would have been very different. Because of course the dream-England is no more than a dream.
Sadly, it’s a dream from which too many white Britons refuse to awake. Recently, on a live radio programme, a professional humorist asked me, in all seriousness, why I objected to being called a ‘Wog’. He said he had always thought it a rather charming word, a term of endearment. ‘I was at the zoo the other day,’ he revealed, ‘and a zoo keeper told me that the Wogs were best with the animals; they stuck their fingers in their ears and wiggled them about and the animals felt at home.’ The ghost of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh walks among us still. But it’s easy to be anecdotal. The point is that the British are deluded about themselves and their society. They still, for the most part, think it the fairest, most just, most decent society ever created: an attitude which has created, in Britain, what might be termed a gulf or rift in reality. As Richard Wright found long ago in America, black descriptions of society, and white, are no longer compatible. Fantasy, or the mingling of fantasy and naturalism, is one way of dealing with these problems. It offers a way of echoing in the form of our work the issues faced by all of us: how to build a new, ‘modern’ world out of an old, legend-haunted civilisation, an old culture which we have brought into the heart of a newer one. But whatever technical solutions we may find, Indian writers in these islands, like others who have migrated to the north from the south, are capable of writing from a kind of double perspective: because they – we – are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders in this society. This stereoscopic vision is perhaps what we can offer in place of ‘whole sight’.
Of all the many elephant traps lying ahead of us, the largest and most dangerous pitfall would be the adoption of a ghetto mentality. To forget that there is a world beyond the community to which we belong, to confine ourselves within narrowly defined cultural frontiers would be to go voluntarily into that form of internal exile which in South Africa is called the ‘homeland’. We must guard against creating, for the most virtuous of reasons, British-Indian literary equivalents of Bophuthatswana or the Transkei. This raises immediately the question of whom one is writing ‘for’. My own, short answer is that I have never had a reader in mind. I have ideas, people, events, shapes, and I write ‘for’ those things, and hope that the completed work will be of interest to others. But which others? In the case of Midnight’s Children I certainly felt that if its subcontinental readers had rejected the work, I should have thought it a failure, no matter what the reaction in the West. So I would say that I write ‘for’ people who feel part of the things I write ‘about’: but also for everyone else whom I can reach. I am of the same opinion as Ralph Ellison, who says that he finds something precious in being black in America: but that he is also reaching for more than that. ‘I was taken very early,’ he writes, ‘with a passion to link together all I loved within the Negro community and all those things I felt in the world which lay beyond.’ Western writers have felt free to be eclectic in their selection of theme, setting, form: I am sure we must grant ourselves an equal freedom.
Indian writers in England have access to a second tradition, however, quite apart from their own racial history. It is the cultural and political history of the phenomenon of migration, displacement, life in a minority group. We can quite legitimately claim, as our ancestors, the Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews; the past to which we belong is an English past, the history of immigrant Britain. Swift, Conrad, Marx are as much our literary forebears as Tagore or Ram Mohan Roy. America, a nation of immigrants, has created great literature out of the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, out of examining the ways in which people cope with a new world: it may be that by discovering what we have in common with those who preceded us into this country, we can begin to do the same. I stress that this is only one of many possible strategies. But we are inescapably international writers at a time when the novel has never been a more international form (a writer like Borges speaks of the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson on his work, Heinrich Böll acknowledges the influence of Irish literature, cross-pollination is everywhere); and it is perhaps one of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to be able to choose his parents. My own – selected half-consciously, half-not – include Gogol, Cervantes, Kafka, Melville, Machado de Assis: a polyglot family tree, against which I measure myself, and to which I would be honoured to belong. There’s a beautiful image in Saul Bellow’s latest novel, The Dean’s December. The central character, the Dean, Corde, hears a dog barking wildly somewhere. He imagines that the barking is the dog’s protest against the limits of dog experience: ‘For God’s sake,’ the dog is saying, ‘open the universe a little more!’ Bellow is not really talking about dogs, or not only about dogs, and I have the feeling that the dog’s rage, and its desire, is also mine, ours, everyone’s. ‘For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.