Freedom to Tango

Michael Wood

  • Babu Fictions: Alienation in Contemporary Indian English Novels by Tabish Khair
    Oxford, 407 pp, £21.50, March 2001, ISBN 0 19 565296 7
  • An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma
    Faber, 282 pp, £9.99, January 2001, ISBN 0 571 20673 5
  • The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
    Bloomsbury, 329 pp, £16.99, February 2001, ISBN 0 7475 5270 3
  • The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
    HarperCollins, 551 pp, £16.99, July 2000, ISBN 0 00 226102 2

In Anita Desai’s recent novel Fasting, Feasting, there is a delicately framed moment of what looks like reconciliation. An unmarried daughter has seen her last chance of a career and a life independent from the family vanish into the demands of her mother’s real or feigned illness. Feigned, the daughter is sure: the crafty parental stranglehold. But then daughter and mother attend a ceremony of mourning, where a dead woman’s ashes are consigned to the river. Each clasps the other’s hand, the mother weeps, and the daughter thinks ‘they are together still, they have the comfort of each other.’ ‘Together still’ means neither is dead, not that the daughter has failed to get away, and the chapter ends as the daughter ‘dips her jar in the river, and lifts it high over her head. When she tilts it and pours it out, the murky water catches the blaze of the sun and flashes fire.’ The blaze of the sun is the final flaring of the daughter’s anger, perhaps, the prelude to a long acceptance of an unchangeable condition.

The context makes this settled reading untenable, though, or at least insufficient. The ceremony that daughter and mother are attending is for a woman who after many years of marriage poured kerosene over herself and set herself alight because she was so unhappy. Or in another version – the narrator reports but doesn’t adjudicate – was burned alive by her in-laws. We can’t see the poured water without remembering the poured kerosene which appeared only five pages back, and without wondering what to do with the two images. At the very least an act of violence has crept into the scene of calm, and the blaze of the sun looks altogether different, a reminder of the sheer intensity of the despair or hostility which can lurk in quiet days.

All the characters here are Indian. The emotions are all in the cultural family, so to speak, and we don’t need to leap to thoughts of post-colonial or subaltern repression and resistance. But since the novel is written in English, the language is itself a historical marker, a relic of empire. The characters in the novel certainly speak English (go to a convent school, drink whisky, drive a Rover, read Ella Wheeler Wilcox, although they don’t each of them do all of those things), but they don’t speak only English, and it’s not clear when they switch languages. When the priest recites his prayers at the ceremony or tells the boatman to ‘Turn back now, it’s done,’ he is presumably not speaking English. When the daughter says ‘Mama’, I think perhaps she is. Although Desai dedicates this novel ‘To Those Whose Stories I’ve Told’, part of her discretion is her refusal to speak at length for her characters, to represent directly, for instance, the rage that may haunt their obedience. She speaks another language, or rather two other languages, English and the language of images.

Desai’s awareness of these languages is one answer to the question Tabish Khair puts in his intelligent and argumentative book on contemporary Indian English novels: ‘how can agency be expressed and recognised when the medium of expression is not the agent’s?’ This is a fine question, but it’s about a sense of language rather than a linguistic fact. It’s not, I think, that English doesn’t belong to the Indians who speak it: why wouldn’t it belong to them as much as to anyone else? Or better, does it make any sense to think of language as belonging to anyone? But assumptions of possession and dispossession are everywhere, and full of intimations of class and power. ‘This language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine,’ Stephen Dedalus thinks while talking to an English priest in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The language isn’t the priest’s and isn’t Stephen’s, but the priest talks as if he owned it and Stephen feels he never will. Neither, we may wish to recall, has any other language except those he has learned in school.

There are 16 official languages in India. Some 5 per cent of the population can read English, but mostly for vocational or technical purposes, while about 40 per cent know Hindi. I’m taking these figures both from Khair and from an article by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books. Readers and writers of English are thus a tiny minority, but Khair quotes the critic Harish Travedi as saying ‘it is this tiny minority which is the privileged, prosperous, decision-making new ruling caste of the country.’ The privilege and the proportion exclude so much of what is there (although the exclusions work in different ways) that I’m not sure where this leaves non-Indian readers of Indian English fiction, except with a huge reminder of everything we don’t know and perhaps can’t know. We should remember, too, that much Indian fiction in English is written for readers abroad, or indeed written abroad. All three of the novelists discussed in this review live in the United States, Khair in Copenhagen.

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