His themes are contemporary and still relevant and the quality of his writing first-rate. Then why is Arun Joshi so little known?
Is the greatest Indian English novelist all but out of print? This much is certain: Arun Joshi deserves better. The author of five novels, written mainly during the 1970s, who won the Sahitya Akademi award for his penultimate book, The Last Labyrinth, barely registers as a name today. At least two of his books are out of print, none is easily available. Yet his themes are the most vitally contemporary of all our early English novelists, his characters vividly like us — English-speaking, urban, wracked with confusion — and the quality of his art and thought are both first-rate and arguably far superior to (say) Rushdie (to whom Indian English writing is said to owe a great debt). But if all this is so, what explains his obscurity?
Part of the answer may be the man’s personality. According to some accounts, Joshi was reclusive and publicity-shy. He certainly didn’t climb the publishing ladder like his contemporaries did. Along with most other writers of the time who wrote in English but lived in India (Joshi headed the Shri Ram Centre for Industrial Relations in Delhi), he published locally — with Orient Paperbacks. But even through the 1980s and beyond, post-Rushdie, when Anita Desai, Khushwant Singh and others had moved to foreign or multinational brands, and Penguin India had set up shop, and publishing was starting to become the big-ticket affair it is today, Joshi was still with Orient. (He remained there till his death in 1993, and his books have stayed there ever since.) It is not the case that his merits were unknown in his lifetime. He had won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1982. Did he not push his wares hard enough?
This could be; we don’t know. But we know a general truth, which I suggest applies squarely to Arun Joshi: that it is the man with his finger on the pulse who risks being dashed aside, not the glib talker at the safe distance. That a writer can be ignored, precisely for being too relevant. In exploring seriously and unapologetically the psyche of his very own ‘set’ — the privileged and the upwardly mobile, who read, wrote, talked and thought in English — Joshi was breaking ground that has never afterwards been mined; that has, in fact, been guiltily filled up again, in the years since he published. As a result, his themes, which leap from the page from sheer relevance, lie buried today in a kind of ashamed but aggressive silence.
Consider his best-known book, The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, published in 1971. It is the story of the son of a Supreme Court judge, educated in New York, who leaves his comfortable Delhi life, his marriage and his friends, to become a tribal healer in the Maikala Hills of Chhattisgarh. It is a ‘sensational’ plot; Joshi was habitually guilty of slight excesses in that regard. It is also exciting, wise, beautifully constructed, and one of the best English novels written anywhere in the world. Billy’s conversations with the narrator, his old college friend now a conventional but thoughtful bureaucrat, delineate Joshi’s concerns.
“What got me,” Billy confides, years after his transformation, “was the superficiality...I don’t think all city societies are as shallow as ours. I am, of course, talking mainly of the so-called upper classes… I don’t think I have ever met a more pompous, a more mixed-up lot of people.”
“Well,” answers the narrator, “you know why they are mixed up, don’t you? Centuries of foreign rule, the period of transition, economic insecurity and so on.”
“I can understand that,” says Billy, “but for God’s sake they have at least got to think about it. If they don’t, the period of transition, as you call it, is going to last forever and ever.”
This excerpt may suggest, at first, a certain cynicism — the familiar breast-beating of our present-day literary elite — but Joshi is simply too good for that. The shallowness of middle class society is not for him a point of rhetoric, intended to show off his own enlightened superiority, but a theme to be explored with actual concern. He never mocks the men and women whom he critiques. That is why they come to life. Here is Leela Sabnis, from The Last Labyrinth: “M.A. and PhD. from Michigan, something else from London, short, shapely, small-breasted, skinny, trained in philosophy, emancipator of women, married and divorced, believer in free love, harbinger of a new order of things, reformer of the body and a mechanic of the spirit, a good lover... Leela Sabnis was a muddled creature. As muddled as me. Muddled by her ancestry, by marriage, by divorce, by too many books.” This extract condenses the character, but I hope conveys something of the sheer reality of Joshi's material. Leela Sabnis is a woman one recognises.
So is her ‘muddle’. And Joshi explores the muddle of our English-speaking elite, up and down through his first four novels. He knows that it is the wellspring of a great deal of violence, of “the blind blundering vengeance” that stalks Billy Biswas, and the sham and hypocrisy that creep over The Apprentice. That, Joshi’s third and perhaps greatest novel, is a searing account of a young government servant’s descent into careerism and corruption. Published almost four decades ago, no novel could be more acutely relevant to our times. There are lines like prophecy. “We are defeated and we celebrate victory! God exists and does not mind graft! We sink and think we are swimming. Strange... We are a very strange nation.” But perhaps no bookshop stocks it.
This is both tragic and not surprising at all. When the general consensus among our critics is that privileged Indian English novelists cannot possibly have any great themes of their own to grapple with, that all the meaty material lies in ‘other’ Indias or in other languages, that non-fiction may as well take over from fiction — when such idiocies (the right word) abound — then the last thing one knows how to place is the absolute seriousness and unabashed introspection of an Arun Joshi. When I mention that it is the spiritual starvation of the elite, their unattended need for faith and God, that is his ultimate theme, you will see the gap between his thought and the prevailing thought. Nevertheless, it is worth considering, that even as we celebrate writers from the world over, we may have forgotten the best of our own.