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Cultural Studies

On strangeness in Indian writing


For 20 long years, influenced by Said and post-colonial theory, the aesthetics of estrangement has been confused with the politics of representation. It is time to restore the stranger's innocence.

Arun Kolatkar: Different ambitions in his English writings. Photo: Gowri Ramnarayan

IT is the matter of strangeness in art — what the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky called, almost a century ago, "defamiliarisation" — that brings me to the late Arun Kolatkar, and to a short and unique book, called Jejuri: Commentary and Critical Perspectives, edited and, in part, written by Shubhangi Jayakar. Jejuri is Kolatkar's famous sequence of poems which was published in 1976, and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize the following year. It mainly comprises a series of short lyric utterances and observations through which a narrative unfolds — about a man, clearly not religious, but clearly, despite himself, interested in his surroundings, who arrives on a bus at the eponymous pilgrimage-town in Maharashtra where the deity Khandoba is worshipped, wanders about its ruined temples and parallel economy of priests and touts, and then leaves on a train. In some ways, the sequence resembles Philip Larkin's "Church Going"; except that, where Larkin's distant, sceptical, bicycle-clipped visitor "surprises" in himself a "hunger to be more serious" inside the church, the hunger to be more curious is characteristic of Kolatkar's peripatetic narrator.

Different impetus

Kolatkar was a bilingual poet who wrote in both Marathi and English; in Marathi, his oeuvre is shaped by a combination of epic, devotional, and weird science fiction and dystopian impulses. In English, Kolatkar's impetus and ambition are somewhat different: it's to create a vernacular with which to express, with a febrile amusement, a sort of urbane wonder at the unfinished, the provisional, the random, the shabby, the not-always-respectable but arresting ruptures in our moments of recreation, work, and, as in Jejuri, even pilgrimage. Kolatkar was, in the fledgling tradition of Indian writing in English, the first writer to devote himself utterly to the transformation and defamiliarisation of the commonplace; given that Indian writing in English has, in the last 20 years or so, largely taken its inspiration from the social sciences and post-colonial history, that avenue opened up by Kolatkar has hardly been noticed, let alone explored, by very many contemporary writers. By "defamiliarisation" I mean more than the device it was for Shklovsky; I mean the peculiar relationship art and language have to what we call "life", or "reality". "Realism" is too inexact, loaded, and general a term to suggest the gradations of this process, this relationship, and its perpetual capacity to surprise and disorient the reader. In India, where, ever since Said's Orientalism, the "exotic" has been at the centre of almost every discussion, serious or frivolous, on Indian writing in English (tirelessly expressing itself in the question, "Are you exoticising your subject for a Western audience?"), the aesthetics of estrangement, of foreignness, in art have been reduced to, and confused with, the politics of cultural representation. And so, the notion of the exotic is used by lay reader and critic alike with the sensitivity of a battering ram to demolish, in one blow, both the perceived act of bad faith and the workings of the unfamiliar.

Kolatkar died last year, and his death means he's safely passed into the minor canonical status that India reserves for a handful of dead poets who wrote in English. But the present consensus about him shouldn't obscure the fact that his estranging eye in his English work has been problematic to Indian readers. Shubhangi Jayakar's commentary was published in 1995 with, she says, "the modest aim of helping the undergraduate and graduate students in our universities". Her book is, of course, indispensable to any reader not wholly familiar with the references to various myths and legends, especially those to do with the deity Khandoba, that recur in the poem. But there's another difficulty, one to do with reading, that Jayakar draws our attention to: "Yet another aspect of Jejuri is that it is a poem that can be fully understood and enjoyed only when the reader is able to `see' it. Jejuri is, thus, a peculiarly visual poem. Repeated references to colour, shapes, sizes, textures of objects and many other details... are outstanding aspects of Jejuri. And yet these very aspects bewilder the students".

Nationalistic tenor

Among the "critical perspectives" included in Jayakar's book is the Marathi critic Bhalchandra Nemade's essay, "Excerpts from Against Writing in English — An Indian Point of View", originally published in 1985 in New Quest, a journal of ideas published from Pune descended from the influential Quest, which itself was modelled on Encounter. Nemade's opening paragraphs are fortified by a range of allusions to linguistic theory; but the nationalistic tenor of the essay doesn't demand too much sophistication or imagination from the reader: "A foreign language thus suppresses the natural originality of Indian writers in English, enforcing upon the whole tribe the fine art of parrotry." The typo-ridden text has "ant" for "art", and the juxtaposition of "tribe", "ant", and "parrot" gives both the sentence and its subject matter an odd anthropological remoteness. Unlike the Bengali writer and critic Buddahadev Bose, who worried that the Indian writer in English would have nothing either worthwhile or authentic to say, Nemade is as interested in the realm of consumption, in the possibility of the East being a career (to adapt Disraeli's epigraph to Edward Said's great polemic), as he is in the validity of the creative act itself: "An Indo-Anglian writer looks upon his society only for supply of raw material to English i.e. foreign readership." He mentions three instances of what, for him, are acts of "aesthetic and ethical" betrayal: Nirad C. Chaudhuri's The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Narayan's The Guide, and Kolatkar's Jejuri. And the now-familiar question, still relatively fresh in 1985, is asked and sardonically answered: "What kind of audience do these writers keep in mind while writing? Certainly not the millions of Indians who are `unknown' who visit Jejuri every year as a traditional ritual... "

Literary myth

Here is the mirage of the organic community that so haunts our vernacular writers — the idea that those who write in their mother tongue are joined to their readers in Edenic, prelapsarian harmony (a myth belied by the rich disjunctions in their own writings); anyhow, Nemade doesn't ask himself if the readership of New Quest is an extension of, or an interruption in, that community. Kolatkar's poem he classifies as a form of "cynical agnosticism" and "philistinism". Quoting one of the most beautiful lines in the sequence, "Scratch a rock and a legend springs", where the narrator is noting, with evident detachment, the incorrigible way in which the apparently barren landscape generates mythology, Nemade says "he writes with little sympathy for the poor pilgrims, beggars, priests and their quite happy children at Jejuri"; instead, "Kolatkar comes and goes like a weekend tourist from Bombay". Nemade's a distinguished critic and writer, but this isn't a particularly distinguished offering. Yet, it's interesting because of its rhetoric, in the way, for instance, it uses the word "tourist", to create a characteristic confusion between estrangement as a literary effect, and the threat of the "foreign", with its resonances of colonial history. The aesthetics of wonder is inserted into, and enmeshed with, a politics that is partly nationalistic, partly xenophobic.

Closed to the random

That interpreting the operations of the random or the unfamiliar in the work of the Indian writer in English is a problem beyond malice or wrong-headedness becomes clear when we look at Jayakar's notes, which give us both sensitive close readings of the poems and a great deal of enlightening information about the local references and terrain. Yet, Jayakar, who is obviously an admirer of Kolatkar's, seems oddly closed to the experience of estrangement. In fact, estrangement becomes, once more, a form of cultural distance, and the notes a narrative about alienation; a narrative, indeed, of semi-articulate but deep undecidedness and uncertainty about what constitutes, in language, poetic wonder, citizenship, nationhood, and in what ways these categories are in tension with one another. Examples abound, but I'll give only two. The first concerns her note to "The Doorstep", a poem short enough to quote in its entirety:

That's no doorstep.
It's a pillar on its side.
That's what it is.

For Jayakar, these lines betray a "gap between the world of the protagonist and the world of the devotees". For "a traditional devotee", she says, "every object in the temple exists at two levels. One is the material level which the protagonist can see and share with the devotees. The other level transforms a mundane object into a religious, spiritually informed object". Jayakar points out that this "level is not at all accessible to the protagonist". But surely there's a third level in the poem, in which a significance is ascribed to the mundane, the superfluous, that can't be pinned down to religious belief; and it's this level that Jayakar herself finds inaccessible, or refuses, for the moment, to participate in.

Deracinated gaze

My second example is her note on "Heart of Ruin", the poem that precedes "The Doorstep" in Kolatkar's sequence. As Jayakar tells us — and this is the sort of information that makes her book so useful, and, since it's one of a kind, indispensable — the poem is "a detailed description of the then dilapidated temple of Maruti at Karhe Pathar". From the first line onwards, Kolatkar gives us a portrait of a casual but passionate state of disrepair: "The roof comes down on Maruti's head. / Nobody seems to mind./ ... least of all Maruti himself." This is how Kolatkar catalogues the dishevelled energy of the scene, as well as his bemused discovery of it:

A mongrel bitch has found a place
for herself and her puppies
in the heart of the ruin.
May be she likes a temple better this way.
The bitch looks at you guardedly
Past a doorway cluttered with broken tiles.
The pariah puppies tumble over her.
May be they like a temple better this way.
The black eared puppy has gone a little too far.
A tile clicks under its foot.
It's enough to strike terror in the heart
of a dung beetle
and send him running for cover
to the safety of the broken collection box
that never did get a chance to get out
from under the crushing weight of the roof beam.
Morosely, the narrator concludes — and Kolatkar's abstemiousness with commas serves him well in a sentence in which the second half is neither a logical extension nor a contradiction of the first — "No more a place of worship this place/ is nothing less than the house of god."

Jayakar's gloss, again, translates Kolatkar's laconic, estranging sensibility into the neo-colonial, or at least the deracinated, gaze: "To a visitor with an urbanised, westernised sensibility it is always an irritating paradox that the almighty god's house... should be in such a sorry state of disrepair... Hence the ironic, sardonic tone." I think Jayakar's and Nemade's response to the superfluous and random particular in Jejuri (comparable, in some ways, to the impatience Satyajit Ray's contemporaries felt with the everyday in his films) is symptomatic, rather than atypical, of a certain kind of post-independence critical position, which obdurately conflates the defamiliarisation of the ordinary with the commodification of the native. With the enlargement of the discourse of post-coloniality in the last two decades, the critical language with which to deal with defamiliarisation has grown increasingly attenuated, while the language describing the trajectory of the East as a career has become so ubiquitous that, confronted with a seemingly mundane but irreducible particular in a text, the reader or the member of the audience will almost automatically ask: "Are you exoticising your subject for Western readers?"

National narratives

The two poems by Kolatkar I've quoted from, as well as Nemade's criticisms, remind me of a short but intriguing essay by the social scientist Partha Chatterjee, called "The Sacred Circulation of National Images", and I'd like to end by dwelling on it briefly. Chatterjee is puzzled and engrossed by what has happened to these "national images" — for instance, the Taj Mahal; Shah Jahan's Red Fort — as they've been represented in our textbooks in the last 40 or 50 years: that is, in our relatively brief, but palpably long, history as a republic. He discovers that early photographs and engravings found in textbooks dating back, say, to the 1920s, are gradually replaced in textbooks after 1947 by a certain kind of line drawing. He finds no economic raison d'κtre for this change: "Are they cheaper to print? Not really; both are printed from zinc blocks made by the same photographic process." But the more telling change occurs in the nature of the representations themselves, as the pictures of certain monuments are transformed into "national icons". The earlier pictures and photos, Chatterjee finds, have an element of the random in their composition — an engraving of the Taj Mahal has a nameless itinerant before it; an early photograph shows a scattering of "native" visitors before the same building; early pictures of the Red Fort or the ghats in Benaras have the same sort of "redundant" detail — a group of men, a dog — in the foreground.

A new credo

As these monuments are turned into "national icons" in post-Independence history textbooks, the pictures are emptied of signs of randomness, emptied, indeed, of all but the monument itself, and a new credo and economy of representation comes into existence: "There must be no hint of the picturesque or the painterly, no tricks of the camera angle, no staging of the unexpected or the exotic. The image must also be shorn of all redundancy..." We all know what Chatterjee is talking about from our own memories of the textbooks we studied as children, from the functional but implicitly absolute representation of monuments they contained. Although the impetus behind the "emptying" of the textbook image seems partly Platonic — a nostalgia for the ideal likeness, unvitiated by reality's unpredictability — Chatterjee places it in the context of the Indian nation-state, identifying it as the process by which national monuments are turned to "sacred" images.

It seems to me that both Nemade's and Jayakar's literary responses to Jejuri are, with different degrees of intensity (and, in Nemade's case, belligerence), really part of a larger discussion of what constitutes nationality and the nation-state; that the sacredness they invest in and are anxious to protect in Jejuri is less the sacredness of Khandoba and of religion, and more that of an absolute idea, or ideal, of the nation. Kolatkar's doorstep, his broken pillars, roofs, and beams, his mongrel puppy and dung-beetle, violate that idea and its space, as I think they're meant to, just as much as the itinerant or animal the anonymous engraver introduced into his representation was at once accidental and intentional. Defamiliarisation not only renovates our perception of familiar territory; it dislocates and reframes our relationship of possessiveness to that territory in ways that the discussion on nationality, on what is authentic and what foreign, what's exotic and what native, not only cannot, but actually suppresses. For Kolatkar, the break that the superfluous brings about in the telos of Nemade's and Jayakar's unstated but undeniable national narrative is a small ecstasy; for Jayakar, and Nemade especially, a source of puzzlement and unease.

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