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Mirror, mantra

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A different face of the WesT? Salman Rushdie after receiving his Knighthood.
A different face of the WesT? Salman Rushdie after receiving his Knighthood.

TABISH KHAIR

The canonisation of writers like Rushdie and Naipaul in the West enables it to think of itself as radical without really being inconvenienced. The real Other remains outside its gaze…

Here is the first line of a long mantra: naipaulrushdiezadiekureishimonica… Each bead of this mantra is significant and makes some sense. Some beads might even contain powerful, perhaps even immortal, magic. But this interminable mantra, as a whole, is nothing but mumbo-jumbo mumbled by a West that wants to be radical without feeling seriously inconvenienced.

After a very short period of looking around, the West has increasingly turned its gaze onto itself in recent years. There it stands in front of gilded mirrors, gazing at itself in admiration. What it sees is no longer the whiteness it saw in the far past. What it sees now is multi-hued, variously dressed, many voiced. For, the Western self, particularly in literary and cultural circles, has long accepted the fact of being creolised. Even the opponents of multiculturalism cannot see themselves (thank god for small mercies) as snow white. When the West gazes into its mirrors, it sees its own new post-war multicultural self. It sees Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Hari Kunzru, Zadie Smith. And it likes to pretend that it is seeing the Other.

How convenient to look at an Other who speaks one’s own language! No, I am not accusing Rushdie and Naipaul of bland mimicry or of consciously catering to Western opinions. These, and many others like them, are excellent writers, and people of much independence of thought and posture. One or two of them might even be great writers. And yet, they belong to a tradition that is less uncomfortable for the cultured Western reader and critic to face up to. If they present difference, they present just a different aspect of the West.

Beyond language

Choice of language, of course, is one hammer used to strike at such authors. I refuse to take up that hammer. What if they write in English or French? Only a dishonest critic would use that forced/free choice to dismiss the work of a writer, for — as Sujata Bhatt puts it in one of her poems — what language has not been the language of the oppressor? And, by the same token, what language cannot be used to resist, at least to a degree, the commands of the oppressor? Yet, while I grant them their languages and I even grant them greatness in those languages, I repeat my observation: they are a reflection of the new post-war multi-cultural West. They are the mirror images that make the liberal West feel comfortable with itself, because it feels that in gazing on them (and their works) it is reading and championing the Other.

They are not the Other. They are not even different, really. They are the West today.

They are the West in two very obvious ways. Many of them, like Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi or Zadie Smith, were born or brought up from childhood in the West. To read them as Indian or Caribbean writers is to do them an injustice. They should be read — as Hari Kunzru and some others have rightly indicated — as belonging to the nation in which they grew up.

Secondly, even postcolonial writers who went Westward Ho! at a relatively mature age rode very different wagons. Some were brought there and put to school in England, USA or France by rich parents. Some won prestigious scholarships: their departures were caused not by unemployment or poverty but by recognition granted them by the colonial or ex-colonial centre. These are not immigrants who come as cheap labour and survive cheaply. They are not even like immigrants — and there are (less visible) African, Indian or Caribbean writers who belong to this category (as do I) — who move to the West for personal reasons, and then struggle up the professional chain, selling newspapers, washing dishes, painting houses until they have a degree (or a new degree) that enables them to enter (or re-enter) the professional middle classes.

But, again, even these are not alike: to call V.S. Naipaul and Aimé Césaire Caribbean writers in the same breath is to conflate two very different positions. I am not talking of politics or colour or claim, or lack of it. I am talking of something else. Both Naipaul and Césaire were plucked out of the colonies by the paternal colonial hand of scholarships and brought to elite educational institutions in England and France respectively. Later on, Césaire decided to return to Martinique and reside there; Naipaul — in both his writing and his choice of residence — repudiated the Caribbean.

The repudiation may or may not be criticised; it was above all a personal choice. But surely, it should be noted, just as the choice of a language should not be criticised, but surely it has to be noted. An Indian who writes in English does not abandon India per se, but she does occupy a position of authorship that is significantly different from an Indian who writes in Hindi or Tamil. But unfortunately even an Indian who writes about India in English is not likely to be made visible by agents, clubs and book chains in the West: she has to write about India in certain approved ways, ways that very often depend on a celebration of the “multicultural” West either as actual presence or enabling possibility.

West as global

If the West likes to look into gilded mirrors and admire itself in the guise of novels about multi-cultural London, or poems written in chapatti English (or is it paratha, for a fair bit of butter seems to have been applied?), or stories about the Raj and its oof-springs, the West also likes to look into gilded mirrors and admire itself in the guise of “global” literature. Perhaps these are the same mirrors. Perhaps they are different. Who knows? For, their existence has not been faced up to.

Let us talk about the mirror image of ‘global’ literature. Perhaps the mantra I quoted above is incorrect. Perhaps “rushdienaipaul” is a segment from another mantra, the mantra of “global” literature. For, this is a strange mirror image. It appears in the colour of European languages. A Gayatri Spivak might write a piece on a Mahasweta Devi, but that hardly makes a dent. Mostly, it is authors writing in English or French who are stood up in the “global” halls of fame. Come to think of it, authors who repudiate their homelands and seek the shelter of the West — from Naipaul to Coetzee — are more likely to be seen as “global” than authors who stay in their homelands, like Ngugi Wa’Thiongo and Shashi Deshpande, or who, like Césaire, return home from the West.

Literary trends, such as magical realism, which are fashionable in the West are used to define, collate and celebrate this “global” literature, even within the already narrow circumference of legitimating European languages. African or Asian novelists who experiment with structure or connect to the modernist tradition are not likely to be promoted. Instead, preference is given to “story-telling”, to “magical realism” etc. It does cross my mind that, perhaps, it is in writing today as it has been in music and sculpture for centuries: just as the coloured man can play, but not compose, the coloured woman is allowed to tell “stories”, but not write a novel. Have we come such a long way after all, baby?

Invisible literatures

There are other “global” literatures, but they are not visible today. Some of them are even in English or French or Spanish. Some of them are even by authors settled or born in the West. But gilded mirrors are not likely to reflect them. Just as there are other Asian, African, post-colonial writers, but they are hardly visible today. After a short period in which at least some Western critics and writers were genuinely interested in difference, in other cultures — a period that enabled the publication of novels like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart — the West is back to gazing at gilded mirrors. And by chanting the mantra of “global” literature or multiculturalism, the West conveniently forgets that the reflections it sees in those mirrors are, after all, its own.

Pass me that bloody bawlty dish, will you?

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist, poet and critic, currently based in Denmark.

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