Monday, December 01, 2008

Only what you know

For years, in the wake of Rushdie, I imagined magical realism to be the last refuge of the nonresident Indian. If you were dealing in invented details, it hardly mattered when you mixed up names and dates. But now, more than magical realism, it is the painstaking attempt at verisimilitude that clearly betrays the anxiety about authenticity. This condition is more subtle. It has limited fiction’s reach, keeping writers to what they know. Look at Jhumpa Lahiri, who has assiduously mined the experience of Bengali immigrants of a fixed class. She is one of the better ones, writing about what she knows; lesser writers have been content to churn out what we all know: arranged marriage, dowry, saris, and spices.

Quite apart from this whole slew of stay-at-home writers, home being in most cases somewhere outside India, are the ones who, like Adiga, have taken the bus, or at least a hired taxi, to the hinterland. They might have traveled on a boat and risked being eaten by a Royal Bengal tiger. Or they might have walked in the tight, smelly alleys in the slums and, if they are enterprising, met a hired killer or two. This brings a different frisson to the body of Indian writing in English, which, given its roots in the middle class, has often been insular and dull. And these works seem direct responses to the numbing social violence in nearly every stratum of Indian society. But reportage is only an inoculation against the charge of inauthenticity. It hides larger untruths. Authenticity does matter, but only as it serves the novel’s more traditional literary demands: that the fault lines be drawn where the internal life and the larger world meet.

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