The Master of Babu Fiction
[Tabish Khair is the author of various books, including the poetry collection, 'Where Parallel Lines Meet' (Penguin, 2000), the study, 'Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels' (Oxford UP, 2001) and the novel, 'The Bus Stopped' (Picador, 2004), which was short-listed for the Encore Award.
Khair latest novel, Filming examines memory and guilt against the backdrop of the Partition and the 1940s Bombay film industry. A collection of his essays will also be published in India in early 2008 as 'Muslim Modernities: Essays on Moderation and Mayhem, 2001 - 2006'. The leading feminist house, ZUBAAN, will publish Khair's first illustrated book for children (Glum Peacock) in the winter of 2007/8. Tabish Khair is associate professor in the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.]
Language has its own history, a past of its own. In South Asia English is given to us (or imposed) during the Raj, and for a good many years it has remained the language of a particular class…
Good you asked this question, as I feel that some critics tend to misunderstand my Oxford UP book, Babu Fictions, where I engaged with the issue. It was one of the earliest such engagements. My point was that English is an Indian language now, but it has a different history from many other Indian languages and it connects to them differently. Try translating a text from Hindi to Urdu or Bangla and then try to translate it into English, and you will feel the difference. This difference has to be kept in mind; the glib after-Rushdie celebration of 'Hinglish' will not do, or it will not do outside some very rarified circles. On the other hand, English fits in with a long Indian tradition of literature in largely textual languages used by the elite: both Farsi (Persian) and Sanskrit in the past. In that sense, English can be seen as the latest element in a long and rich tradition of mainstream and largely 'textual' literatures. This too has to be kept in mind. And then finally the fact that English is not only spoken from choice by a particular class, that privileged class speaks it as a 'standard' language, no matter what the accent. We 'babu-logs' speak correct, textual English, mostly. Other classes that speak broken English (or no English) do NOT speak English from choice. This introduces a relationship of reportage and power that any thinking Indian English writer has to consider before she makes other classes of Indians speak any sort of English at all.
In Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, JM Coetzee's protagonist says the following about novelists in Africa who write in English, which may as well be true for South Asia: "Whether they like it or not they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their reader. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time if you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to its investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students…" This is quite an interesting observation, isn't it? Novelists translating reality for a reader who may know noting about the history or tradition of writing of the place where the novel is set. This problem turns into a crisis when the reader is from the west, and the writer is a non-diasporic one insisting on keeping the word chorai--Bangla for sparrow chorai. A South Asian writer has to take this extra responsibility of translating the reality along with his primary job of interpreting and analysing it...
I both agree and disagree with Coetzee's protagonist. A degree of interpretation is part of any narrative: we do not see the same reality in exactly the same way. Even if you write for your own brother or sister, you will be presenting your own interpretation of the subject. It is true that if you write for 'outsiders', you might be tempted to over-interpret, over-explain. And that will affect your art, reduce the depth of your engagement with the subject matter and with languages. But even there, let us not assume that writing for the same linguistic community removes the problem to communicating to 'strangers.' Every reader is a stranger. Every reader, to some extent, is an outsider: she stands outside the text, outside your mind, outside your personal language. In languages like Urdu, even the cultural markers change so much between, say, a reader in Hyderabad and one in Lahore that one cannot take everything for granted. At least since the year 1999-2000, which is the emblematic cut-off point for me when it comes to formulating a clear-cut policy towards such matters in my own writing, I have asked myself a simple question: will this word or description (if it is crucial enough) be familiar to readers in Madras and Karachi and Dhaka? If I am certain that this is not the case, I try and work in a bit of explanation, some arrows pointing towards an explanation, without going off the narrative. So, unlike Coetzee, I am not thinking of 'outsiders' in the sense of Europeans or Americans; I am thinking of 'outsiders' within my own cultural heritage of Hindustan. It is true that I write in English for Indians/Pakistanis/ Bangladeshis, by and large: I do not write just for Biharis, though I am sure Bihari readers will get more from some of my texts than non-Bihari ones. But again it is true, as you suggested, that writers like me are faced with the problem of NOT interpreting just for the sake of 'Western' readers, and that if you refuse to interpret for Western readers your readership in the West is significantly smaller. In some ways, post-colonial readers like you and me are more used to coping with differences and hindrances in the texts; it is cultural training for us; we grew up with different traditions, cultures, histories, languages, with receiving texts from different nations. The West, despite its noises about openness and difference, can be a very closed place. And the current phase of neo-liberalist Capitalism, which wants everything to be easily consumable, does not help matters.
How important is it for you to know your 'audience'?
That is a difficult question to answer. Do I really 'know' my audience? Do I have a clear idea of my audience? I don't know. As I said, I do have some sort of a pan-Hindustani (not just 'Indian') audience in mind, an English-reading South Asian audience. But this is, so to say, my secondary audience. My primary audience consists of people I love and who have mattered to me in my life: ranging from parents to family servants. I write for them, I write to ensure that I leave a record of them (and me with them) and their worlds for those I love who will wake into a different future (like my children). I write to negotiate the bridge of the present, which is my presence, that links their past to the future of those who are growing out of that past and this present. Strangely, this primary audience contains people who will not, cannot at times, read me. I depend on my secondary audience of anglophone South Asians (and anyone else who cares) to read me, and in that reading enable me to write for my primary audience. Does that make sense?
At the same time a novelist also rewrites history in some way or the other. This is very difficult a task given that the tradition of writing history never existed in the South Asian sub-continent. Naipaul once said that Gandhi had to resort to myth (Kalyug, Satyayug) to communicate with his people during the Indian independence movement...
You are right: novels are narratives, and so are histories. They are not -- regardless of what postmodernists claim -- narratives of the same type. But being narratives, they obviously impact on each other. I am less convinced by Naipaul's remark about Gandhi using myth to communicate to his own people. Yes, Gandhi did so. But then doesn't the so-called 'historical' West use myths for popular purposes too? Liberalism is a collection of myths about the effects of capital, free market, the trickle-down effect etc. The 'free individual' is partly a myth of Europe. So is the idea of Greek civilisation as the cradle of Europe: actually, this might be the 'historical' European version of Ramrajya! And so forth and so on. It is easy to see other people's stories as myths and to see one's own stories as history: a common trap of Eurocentrism and unfortunately Naipaul, someone I admire as a literary writer, falls into it more often than not.
We create myths to keep the fantasy of living alive.
True. And that is fine. Life is not easy, and anything that helps is welcome. Unfortunately, sometimes we also create myths to justify the deaths of others. Think of the Nazis, for instance, and their myths of Aryan superiority or their myths against Jews. Think of 'collateral damage' and such terms that are being employed right now. All of them are based on myths about ourselves, the world and others. Myths can make life easy or better. Myths can also lead to genocide.
The novel has another aspect too. You read it alone, it is not a collective experience, not like the one that one has while going to the theatre or to a gallery.
Yes, a very important factor. You can imagine how 'novel' this was when you realise that until recently, well into the 19th century, people read the novel out aloud or at least with lip movements. The idea of silent reading took time to develop. It grew out of the experience of the novel as an individual event, but it took time before people could actually read the novel silently, only to themselves, not as if they were addressing someone else. In this sense, again, the novel is connected to notions of modernity and capitalist individuality, notions that are sometimes mistakenly considered 'European' in an essentialising sense. However, and herein lies an irony, the highly individual experience of reading the novel is also intensely multivocal, for the novel contains more voices (as Bakhtin claims) than, say, the epic.
Let's go back to Post-Colonialism. While trying to write back to the centre some Po-co writers have become a part of the circle.
You know, I am strangely located in this matter. I moved out of India when I was almost thirty, and until then I had hardly heard of 'post-colonialism'. I did not think of myself as 'post-colonial' or 'hybrid' or whatever. So my first reaction to this entire collocation of discourses was quite sceptical, not totally untouched by a sort of resentment at being labelled yet again, being given nicknames, so to say. But having taught in Europe for a decade now, I can also see the radical and necessary aspects of 'post-colonial studies'. If we did not have a term like that, believe me, very little of Indian or Nigerian literature would be studied in European highschools and universities. Perhaps a bit of Australian and Canadian literature, because these are rich countries and good at promoting their authors and artists, but almost nothing by Jamaicans or Kenyans. Having said that, it is true -- as you have suggested -- that Post-colonialism is by self-definition caught in a vicious circle. It does, in whatever way, go back to the colonial experience and privilege it over other experiences. But those of us who grew up in India or Bangladesh know that the colonial experience was just one of many, and it is just one of many components in our current cultures. In fact, one of the reasons I write creatively is to offset this centrality of the colonial experience without ignoring it. For instance, in The Bus Stopped, I took up a region that would be considered 'traditional', 'backward', non-Western, stuck in space and time, and tried to show (among other things) how mobile and mixed it was, without necessarily being 'Westernised'. The point being that there have been and continue to be kinds of experiences, cosmopolitanism, hybridisation etc which cannot be understood only against the backdrop of European colonisation.
But I find the term itself misleading. It gets more confusing when after their independence former colonies start exploiting their own population. And the nature of domination is strangely similar to the days of Raj. Say Bengalis under Pakistani bourgeois in 1947-71. The Pakistani ruling class tried to impose its own language on the Bengalis, and at the same time Pakistan itself had just got independence from Britain. Funny isn't it? A newly independent colony, a Post-colony, having its own colony. I think its even more murky now because the question of sovereignty does not exist any more. There is no Post-colony per se. In this world we only have the multi-nationals who have replaced Conrad's 'Company'.
I agree, absolutely. That is another aspect of the problem. Actually, we are living through a phase when the terms being employed -- whether it is 'post-colonialism' or 'globalisation' -- are nothing better than smokescreens. They do not really address the main issues and problems. Perhaps, it has to do with giving up on the idea of a material world out there.
The dilemma is every text is at birth open.
Yes, a text is always open. So is language. But both are situated somewhere.
Very well said. But things that are at work here are not literary...
I agree. But while I am very conscious of the 'literary' (I can hardly afford to ignore it, being both a writer and a teacher of literature), I would see little point in writing simply as a literary exercise. For me, while art cannot be subsumed to other things, like (say) politics, it is also true that art does not exist in a vacuum. To confine oneself to purely literary or narrowly artistic matters would be to impoverish oneself, and one's writing. I think writing is one of the ways in which I live out my life and engage with the world. In that sense, it is not just 'literary', though -- in order to be effective -- it can never ignore the 'literary'.
Does that mean that a writer should be a 'socially responsible' being, conscious of his place in the world as an interpreter of reality? A modern day prophet?
No, the writer can be 'socially irresponsible', if he wishes, but he will still have to be conscious of his position in the world. He may face up to it, exploit it, deny it, try to overcome it, flow with or against the current, whatever. In short, what he does with this consciousness is another matter. That is a political and moral decision. One may not take this political or moral decision and still write 'good' literature -- literature as the 'literary' -- but I would consider it a partly impoverished endeavour. However, this does not mean that I see writers as modern-day prophets. They are what they are: writers. I think there is a tendency in the West these days to replace God with literature and prophets with writers. I remain sceptical of this, just as I remain sceptical of many aspects of religion.
I agree with you completely. Art has replaced religion...
For better AND for worse.
That reminds me of The Wasteland, one of the 'pillars' of modernist literature.
A great poem. But it has always worried me that just when non-Europeans started fighting for a voice and getting some power, so many European modernists started talking about the end of the world!
Having said that, I find Post-modernism too diverse, and a little confusing. You cannot really define it, even Post-modernists don't/can't.
Anything with a 'post' attached is not really a definition. And I must say I have a soft corner for modernist literature. I seem to be going back to it more and more often with time.
Why is it so, going back to modernism?
Not necessarily modernism as a movement, but to modernist texts. Various reasons: because all the techniques and styles that post-modernism applies are already there in modernist literature, because it used to have a sharper intellectual and political edge at times, because it was less likely to be packaged for easy consumption than popular sub-genres of recent years, such as magic realism.
If you are told to describe your work in a paragraph or two how will you do it?
I would prefer not to do it. I put a lot of thought into each specific work, and into working out some sort of trajectory for my writing. But I prefer not to talk about it. I think such talk obstructs the actual performance, so to say. And in any case, I believe that if my work is worth something, other people will describe it! Once I have published something -- or let me say something from the year 2000 onwards, as I use that year to signify my maturity as a writer -- I consider it to have a life of its own. It has to stand or fall on its own. It has to find defenders and champions other than me.
Now, to italicise or not to italicise, is it really an issue?
TK: My position on it has shifted. When I wrote THE BUS STOPPED, I thought one shouldn't -- and there is an internal statement to that effect in the novel. When I finished the first draft of FILMING, my editor suggested that the use of italics would make some matters a bit more clear. I resisted the suggestion, but then I though -- why not? It is a textual device, some of the greatest writers have used it, and, after all, I am writing a text. I suspect that some of the resistance to italicising arises from what Derrida would term logocentrism, a tendency to privilege the spoken word, the utterance, over the written word, the inscribed text. Italics stress the written-ness of language, and that seems to make some people uncomfortable. Having said that, I must add that proportion and purpose remain crucial to the matter for me. In other words, it is NOT an issue if there is sufficient reason to do it.
I hear the phrase 'moderate Muslims' a lot, but do not understand what people mean by it. Who are moderate Muslims?
Tricky term, this one. I have friends who joined an organisation called 'Moderate Muslims' in Denmark following the cartoon controversy: one of them is deeply religious in a tolerant way, the other one is a communist and an atheist from a Muslim background. But both felt pushed to occupy this slot -- Moderate Muslims -- because they did not want to abandon all definitions of Muslimness to reactionary Islamic fundamentalists or to forces in the West that see Muslims as basically backward and intolerant. In a better world, there would have been no need to do so. Christians or Hindus do not have to define themselves as 'moderate'. I have Danish Christian friends who go to church but consider themselves irreligious. I know Danes who almost never go to church but consider themselves very Christian. But a Muslim is either supposed to distance himself completely from his religio-cultural heritage, or he is supposed to be religious and, hence, at least potentially intolerant. It is this situation that drives some Muslims to use the term 'moderate Muslim.' I have used it too in order to define certain intellectual positions within Muslim societies. And I have always wished I did not need to use it. Personally, I do not see any need to qualify 'Muslim' with 'moderate': I know many deeply religious Muslims (and Christians and Hindus) who are more tolerant and accepting than some totally irreligious people. It will be a great day for not only Muslims but the world when ordinary Muslims will not need to, will not be forced to defend themselves with words like 'moderate' prefixed to their religio-cultural identity.
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