There’s been a rumble in the palace that is inhabited by India’s literary elites. Everyone knows everyone here, and we all read and write in English, and we are all civilised, so we refrain from saying unpleasant things.
Hartosh Singh Bal, a journalist with Open magazine, is the only stranger in this fine world who periodically explodes into rants no one wants to hear. His latest was about the Indian literary elites being “strangely beholden to the British”.
Bal picked author William Dalrymple, a director of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, for special mention. The debate between Bal and Dalrymple has made many uncomfortable since Dalrymple retorted by accusing Hartosh of racism. The question generally is: What do Dalrymple’s origins have to do with his success?
A lot, I say. It is a fact that White people, mostly men from a small area in Western Europe, ruled the world for roughly 500 years. Western imperialism and colonialism are facts of history. That the aim of imperialism was to economically exploit the “new” territories is a fact. There was a slave trade that for about 300 years accompanied imperialism is also known. Africa was pillaged and raped. India was looted of its fabled wealth, and lakhs of its poor were sent around the world as indentured labourers in conditions akin to slavery. American Indians were decimated and robbed of their lands. The aboriginals of Australia got the same treatment of worse. All this was done by White men from Western Europe. Am I racist for saying that?
The descendants of the imperialists inherited this wealth and live in countries with established institutions. The descendants of the colonised and the enslaved inherited poverty and strife. These inherited advantages and disadvantages continue to this day.
It is very well for the rich folks from rich Western countries to enjoy their good fortune. No one has control over where he or she is born, and so it is not anyone’s fault if he or she is born into poverty or wealth. Nor is anyone responsible for the actions of their ancestors. What’s done is done, and the world has moved on.
But if you are a part of an elite group, don’t imagine that you owe your superior circumstances entirely to greater talent. You also owe some part of it to the accident of birth. It is almost certain then that you were not born in a poor farmer family in rural India or Africa. Had you been, your life would be very different.
Dalrymple could afford, at age 22, to travel from Jerusalem to Xanadu over a year and then write about it because he had the means. His talent is not in question: he is doubtless an excellent writer. The fact is that he had the opportunity to develop his talent and give it full expression. That opportunity is denied to all but a negligible few in South Asia and Africa. Most of us here are still struggling to get food, water and a roof over our heads.
That’s why you don’t find Indian or Pakistani or African backpackers, though there are so many of us. It will be a while before Asian and African societies become wealthy enough for a large number of their kids to afford travel. It will take some more decades after that before they find the confidence to take a break from their studies. A few of the children of Asian elites are starting to travel now. The rest must slog for exam after exam because their lives depend on it. They don’t travel, and the only books they read are textbooks.
Children in the West can also afford to study fancy subjects in elite institutions. India, however, largely remains besotted with medicine, engineering, and the Indian Administrative Services because these are seen as gateways to lives of dignity. Middle-class parents still don’t encourage their children to study the arts, or the pure sciences, or play sports other than cricket. They generally discourage independent travel. The 2009 Bollywood movie 3 Idiots was seen as path-breaking because it told us that it is actually possible to pursue a career as a photographer and live comfortably. What a fantastic idea!
Now these newfangled notions are starting to seep into the Indian mainstream. More people are writing and creating art. These fields are currently dominated by the children of the desi elite. It is still too much of a struggle for a middle-class Indian — much more so than it is for someone of equivalent economic background in Western Europe or North America.
In time more Indians will perhaps be privileged to develop their talents in whatever field they choose. Hopefully the market for literary fiction and non-fiction will also improve.
Currently, most Indians only read such books if they come with Western validation: a Booker prize, or an NYT bestseller tag, or some such. This is reflective of our still colonised minds. Someday, Indians may begin to treat other Indians with the respect they now accord to White people, or desis validated by White people.
That is when we can hope to see a new spring in our world of art and literature.