Amma's rasam

Last Updated: Wed, Jul 09, 2014 15:37 hrs

For a long time now many people have been asking me to write a book. I have steadfastly refused - for two reasons.

One, I strongly believe in the Hindi saying, "kauvaa chale hans ki chaal". This is a reference to the crow that expects to fool people into believing it is a swan if it imitates the walk of one. I know my limitations as a journalist.

Second - and that's the reason for writing this article - the only language that I am good at writing in is English. Or, as Amitabh Bachchan said in a movie once, "I can taak English, I can vaak English, I can laaf English" but, culturally, I don't think in the way the native speakers of English do.

I don't, therefore, make the automatic assumptions that those people do - you know, about social equality, the status of women, about moral absolutism, the sort of thing that defines cultural groups. Simply put, we have different prejudices.

Besides, for writing nice books, it's not just the vocabulary that is important. That even my computer has and if programmed, I daresay it could produce a passable book.

The cultural prism through which one looks at the world is the key to literature. The context of one's views, I believe, matters more than the words in which they are expressed.

This came home to me very sharply when I started reading English translations of Indian language books a few years ago. The thoughts, opinions, observations being expressed there, even though written in English, were very different from those that one finds in Indian writing in English.

This latter kind of writing is by people who can write only in English because they have extensive vocabularies in it and possess the other skills that are needed. But they can't write in their mother tongues - or in any other Indian language - because they don't have the full complement of words in those languages.

And even if some of them did have the vocabulary at their disposal, they would most likely fail because they are so Western in their thinking. They don't usually have the advantage of a non-Western intellectual provenance. Their frames of reference are very different. This affects the tone and tenor of the writing.

I don't have the space here to illustrate the point, but you can - by reading the translated books - find out for yourself in the treatment of, say, adultery or cheating your employer and so on. In some indefinable way, you can sense the difference.

Oh, so well groomed
Often, too, with one or two exceptions, these writers resort to artificial devices to produce a verisimilitude of their native cultures but the real McCoy it isn't, no sir, not by a long chalk (whatever that means).

To take just two examples, Salman Rushdie uses sounds from India - you know, thummak, thummak, dhinnak, dhinnak and so on. Amitava Ghosh needs the prop of history to tell an Indian tale.

Both write terrifically well, but you know what? The tales they have been telling lack the ethos, the pathos or whatever it is that informs stories told by Indians writing in their own languages.

Or let me put it another way: how would books written by Ghosh in Bengali or Rushdie in Urdu or Kashmiri or Marathi be? Would they express their thoughts in the same way? I suspect not - at least not Ghosh who might, if pushed to it, produce a top-class book in Bengali.

Then there are those writers of polished prose like Jhumpa Lahiri, Pico Iyer and so on, trained in some American college or the other, with their near-perfect craftsmanship. Not a word, not a phrase is out of place in their paragraphs. Their prose, if I may mix the metaphor, is "perfectly groomed". Yet in some unfathomable way, you feel cheated.

Many such writers have never lived in India, but have perhaps been forced by market forces and their publishers to write about India. They visit for a while, read up a little, and off they go after that. To the extent that all writing is a judgement on something or the other, their judgements are so Western.

Don't get me wrong. These writers often produce excellent books. But these books lack the flavour of those written by people writing in the language of their own culture.

Reading them is like eating a delicious biryani in Cambridge or Princeton - it is perfect in every way except that there is something that simply isn't there. There is the clinical perfection of the chef, but alas not the idiosyncrasies of Amma's rasam.

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