Who has the right to write about India?

Last Updated: Sun, Nov 04, 2012 12:45 hrs

India is arguably the country that has been lied about the most. As students, we’ve learnt its history through the prism of political correctness. As children, we’ve learnt its unrecorded history through Amar Chitra Katha – mythology to some, religion to others.

As Indians, we’ve learnt its history through travel brochures that advertise heritage sites, where people hawk souvenirs, follow tourists with Polaroid cameras, and harass foreigners with “world famous” guide services. As readers, we’ve read books on fish-eyed goddesses, butter chicken and great railway bazaars.

For a long time, our history was analysed and subsequently dictated by colonisers. In this century, Indians living abroad have gone to its smelly slums, its ancient caves, its roadside shops, its Eastern reaches, and put everything that happened centuries before they lived into books, which everyone else who has written about India has praised on the jackets.

But all through, we have made ourselves exotic and glorious. This is the country of the Gods with an assorted number of limbs and heads, animal faces and human bodies, an odd culture where pantheism meets idolatry. This is the country of jewels growing on trees, muslin sarees that fold into matchboxes, of bazaars without beggars, of rich crops and happy laughter.

We like to neatly skip over the fact that we were marauded by each other, and later by invaders. We choose, instead, to focus on the blended cultures all of that led to, yet another exotic facet of this exotic country.

Girish Karnad’s critique of Naipaul’s political leanings and understanding of India surprised me, as it did everyone else. I read the recorded version of his speech thoroughly, and while I agreed with some of his points, and he acknowledges that Naipaul is entitled to his opinion on India, I don’t think literary awards should be affected by political leaning or personal conduct. That would be akin to disputing M F Husain’s talent on the grounds that his paintings were offensive to Hindus.

What I find more interesting is the public reaction to Karnad’s outburst. Our nutty right-wing slams Karnad, our nutty bleeding-heart liberals slam Naipaul, and our nutty left wing doesn’t know what it wants. But most of the reactions on social media have centred on whether Naipaul was Indian enough to analyse India, and whether India should, indeed, be analysed by people who hadn’t grown up in this country.

Maybe the problem is that Naipaul was the first to speak of the squalor of India. His An Area of Darkness, written when the author was in his early thirties, was a biting indictment of the many shortcomings of a relatively new nation, spread over a land whose prehistoric civilisations we’re still proud of. To look back on our past glory is all right, but to think of how far away we’ve come from it is depressing.

It started with Naipaul, and he set off a flood of modern non-fiction writing about India. Nearly every well-known travel writer and historian has a book on India to his name. Eventually, this has evolved into Indians writing about India. Most of them live abroad, and rage against the colonisers – excluding the Mughals from their invective – while dining at guilty Caucasian dinner tables.

The foreigners writing about India have mostly either glorified Hinduism, as in the case of Francois Gautier, glorified the Mughal era and the many other courts of decadence this country has seen, as in the case of William Dalrymple, or used the Naipaul lens, as in the case of Paul Theroux.

However, there is exceptional writing about India by non-Indians, who are not afraid to tell the truth about the India they see. Of course, there’s Mark Tully, who has lived here for several decades longer than many Indians. And there’s Patrick French, whose understanding of the country appears to be based on solid research and unbiased – or minimally biased – analysis.

But there is a school of thought that believes one must be Indian to write about India. Or, if one isn’t, he or she must be Indophilic.

It’s true that for long, maybe too long, we have got our history second hand, third hand, and often censored. And perhaps a burst of chronicling of India by Indians, whatever the quality, is a good thing because the later generations will inherit various perspectives, rather than an Absolute Truth that turns out to be a lie.

But doesn’t the same rule hold good for foreigners, or people with a tenuous link to Indian origin? Shouldn’t they be allowed to chronicle the Indias they see, whether it appeals to us or not, whether it finds favour with factions or not?
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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at

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