The many biographies of ‘New India’

Published: March 14, 2012 - 13:30 Updated: March 14, 2012 - 13:39

Book: A Free Man
Author: Aman Sethi
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 226
Price: 399
Year: 2011

Book: The Beautiful and the Damned Life in New Delhi
Author: Siddhartha Deb
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Pages: 253
Price: 499
Year: 2011

Book: Beautiful Thing Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars
Author: Sonia Faleiro
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 216
Price: 450
Year: 2011

To make sense of our possible futures, we must learn ways of story-telling from our pre-colonial past
Sailen Routray Bangalore

The growth of literary modernity in India in the second half of the 19th century involved a peculiar set of manoeuvres of which two were, arguably, the most important. The first of these had to do with the fabrication of a set of narrative devices that invented the individual, through the recreation of western models of writing biographies and, some time later, autobiographies. The second one tried something similar.

The norms and conventions of 18th and 19th century European, especially English, novel writing were adopted with considerable chutzpah by writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Fakir Mohan Senapati. A considerable part of this adoption dealt with the manufacturing of a certain 'interiority' by creating individual characters.

Thus, fiction, instead of narrating stories, started narrating the lives of characters. The overall social space of narrative, therefore, got framed in a peculiar way.

At a meta-level, the space of narrative got differentiated into fiction and non-fiction. This was something new in India's literary history. Till the colonial encounter, the 'truth value' of narrative was rarely the issue at hand. The debate about whether a story was true or fictional was not central to debates surrounding story-telling. For example, one dominant set of narratives in this period was that of puranas. These stitched songs, genealogies, discourses on dharma, and stories embedded in a Chinese box fashion into a seamless kantha (a type of embroidered quilt), with varying degrees of success.

Puranas were narratives that were neither true nor false. They sidestepped issues surrounding truth, the way a mongrel street dog in a narrow Indian alley sidesteps a particularly fearsome tomcat. The restructuring of the literary space in India during the 19th century under colonialism tried to 'correct' precisely this 'lacunae'. 'Truth' and concerns surrounding truth precipitated the Indian literary space into fiction and biography (later autobiographies also became increasingly important).

What made novels and biographies the same kind of texts was the focus on 'characters', their interiority, and the ways in which the flow of narrative and the 'flow' of a person's life started mimicking each other.

For a large number of Indian languages, during the five decades across the divide between the 19th and 20th centuries, modern short stories and novels became the dominant fictional form, and biographies and autobiographies became the dominant form of non-fiction. In Indian English the novel started becoming important for literary practice only after independence in 1947, with the form becoming dominant only with the spectacular success of Saleem Sinai of Mumbai (in Midnight's Children). Now the Indian English novel enjoys almost a hegemonic stranglehold over the literary imagination of India.

Over the last few years there has been a reaction to such a state of affairs, with many writers slowly turning to non-fiction. The most famous example of this is perhaps Arundhati Roy who, after her landmark novel The God of Small Things, has written only non-fiction. The three books under review are all recent works of literary non-fiction, which in some sense exemplify this trend. All the three books are self-consciously about the lives and times of the new India, and follow a more or less traditional biographical approach to narrate its story.

At first glance, The Beautiful and the Damned (TBATD) is, structured around four sectors of the Indian economy. The first chapter (after the introduction) tells the story of the new 'sunrise' IT-BPO industry. The second chapter tells the story of red sorghum, a crop grown to feed India's rapidly expanding livestock industry, and raises alarm about the apparent beginning of the end of Indian agriculture as we know it.

The third chapter narrates the story of 'old' industrial sectors such as steel, and the ways in which cheap, exploited footloose migrant labour produces the huge profits that support the Indian economy's nine percent GDP growth rates, and the hideously decadent lifestyles of India's plutocracy.

Aman Sethi slowly stitches together the story of Mohammad Ashraf and his friends, whose life is a work in the model of the stereotype of tribal art; painted with broad strokes, with solid, primary colours, and executed with a winning disregard for coherence of composition

The last chapter is the story of the exploding Indian hospitality industry, and the minorities, especially the ethnic minorities from the northeastern states, who support it.

But scratch the narrative surface a little, and biographies of a set of complex and fascinating characters – computer engineer Chakravarthy Prasad, alias Chak, Dalit 'overground Maoist' Devaram and his associates, seed baron Mahipal, migrant workers Mohan, Dibyajoti and Pradip, and Manipuri waiter Esther in ultra-chic New Delhi restaurant 'Zest' et al – become the pillars and the arches that prop up the lean architecture of TBATD.

Beautiful Thing (BT) centres around the bar dancer Leela from the Mumbai suburb of Mira Road. It is the story of a woman, who escaped from a family where her father had set himself up as her pimp, to become one of the star dancers of the Mumbai dance bar 'Night Lovers'. Leela takes the owner of the bar, Shetty, as her 'husband', and fights a losing battle against younger competitors for his fleeting attentions.

A little after midway in the narrative, the story of Leela becomes the story of the dance bar industry in Mumbai, when a politician from the party in power takes on the industry and successfully shuts it down with grave consequences for the dancers. The book details the struggles of Leela, and the ways in which she tries to fashion a sense of self despite the stock tropes that society has created for 'those women'.

A Free Man (AFM) has Mohammed Ashraf, a safediwala originally from Bihar, but now resident in Bara Tooti Chowk in Delhi, as its protagonist. Sethi slowly stitches together the story of this man (along with those of his friends), whose life is a work in the model of the stereotype of tribal art; painted with broad strokes, with solid, primary colours, and executed
with a winning disregard for coherence of composition.

Ashraf is the kind of footloose labour whose life Deb does not detail out for us. He is a divorcee whose marriage and its dissolution still has the capacity to haunt him. He is prone to binge drinking and calling acquaintances such as Sethi in the wee hours of the morning, and calls himself "mast maula, dil chowda, seena sandook, lowda bandook! A dancing adventurer, with my heart for a treasure chest and my penis for a gun" (p. 70). He and his friends are caught up in the neoliberal remaking of Delhi, where the poor are being increasingly pushed out of sight and out of the 'mind of the city', even as their livelihoods and homes are
destroyed with impunity.

All the three books try to provide us accounts primarily from the margins – economic, geographical, ethnic, social or religious. But is the new India only about the margins? This charge can perhaps be made with greater felicity against TBATD as compared to the other two books. BT and AFM are not overtly or self-consciously about the new India. They are structured around very clearly identified individual protagonists.

Beautiful thing details the struggles of Leela, and the ways in which she tries to fashion a sense of self despite the stock tropes that society has created for 'those women'

But TBATD is purportedly about 'the new India'. If one wants to produce this kind of global narrative about India, one needs, first, to give accounts of the quotidian lives, aspirations and motivations of the middle class, which is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the processes radically reshaping 'the new India'. Pankaj Mishra's precocious Butter Chicken in Ludhiana captured early stirrings of this process.

Second, if one chooses to tell the story through an appliqué work of biographies, then one needs to ask whether such a story can be told without the story of 'anachronisms' such as the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, or the increasingly vocal and visible queer subcultures in all big Indian cities.

The unleashing of predatory capitalism has not merely created footloose labour, it has also created the footloose queer. But TBATD fails to capture this sense of new possibilities that have been brought into being by the demons released by contemporary socio-economic processes in India.

But there are many ways in which TBATD scores over the other two books. Both BT and AFM use desi words and expressions liberally, sometimes with a jarring effect. Sethi is more effective because, unlike Faleiro, his usage of Hindi words and Indianisms are both less frequent and more useful. If one uses certain words for conveying a certain sense of place and milieu, then such usage has to be pitch-perfect. For example, the Hindi expression 'chhammak chhallo' – 'cha' with aspiration – is wrongly spelt as 'chamak' in both books.

To be fair, both these books are otherwise well-written, empathetic towards the protagonists, and help access lives that the reading public of Indian English is perhaps unfamiliar with.

My quibble with the three books is much larger. These and other books of literary non-fiction about contemporary India are, in some senses, attempts at conveying 'the facts'. They have a representational notion of the relationship between reality and texts. An engagement with contemporary texts (both fictional and non-fictional) about India reveals that the related differentiation of narrative space into fiction and non-fiction, along with the narrative tropes resulting from it, are today less able to capture the hybridity and fecundity that India's social milieu offers.

However, if English language fiction seems unable to help us grasp our contemporaneity in a nuanced fashion, then is shifting back to The New Yorker style long-form journalism the only way to make sense of the present?

What this 'new India' needs is not literary non-fiction (or conventional fiction, for that matter), but hybrid narrative forms seen in the puranas. It's high time the 'modern' conventions of narrative differentiation were subverted and story-telling forms of our pre-colonial past cannibalized, to
access and make sense of our ever-present futures?

The writer teaches at Azim Premji University

To make sense of our possible futures, we must learn ways of story-telling from our pre-colonial past
Sailen Routray Bangalore

Read more stories by The many biographies of ‘New India’

This story is from print issue of HardNews