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Indians Master the Language of the Raj

By DAVID SUNDELSON Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 09, 2003

When I was a boy in the 50s, I had a large wall map of the world. Much of it was still pink, the pink of the British Empire: Canada and much of the Caribbean, large swaths of East and West Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the Indian subcontinent. At that age, I found something reassuring about the uniformity of color. It made the vast world look orderly and safe.  

Even then the map was outdated, of course, and in the 60s it became much more so, as colony after colony gained independence. But since that time, something remarkable has happened. A splendid body of literature has appeared, produced by writers who hail from these former colonies, although many of them live not in Calcutta or Bombay but in London or Toronto or New York.  

I am thinking of writers as different as Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Chinua Achebe, Caryl Phillips, Jamaica Kincaid, Amit Chaudhuri, Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee, Michael Ondaatje, Akhil Sharma, Anita Rau Badami, Vikram Chandra, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Whatever their differences, these writers have one thing in common: They all write in English. The Empire and the Raj are long gone, but one map of the world—the literary map—is still pink. 

Other languages have dominated a region or continent.  

Greek was the common language in the Hellenistic period even after Athens lost its power. Latin was preeminent in Europe long after the fall of Rome. But no language has been adopted by so many major writers from the four corners of the earth. English is the first world literary language. 

Writers born in India make up the largest group in this new literature. Among them, Salman Rushdie is a special case. His sheer linguistic and narrative virtuosity, sometimes delightful, sometimes difficult or just tiresome, puts him in the great modernist line that extends back through Joyce to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.  

One can divide the other Indian writers, all more old-fashioned than Rushdie in terms of narrative technique, into two groups. The first includes Amit Chaudhuri, Rohinton Mistry, and Vikram Chandra. Their lives exemplify the Indian diaspora (Chaudhuri lives in England, Chandra in Washington, and Mistry in Toronto), but their fiction is set primarily in India.  

There the resemblance ends, however. Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song, three unrelated short novels published in a single volume, gives us dreamy miniatures, short on plot but rich with the sights, sounds, and smells of middle-class family life in Calcutta. The first, A Strange and Sublime Address, explores the perspective of a 10-year-old boy with particular delicacy and precision. Time stops as Sandeep registers the specifics of baths, prayers, meals, and naps and the small, meaningful shifts of inflection in the adult voices that surround him.  

The muscular stories in Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay are just the opposite, crammed with sex, intense feeling, and even a ghost. The powerful centerpiece, “Kama,” is a brooding, noirish account of a world-weary policeman, Sartaj Singh, who investigates a violent crime and simultaneously confronts his disintegrating marriage.  

Next to these short works, the two recent novels of Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance and Family Matters, seem titanic. Mistry combines Chaudhuri’s eye and ear for detail with effortless narrative flow and grand social sweep. A Fine Balance is set during the so-called Emergency, under the tyranny of Indira Gandhi. Mistry brings together a pair of poor tailors from a remote village, a student from a comfortable Kashmiri family, and a struggling single woman in a vast but unidentified “city by the sea.” For a while, they become an unlikely but genuine family, until their lives are shattered by an episode of grotesque caste violence.  

In Jumpha Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, the hero’s grandfather, a retired professor of European literature at Calcutta University, tells his son, “Read all the Russians, and then reread them. They will never fail you.” Mistry seems to have taken this lesson to heart. His tenderness for his characters and his attention to the nuances of attachment are no less remarkable than his broad social panorama. A Fine Balance, like its successor Family Matters, offers a reader the kind of pleasure it is difficult to find outside of Tolstoy or Chekhov. 

I would place Lahiri herself and Bharati Mukherjee in the second group of writers. These not only exemplify the Indian diaspora in their own ives—Mukherjee here in Berkeley as a Professor of English—but take it as their principal subject. Their works are about dislocation and its psychological consequences, in particular the subversion of identity. They raise, over and over, the unanswerable question that arises early in Mukherjee’s most recent novel, Desirable Daughters, in a conversation between the heroine and a mysterious stranger who claims to be her relative. 

“‘Who are you?’ I repeated. The strange young man smiled at me. ‘That’s what I’d like to know myself.’” 

Mukherjee begins in 19th century rural Bengal with the story of the “tree bride,” whose father forces her to marry a tree after her wedding to a more conventional bridegroom is disrupted. The tree bride’s fate suggests indissoluble connection with the land as well as the subservience and vulnerability of Bengali women in village society.  

These are the fates which Mukherjee’s trio of desirable daughters resists, with mixed success. Parvati escapes to a conventional wealthy husband in Bombay, Padma to New Jersey, where she becomes a star of Bengali-oriented television. The main character, Tara, escapes to California, first through marriage to a Silicon Valley millionaire, the richest Bengali in America, and then to single life in a Hayes Valley house. She shares the house with her son and her lover, an ex-biker turned retrofitter who professes to be (what else?) a Zen Buddhist. Eventually, her uneasy idyll of assimilation comes to an end, and a piece of sensational violence, never fully explained, propels her back toward her origins.  

Mukherjee attempts an overview of Bengalis in America, from San Francisco to New Jersey to Queens, but her prose lacks the grace of Mistry’s. Her perspective, filtered through her narrator Tara, tends toward satire but often has the flavor of pop sociology, at once abstract and over-explicit. Tara muses that “as sisters we were close, but we didn’t have a language for divorce and depression, which meant we couldn’t fit in concepts like powerlessness and disappointment.” Her son Rabi, she tells us, is “living with his mother in a nice condo in San Francisco, going to a freewheeling private school that seemed more like an extended playgroup than a learning environment.”  

There is far too much telling of this sort, and not enough showing, the showing that provides a principle pleasure of fiction. Moreover, the characterization is weak. Tara’s voice is believable and cranky, but the lesser figures, including the other two sisters, Tara’s artistic gay son, and her lover, are little more than cartoons or clichés.  

Jhumpa Lahiri succeeds where Mukherjee does not.  

Lahiri’s debut collection of stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Her new novel The Namesake is even better: a sustained and deeply moving meditation on the themes of assimilation and identity.  

Lahiri’s protagonist, born in Boston to Bengali parents, is at home in America in a way that his parents cannot be. His ease is undermined only by the nickname his parents chose: Gogol, after the Russian novelist whose work has a special meaning for his father. This name, neither American nor Bengali, sticks to him in spite of various efforts to change it, and marks his separateness from both cultures.  

Lahiri gives us the subtleties routinely overlooked in our interminable wrangles about what was called, in the recent debate by the candidates for governor of California, the “color-blind society.” Gogol is invited to dinner at the luxurious home of Gerald and Lydia, the parents of his Anglo girlfriend Maxine. Gerald and Lydia are old-money Manhattan sophisticates who can discuss with equal fluency the latest French movie, Indian carpets, or the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. They welcome Gogol, but a casual observation, intended as a compliment, defines the gulf between him and his hosts.  

“‘You could be Italian,’” Lydia says during the meal, as she looks at him. 

The unobtrusive irony is at Lydia’s expense but at Gogol’s too. For the Lydias of this world, Bengali and Italian are interchangeable. Gogol’s distinctive heritage disappears into a larger, non-specific otherness. This is the price of his apparently effortless ability to sit with Lydia and Gerald as their equal. The remark also suggests Gogol’s collusion in the process, his wish to blend in by burying anything, including his name, that might set him apart.  

For Gogol, Lahiri suggests, there are no easy solutions. After breaking off his affair with Maxine, he marries Moushumi, who belongs to his parents’ extended circle of Boston Bengali friends. The marriage is soon threatened by Moushumi’s own conflicts about identity and allegiance.  

Lahiri has a sharp eye for the flaws and errors of her characters, always balanced by a generous sympathy. Her style in The Namesake is graceful and self-effacing. There are no pyrotechnics to distract from the clear-eyed, elegiac tone, which becomes almost unbearably poignant as the novel draws to a close and Gogol comes at last to accept his name and what it signifies.  

Gogol’s struggle to find a home and accept an identity is the struggle not just of Bengali-Americans, but of African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Native Americans—of all Americans, really, and many others as well (think of Jamaicans in London or Tunisians in France or Jews in South Africa). We need writers like Lahiri who can tell us about this struggle. We need her wisdom and compassion. We need her to remind us, as she does eloquently in the final pages of The Namesake, that books can provide a more enduring home than any city, that our connection to stories can be a way back to others and to our truest selves.