Dispatches | April 12, 2012

As part of our continuing series interviewing literary bloggers and critics, we were lucky enough to speak to Nilanjana S. Roy, one of India’s leading literary critics. She currently runs the literary blog Akhond of Swat, and is a columnist at Business Standard. Once upon a time she ran the Kitabkhana website, writing under the pseudonym Hurree Babu. Most importantly, perhaps, we’re from the same home town. We spoke about censorship in India, the publishing industry, and her views on how the Internet has helped criticism around the world.

Ms. Roy


1. AkhondofSwat is not your first foray into Internet blogging–you ran the popular Kitabkhana website for a while. What made you decide to move to a new site? While the layout and topics covered seem similar, there are several changes that you made. What changes were conscious and why did you think they had to be made? 

A. This might tell you how ancient I am: Kitabkhana was started up in the age when we still used floppy disks (and when they were indeed floppy). The Net felt like an open, very quirky space—it was a comfortable space for pioneers and for loners, very different from today’s much more corporate-and-state-controlled digital world. Kitabkhana, like several other litblogs of that decade, was part almanac, part scandal sheet, and in part a serious space for books and reading. Kitabkhana’s proprietor, my alter ego, was Hurree Babu—I didn’t think Kipling would mind if I borrowed him from Kim. The Babu was eventually outed, and in any case, I don’t think the decade that followed—a decade of shallow literary triumphs, by and large—would have had much time for a blog like Kitabkhana.

Most of us who shut down or changed our litblogs around the same time faced the same dilemma—we had moved on to writing our own books, or to working full-time in journalism, publishing and assorted fields, so our blogs tended to reflect that lack of time. Some shifted to becoming professional bloggers—Bookslut and Galley Cat are two favourites, for instance—some, like Laila Lalami or Elegant Variation or Kitabkhana, shut shop and reopened as personal blogs. Akhond functions as an archive of my journalism, and while it’s necessary—and it keeps a certain kind of conversation going—I sometimes miss the wider space Kitabkhana created. But you have to know when it’s time to move on.

2. There’s been a so-called “boom” in Indian publishing over the last decade or so. You’ve written extensively about what could be considered the two wings of that boom–the Rushdie arc and the Chetan Bhagat arc and the competition between “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” currently taking place. Is this just a feature of an evolving publishing industry, or is there something specific about its Indian iteration? In other words, are we following a “publishing with Indian characteristics” model here? 

A. We’re looking only at a tiny part of the picture—not even the boom in English language publishing, but until very recently, the “boom” in English language publishing in the four metros and a handful of large cities. So you’re right to speak of this as a “so-called boom”: it isn’t until publishing grows in all of the major Indian languages, or at least several of them, that you have a truly national phenomenon.

What this reflects is probably the Indian relationship with the English language—more than 60 years after Independence, it’s significant that we haven’t discarded English, and that it is currently the fastest growing of Indian languages, just behind Hindi. We’re so uncomfortable talking about class, but the first crop of writers in India who had access to English were either the Babus and the clerks, carefully groomed to service; or a small circle of privileged, relatively liberal, relatively well-off and well-educated Indians. So whether you’re talking about Toru Dutt or Mulk Raj Anand or Rushdie, there was a very long period when Indian writers fell into one or the other of these categories.

What Bhagat and the crop of recent bestseller writers reflect is, in a way, the democratization of English in India, and the rising Indian comfort with owning a very Indian, and a very functional, contemporary brand of English—this language does not have its roots in the classical, Anglophone tradition at all. Publishing industries everywhere go through a period of evolution, but you have to expect Indian writing and publishing to have a very distinct flavour to its evolution. We’re as idiosyncratic as Russian publishing once was, or as Nigerian publishing would have become if that industry hadn’t had its back broken. Your best parallel might be in South America, where various branches of the publishing industry—in Colombia, Brazil, and elsewhere—have evolved into something that’s completely distinct from the present global UK-and-US driven model of publishing.

3. As many writers have, you’ve been fairly vocal on the recent Rushdie-Jaipur Literary Festival controversy. What troubles you about the attempts at censorship? What aspects of literature do you feel should be protected by free speech, and what falls under hate speech? Do you feel the public outcry over certain books is entirely politically motivated? How should literature respond to this problem? 

A. I could write a long essay about this and probably have at some point—it’s not possible to live and work in India as a writer today without addressing censorship. But to answer this as briefly as I can:

What troubles me most is not that censorship of books and of the arts has been rising sharply for the last two decades; those are just symptoms.  My fear is that this censorship is a reflection of a larger cultural demand for silence, whether this demand is leveled at people who want to speak up about religion, about the state, or about their own personal histories.

We allowed and encouraged freedom of speech as long as we needed it to gain Independence in 1947, and to build some sort of stable polity in the decades after that; but I’m not convinced that we really believe, as a society, that free expression is necessary in order to lead a good life. So the censorship I fear most is not even the burning of books; it’s the wider silencing, when people are not free to criticize their gods, their rulers or their families.

So is this politically motivated? Yes; it’s expedient for political parties to use the laws to shut down dissent and criticism. But in order to do this, they must also rely on a general, and I think deep-rooted, consensus, that it is better to hold your tongue, not to step across certain invisible but ancient boundaries.

The poets have always responded best. Agha Shahid Ali: “I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me./ My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.” Censorship will continue to be demanded and imposed on Indians, as long as our memories keep getting in the way of their official histories.

4. As a longtime columnist in both print and web, which do you feel serves you better–both as an individual writer and as a critic? Have the changes brought about by Web 2.0 affected how you conduct criticism in any way? 

A. As a reviewer/ columnist, print is a straitjacket; it forces you to explain where you could hyperlink, and the easy cross-referencing on the web becomes almost impossible in print. The printed newspaper page is a shrunken world.

But individual writing is different. Though I’m fascinated by the new toys on display—the possibility of merging photography, drawing, sound, text, not hypertext so much as collage-writing—perhaps all of us are drawn back in the end to the basics of story: text, on white space; the writer’s voice, in your head.

I’ve just finished writing The Wildings, a novel that’s coming out in September from a new Indian publishing house, Aleph. The Wildings is about a clan of cats in Delhi, and when it was done, the illustrator Prabha Mallya sent me a drawing—a mongoose staring down a kitten–that had walked out of the book in my head onto the page. As a first-time, fledgling writer, that’s a thrilling moment—to see someone else bring your characters and their world to life. But I’m probably not the kind of writer who could have collaborated with an illustrator, no matter how talented, while I was writing the book—so that places me firmly in the category of those wedded to print. It might be very different for the next generation of readers, who’ve grown up flipping between screens and who are accustomed to porous forms.

Web 1.0, more than 2.0, changed my criticism; it brought my generation of reviewers out of an isolation that would probably have been very dangerous for us. The nice thing about the Internet is that it explodes the very commonly held New Delhi belief that New Delhi is the centre of the universe. This will astonish Dilliwalas, but it turns out to be untrue.

 5. In the decade since 9/11, American scholars have begun focusing not only on reactions to that day, but also the “global novel,” that seeks to understand literature in a decentered, pan-national manner. Given the tremendous economic growth in India, is this a trend you’ve spotted in Indian literature as well? What do you think have been the changing themes of Indian literature in the last few years? 

A. The current National Novel Writing project is probably dominated by the success of books like Love Via Telephone Tring Tring  and You Were My Crush! Till You Said You Loved Me! – books for the mall age, mass-produced, greedily consumed, relentlessly disposable. So that’s one of the outcomes of the Indian economic growth success story, along with an insatiable appetite for fitness, business and spirituality books.

For a certain kind of writer, the noise and hype around the new bestsellers or around the Big India book—the India Calling, Rising, Shining genre—is actually useful. They’re free to get on with their work; it’s good for writers who work against the grain, writers like Anita Desai or Jeet Thayil or Rana Dasgupta. Perhaps that’s what we’re seeing in non-fiction and in fiction—quieter stories, better told, and with the steady emergence of writers outside the mainstream, especially from the North-East and from the Dalit community, much more variety. This generation doesn’t have to write the great Indian novel, even if this sets off complaints to The Management.

 6. Is there an online community as far as Indian literature is concerned? Are there moves towards creating an industry that’s integrated in reading, publishing, publicizing, critiquing? Do you feel that’s an important step, or do you prefer the image of writing as primarily a solitary pursuit? If in favor of integrating and connecting with other websites, what steps do you think will be important to proceed? 

A. There’s the equivalent of a Twitter writer’s lounge, and there are places such as Another Subcontinent or the recently defunct Sepia Mutiny where communities of readers, at any rate, were built. Most writers who’re working will unplug from the Net if they’re wise—it’s not just the noise, it’s also the digital world’s relentless emphasis on the present moment, the clutter of the now that’s dangerous.

But the idea of the writer as a solitary figure—how realistic is this, anyway? I’ve been questioning it for a while. It’s just not true of women writers through history, who have either had to wage small wars to earn their solitude or who have had to write in between the demands of their households.

It also ignores the importance of literary friendships—and of a community of writers, thinkers, artists, a clan of one’s own—that seems to play such a large part in the lives of so many writers. So solitude—yes, for the office; but the writer as a recluse is counterbalanced by the figure of the writer as the gossip, the writer as the flaneur, the writer as the listener. Think of Sharatchandra; all that eavesdropping that he put to such good use in his novels.

 7. You have a Twitter account, which you update fairly regularly, both with personal and literary posts. Do you feel the advent of social media has opened up new avenues for publishing? Can it help in reawakening a perpetually endangered industry? 

A. Social media will save our souls, whiten our teeth and remove 10 kilos from your waistline, if applied according to instructions.

More seriously: social media might revive interest in books and reading, and it definitely does help to create communities of readers. We like that sense of being part of a tribe.

But here is a partial list of the problems publishing faces as an industry: the business model—geographical copyright—hasn’t been overhauled since Gutenberg, Amazon and Google could slaughter conventional publishing, the industry faces serious quality problems, publishers tend to resist rather than embrace change, and it’s been a colonial market for far too long. FB and Twitter don’t have solutions for most of this.

8. Returning to an earlier question, there seems to be a trend in Indian commentary currently that seeks to ignore what the majority finds uncomfortable or unpalatable–Rushdie is a high-profile example of this, but Taslima Nasrin, M.F. Hussain, and others have found themselves criticized for similar issues. Do you feel these are merely growing pains of an emergent economy, or rooted in something deeper? Is there a way to divorce the politicization of art, or do they need to be viewed together (in an “all art is a political act” sort of way). 

A. One Indian view of art and artists might be seen in the lives of Andal, Kabir, Lal Ded: they were professional arsonists, to use Kiran Nagarkar’s phrase about Kabir, and it was their job to burn down whatever was false. The other Indian view of art and artists is seen at Cottage Industries Emporium, where you can buy pipli umbrellas from Orissa and copies of Raagmala paintings with which to decorate your home.

The present demand, couched in reasonable terms, asks why writers and artists must push the boundaries: why paint nude paintings of goddesses or of gay men, when you could so easily paint them with clothes, why write about Shivaji or the gods when you could so easily be less provocative? Why be an arsonist, when you could make good money as a decorator?

This isn’t the first time these questions have come up, but at this particular juncture in Indian history, where we’re choosing what kind of country we’ll be in the future, I cannot see the answers being easy or uncomplicated.

9. Charnock, Hastings, Macaulay, or Martin? 

A. Hastings and Martin. It’s a long story.