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Is ‘politics’ hurting the Indian novel?

The Hindu
By Professor  

In a work of literary fiction, the aesthetic must take precedence: without that there is no art

A recent review in these pages pointed out that contemporary literary fiction in India has too much politics (‘Spoilt by a preponderance of politics’, September 14). It is a serious enough accusation to warrant closer scrutiny. Is ‘politics’ hurting the novel? Is there an antidote?

Both of Arundhati Roy’s novels are victims of the overwhelming domination of the ‘political’. Large parts of her second novel feel like a protracted editorial from the mainstream press. Too often, the Indian novelist in English tries to express the big ‘political’ story of India. The book usually fails, even if it sometimes succeeds commercially. That’s because even a ‘political’ novel is a story first and only later enters the realm of ideas. In a work of literary fiction, the aesthetic must take precedence: without that there is no art.

 

Politics as a scaffold

‘Political’ stories that succeed as fiction win because of their aesthetics: well fleshed-out characters that pulsate with life; riveting plots; subversive and surprising linguistic turns; a reversing of all sorts of literary and social conventions. The examples are endless. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. Nearly all of Rohinton Mistry’s Bombay books set in the Parsi ethos. Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay, which presents a footnote to the holocaust. This is just a sundry list of works where the grand narrative of ‘politics’ abounds, but the writers are too intelligent to allow high politics to masquerade as plot development or characterisation. They’ve essentially sculpted unforgettable people and powerful stories using ‘politics’ as a scaffold. They’ve bent ‘politics’ to their literary ends.

The fiction of Mahasweta Devi, Amrita Pritam, Qurratulain Hyder, Rahi Masoom Raza, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, U.R. Ananthamurthy, S.L. Bhyrappa, Shrilal Shukla, Gurdial Singh and countless others, despite their many internal differences, gloriously showcase the rich personal worlds of their characters. It isn’t politics with a capital P but in the lower case; everyday ‘politics’ in the farm, mine, factory, household, zenana, agrahara, or ashram typifies their best writing. They use their characters to aesthetically examine the milieu they come from. It’s not just politics, but sociology, socio-economics, philosophy and psychology that’s at play.

Anathamurthy’s Samskara effortlessly captures the hierarchy in a south Kannada Brahmin agrahara in the first half of the 20th century. It is a rich example of literary fiction behaving like social anthropology. Of course, its theme is ‘political’, but the writing is sociological. In many ways, it is like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where again literature meets sociology.

Some of the best fiction writers who use social realism tend to behave like sociologists. It’s true of Premchand’s stories that examine feudalism in the northern plains or Maupassant’s tales that capture French provincialism and urbanisation during the 19th century. These writers locate the social order within which the characters operate rather than openly spout about the grand issues of the day.

 

Bringing to life

Is it possible to write grand literary fiction about ‘politics’? Certainly. Most of George Orwell’s work was openly ‘political’. He admitted to as much in Why I Write: “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” 1984 and Animal Farm are exemplars in plot building and character evolution. Orwell later wrote about making “political writing into an art”. Rushdie’s best fiction, Midnight’s Children and Shame, possesses this quality

Toni Morrison’s Beloved isn’t a classic because it’s about racism and the role of African-American women battling hierarchies. It’s a classic because it’s a powerfully written story about the personal history of her protagonist, Sethe. The magic is in the writing, not the subject or the topic as such.

If the character is the sunbeam, then sociology, philosophy and psychology are the magnifying glasses that make these stories catch fire. A good instance of this is the Indian diaspora beloved, Jhumpa Lahiri. Her first three works of fiction were deeply personal with a tiny bit about ‘high politics’ or the historical thrown in. Her fourth, The Lowland, dealt in some parts with the West Bengal of the 60s. It seemed to me it was Lahiri’s way of testing ‘political’ waters as a writer, but it did not quite work. The ‘political’ novel isn’t just the infusion of the noise of ‘politics’ into fiction; it has to do much more. That happens in Neel Mukherjee’s saga The Lives of Others, set in the same era as The Lowland. Here, the entirety of Naxalism and political extremism become narrative-defining forces. ‘Politics’ is personalised, humanised, brought to life through character conflict.

 

Story first

If it’s an infirmity in Lahiri’s case, it’s an affliction for Arundhati Roy. Here is The New York Times’ literary critic Michiko Kakutani on The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: “Roy’s gift is not for the epic but for the personal, as The God of Small Things so powerfully demonstrated… It’s when Roy turns from the specifics of her characters’ lives and tries to generalise about the plight of India that her writing can grow labored and portentous.” The best political fiction must succeed as a story first. Otherwise, it’s just noise.

The writer teaches at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities.