Passage for Question
In recent weeks the writers William Dalrymple and Patrick French, among others, have come before a fusillade of criticism in India, much of it questioning not their facts, not their interpretations, but their foreignness.
“Who gets to write about India?” The Wall Street Journal asked on Wednesday in its own report on this Indian literary feuding. It is a complicated question, not least because to decide who gets to write about India, you would need to decide who gets to decide who gets to write about India. Rather than conjecturing some Committee for the Deciding of the Deciding of Who Gets to Write About India, it might be easier to let writers write what they please and readers read what they wish.
The accusations pouring forth from a section of the Indian commentariat are varied. Some criticism is of a genuine literary nature, fair game, customary, expected. But lately a good amount of the reproaching has been about identity.
In the case of Mr. Dalrymple, a Briton who lives in New Delhi, it is—in the critics’ view—that his writing is an act of re-colonization. In the case of Mr. French, it is that he belongs to a group of foreign writers who use business-class lounges and see some merit in capitalism and therefore do not know the real India, which only the commentarial member in question does.
What is most interesting about these appraisals is that their essential nature makes reading the book superfluous, as one of my Indian reviewers openly admitted. (His review was not about the book but about his refusal to read the book). The book is not necessary in these cases, for the argument is about who can write about India, not what has been written.
For critics of this persuasion, India surely seems a lonely land. A country with a millennial history of Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists living peaceably together; a country of hundreds of dialects in which so many. Indians are linguistic foreigners to each other, and happily, tolerantly so; a country that welcomes foreign seekers (of yoga poses, of spiritual wisdom, of ancestral roots) with open arms; a country where, outside the elite world of South Delhi and South Bombay, I have not heard an Indian ask whether outsiders have a right to write, think or exist on their soil.
But it is not just this deep-in-the-bones pluralism that challenges the who-gets-to-write-about-India contingent. It is also that at the very heart of India’s multifarious changes today is this glimmering idea: that Indians must be rewarded for what they do, not who they are.
Identities you never chose—caste, gender, birth order—are becoming less important determinants of fate. Your deeds—how hard you work, what risks you take—are becoming more important. It is this idea, which I have found pulsating throughout the Indian layers, that leaves a certain portion of the intelligentsia out of sync with the surrounding country. As Mr. French has observed, there is a tendency in some of these writers to value social mobility only for themselves. When the new economy lifts up the huddled masses, then it becomes tawdry capitalism and rapacious imperialism and soulless globalization.
Fortunately for those without Indian passports, the nativists’ vision of India is under demographic siege. The young and the relentless are India’s future. They could not think more differently from these literatis. They savour the freedom they are gaining to seek their own level in the society and to find their voice; and they tend to be delighted at the thought that some foreigners do the same in India and love their country as much as they do.
According to the passage, the question ‘who gets to write about India’ is complicated because: