Indian Music, Sans Sitar
In The New York Review of Books earlier this year, V.S. Naipaul reminisced in a long essay about his early formation in Trinidad. "There was a further world," he wrote, "of which our colonial world was only a shadow." It was this outside world that sent to the Caribbean islands their governors and their goods: smoked herring, salted cod, condensed milk, Dr. Sloan's liniment, the tonic called Six Sixty-Six and all the books that were so crucial in Naipaul's making as a writer.
But the books didn't permit easy entry into their imaginative world. Naipaul explains why: "Such social knowledge as I had--a faint remembered village India and a mixed colonial world seen from the outside--didn't help with the literature of the metropolis. I was two worlds away."
I thought of Naipaul as I read Seth. A young writer in Trinidad today can read Naipaul or Sam Selvon, one in Nigeria can read Buchi Emecheta or Ben Okri, and in India, Seth, Amitav Ghosh or Arundhati Roy. Those who remain several worlds away are those who live and write, in those same places, in languages other than the one in which Barnes & Noble prints its ads.
If Seth were to tell the story of his own fashioning as a writer, it would be of a world in which there is a greater movement, across the global divide, of workers, students, tourists, bombs, software, arms and even books. Inequality reigns in horrifying ways, and not everyone can even read, but the world of media and advertising withholds very little from the imagination of the dispossessed. Perhaps the marketing of his own book, too, would have to be a part of Seth's story. To quote a news report from New Delhi: "Orion has reportedly given details of an £80,000 hard-back campaign, a high-profile launch party and a special one-off ticketed evening at London's Wigmore Hall to promote the book, which, it claims, will be the most widely reviewed in 1999."
A part of the media hype this literary season, of course, is the fact that Seth's An Equal Music and Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet, both written around the themes of music and the Orpheus myth, are going to be rivals for the Booker Prize. As a part of this media attention, the words "Indian" and "Indians in the West" will be thrown around a lot. Seth's and Rushdie's novels will inspire discussions also of music. As a public service announcement, one should remind readers that, especially in the world of music, Indians in the West have been very active. In England, for example, groups like Fun^Da^Mental and Asian Dub Foundation have raised their voices against racist laws like the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA). Radical cultural theorist John Hutnyk has written of Fun^Da^Mental's Aki Nawaz (a k a Propagandhi) and his anti-CJA video called "Dog Tribe," which begins with the words "What's the thing that makes a black man insane?"
One should anticipate that in the feeding frenzy around the Booker Prize, we will be served advance notices of the several new Indian entrants into the English fiction scene this year. To cite one instance, Picador has recently launched its Indian list under a new imprint, Picador India. The literary-ideological map is truly changing. India's nuclear-test blasts have pretty much put to rest the myth of Indians being peace-loving Gandhians. Is the new spate of successful Indian fiction going to prepare the ground for another stereotype--of Indians being great writers?
Can I foresee a day when one can stand at a street corner with a cup in hand and a sign hanging from one's neck: "I'm Indian and I write, but I'm not talented"?