Should Western authors write on desi topics

I read Kabir’s excellent review of the Leela book by Alice Albinia. However since it is easier for me to start new posts than write a new comment I’m going to take a slightly different tack.

How receptive should we be when Western authors want to write on the Subcontinent.

(1) William Dalyrymple is an excellent example of appropriation; he’s invented a few Indian ancestors (I’ve seen another white chap do that to run an Indian organisation) in order to become the preeminent Western historian on the Subcontinent.

(2) white authors benefit from white privilege at home (they glide the corridors of pr & power almost effortlessly) and from the desi/third world /coloured slavishness towards white people in the “Rest.” White privilege in the West is magnified a 100x over.

(2a) Uganda is a great example; when the Brits were administering it they were disliked. After they left they were almost worshipped and even if Uganda is a 99% black nation, the most elite neighbours (Kololo etc) is at least 30-50% white, Asian.

(3) there is no doubt Asian privilege vis a vis Black people but as in the law of large numbers; the number one spot can buy out the rest. Just as the US military is larger than the next 18 militaries combined so to is white privilege so much more effective than any type of racial privilege.

(4) I would hazard, in Britain at least, that a sensible white working class lad has as great a chance at success as a very well educated Asian & an elite Blake person. Success at Work isn’t about 9am – 5pm but actually 5pm – 9am.

(5) I have seen it time and time again when the Beeb wants to consult “local experts” they’ll consult the white English person who speaks the local language. It’s almost absurd but the privilege is so invisible and pervasive that’s it almost hard to deconstruct. Also Asians hate to come off as whiny whereas Black people come off as too pushy.. it’s a good cop bad cop combo but the deconstruction of privilege has barely started (elite restaurants, colleges etc barely represent the demographics outside, except when an effort is made at tokenism).

I do like Joe Scalzi’s definition of white male privilege. It’s like a video game where the default level is easy whereas for other people (minorities, women) it’s normal (white women, Asians) or hard (black people).

I have seen though that excessive privilege leads to decadence and breeds arrogance. Too much privilege is a bad thing but too little of it (where you can get thrown out of a Starbucks) is also harmful.

In principle I don’t want to read about my subcontinent from white authors, who can never the soul of South Asia and what it means to be desi. As E M Foster said one cannot glide effortlessly in both worlds.. I will never truly understand a WASP society because no matter how Waspy I become; I am not white, I don’t have white parents and my wife/children are not white.

Therefore It would be absurd for me to write a novel about a white family channelling Jesus and using the parables of the Holy Bible & Yahweh’s voice to construct a meta-narrative. It would in fact be a bit condescending..

That’s why a God of small things, A Suitable Boy remains the definitive icons of South Asian literature because they’re authors are brown like us. And us I do think Slumdog Millionaires, Hotel Marigold, & Lion are shit degrading films (apologies for the harsh language) which extol and fetishise brown poverty and are aimed at white audiences who want to feel good about their rape of the Subcontinent.

There is a schadenfreude in seeing poor brown and black people because the immediate connect is that it wasn’t there when we were ruling them. The power of the subconscious mind is orders of magnitude more than our hypocritical conscious selves. Just as we may decry colonialism we also abet it when we show poverty porn.

Are Bollywood and Lollywood really that bad that their output can’t transcend the cultural divide into the mainstream West?

I saw the Persian film, the Salesman, and it’s only because it consciously aped Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was it able to get the Oscar.

Apologies for the vitriol but just sharing my feelings..

19 thoughts on “Should Western authors write on desi topics”

  1. I think in principle (as a student of English Literature) that novelists should have the right to write about whatever they want. EM Forster visited India. “A Passage to India” did not just come out of thin air. It’s also not so much about Indians as about the British in India.

    Alice Albinia worked as a journalist in Delhi for two years. She is also the author of a non-fiction book “Empires of the Indus” (which I haven’t read). As I stated in my review, her book is not particularly good, but that is not because she is white. Dalrymple is a historian. He has done solid archival work to write “The Last Mughal” and “Return of the King”. We shouldn’t dismiss him just because he is British.

    The converse of your argument would be that Rushdie should not have written his latest novel which is set in New York in the last days of the Obama Administration. It’s based off “The Great Gatsby” (it’s really obvious when you read it). If I wanted to write a novel about white Americans living in Ohio, I have the right to do so. Obviously, I would have to do research and talk to people and try to get inside their heads. That’s the novelist’s job.

    “God of Small Things” and “A Suitable Boy” are not great novels just because the authors are “brown”. “God of Small Things” is partly based on Roy’s own family and “A Suitable Boy” is partly based on Seth’s own family. Obviously, he did a lot of research also. As far as I am aware, he had no Muslim courtesans in his family 🙂

    “Write what you know” is what they tell you in Creative Writing courses but also do your research if you choose to write about foreign climes.

    Bollywood is popular in the West. Lollywood is really bad so even many Pakistanis watch it only out of patriotic duty (I think I’ve seen one Pakistani movie in the last two years I’ve been living here.) I think these industries can’t transcend the language barrier. Americans aren’t known to read subtitles for a 3 hour movie. Europeans probably find the amount of song and dance in Bollywood really stupid.

    1. But will ur novel about Ohio get the same pr and publicity though?

      Have I seen Coke?

      Yes Suitable Boy in retrospect was weak in its treatment of the Muslim experience (it was always Muslims pining over Hindus; Lata rejects Kabir, Saeedi Bai rejects Maan).

      But I won’t quibble in Brown vs. Brown matters we have larger battles to fight loll

      1. Lata rejects Kabir because she doesn’t want to be cast out of her family. It’s 1950 after all. Also the whole “I’m not myself when I’m with him” thing. She ultimately opts for the arranged marriage, which I think is the whole point of the book.

        Maan stabs Feroz and strangles Saeeda Bai. What did you expect her to do with him after that? Plus, she’s a courtesan, not exactly a candidate for a stable relationship (the trope of the doomed courtesan vs. the “sharif aurat” is a whole another thing one can discuss. Maybe I’ll blog about it at some point).

        My hypothetical novel about Ohio would get PR and publicity if I have a rep as a writer. Roy was nobody before God of Small Things. Now she can write whatever she wants and it will sell. I do have ideas for novels and maybe some day I will write one (but it’s going to be about India and Pakistan, I’m fairly clear on that). It would also be about Hindustani classical music. I’m with you on the “write what you know” bit.

  2. you have a point. And salman rushdie writing about new york which is the present day experience is not exactly the same as writing incorporating the bible. Fact is, there is power gap in terms of research one can devote to studying other cultures in west as opposed to others studying independently the west. If we were to do so, we can knock off many ideas they have of themselves . Which we should do I think. One of the faults I see is that by not having independent study of west, we are not able to see good ideas that are universal vs ideas that are conditional for a time vs ideas that are particular to culture and cannot be invoked elsewhere. Not to mention, we discover which ideas are false and write them off. An exercise that shall strengthen our own understanding of things. Instead we just copy and imitate as our intellectuals get their phds from harvard,oxford. Where the only criticism of west would be through lens of left, not any other independent point of view. And these cultural power gives them power to define others and infiltrate to affect others, which is subversive.

    1. If we had universities of the level of Harvard and Oxford we could maybe talk. But our “universities” train engineers, IT people, doctors and MBAs. In Pakistan, the only really good universities are LUMS and IBA (these also began as business schools). There is Aga Khan but that is a medical college.

      JNU is a very good university but you would say it is controlled by the “left”. Perhaps you are right.

  3. The worst of it is that we arent even sure what we are being fed is true in objective sense. westernization is seen as proxy for truth and if and when one points to deficiencies, they have no independent position to decide,final authority for what is true or false comes only from oxford, harvard. Unlike sciences, in humanities dept, there is no universal standard on basis of which one can check things.

  4. Should they write ? Absolutely.

    Desi writers need to respond as well as create new challenges by providing the different narratives to foreign authors about desi issues. That’s where the need for Orientalism & Post-Orientalism, Eurocentrism & Post-Eurocentrism & other such narratives need greater exposures in Indian subcontinent.

    What Indian subcontinent’s scholars have done is that they appropriated the Oriental narratives to gain legitimacy in Academics rooted in Western narratives {Since it is always easier to go with the flow rather than to change the flow} until the foreign authors have themselves pointed out the blind spots of their own descriptions.

    For e.g., Check – The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Adjunct Professor of Religion Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee

          1. Ok then ask her to check the book {If she has time} & share your discussion and thoughts here.

  5. Admittedly I am not a humanities student in the West (other than a few philosophy courses), but how come English literature of India is being treated as equivalent to all Indian literature?

    I can’t read Japanese or Russian and that means I can only access English translations or Russians who chose to write in English. Either way, I wouldn’t consider the portrayal of the West about Russia or Japan as the real thing. Somehow discussion about India gets treated as if English is the first language of every Indian (or even majority of Indians).

    While humanities in English medium are neglected, is everybody so sure that its the case in every Indian language? For myself, Chalam and SriSri has sufficient to offer as much as po-mo. But then quality has nothing to do with universal popularity or accessibility. That’s the game of population of prosperous.

    1. Good point. This is my limitation that it is very difficult for me to read Urdu (I find it easier to read French than to read Urdu). My spoken Urdu is just fine and obviously I understand it if I am able to sing Ghazals.

      I blame it on growing up abroad. But there is a class of people in Pakistan (and India) who basically function only in English and use Hindi/Urdu/whatever only in the bazaar and to talk to servants. Not that that is a good thing but it is a reality.

      When my students are not familiar with Tansen and Sadarang, how can I expect them to be familiar with Mozart and Beethoven? Food for thought…

  6. When i was thinking about the issues discussed above esp. of language, Wouldn’t each language will result in a bubble of it’s own ?

    Also no other region has as much language diversity as Indian Subcontinent so using a link language is better than to use regional language as it allows one to get access to all the issues & discussions of the whole region.

    Nobody can force the people to engage with the issues if they themselves are not willing to engage with it regardless of the language.

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