Photograph by Emma Dodge Hanson
The story, "Courtly Vision," was inspired by a number of Akbari paintings, particularly one that shows the Emperor in battle dress, leading his massive, battle-ready army out of his fortressed capital. The painting anticipates victory, and evokes a celebratory mood. The mood is historically tenable: Akbar, wise, tolerant, brave, won his wars. But what drew the writer in me to the painting was the contextual irony of such victory on the battlefield. Akbar built an exquisite capital city in Fatehpur Sikri, but he had to abandon it because he'd sited it in a drought zone. He was affably curious about "the other," which meant he allowed in European peddlers, freebooters, Christian missionaries, and so unintentionally facilitated the power grab by the many European East India Companies, and the eventual debilitation of the Mughals. When I started "Courtly Vision," I was aiming to close with that epiphanic contextual irony. But before I finished the first draft, the "frame"--converting verisimilitude into meta-narrative--had worked itself in. The "frame" made the reader witness to a painter's (via author's) re-presentation of history as evidenced in a slick Sotheby's catalogue, and, through the inclusion of the cheap estimated price, upped the final irony into Europe's devaluation of Mughal art.
Until recent decades, Eurocentric art criticism dismissed Mughal miniatures as unsophisticated, as lacking mastery of perspective. The point is that Mughal artists had developed a Mughal aesthetic. They preferred to work with many points of focus. I had some idea, while I was writing the stories for Darkness and The Middleman , how much about form and principle I had absorbed from the 16th- and 17th-century paintings I so loved. But it was as I drafted the essay, "A Four-Hundred Year Old Woman," that I thought through, and articulated, my Mughal-inspired narrative aesthetic. I like to move narrative by indirection, to create apparent "lumps" and "spills" along the through-line. This applies to novels like Jasmine and The Holder of the World as well as to the short stories. "The zigzag route," one of my characters confesses, "is the shortest." The indirect narratives are, of course, designed to parallel or to undermine the main character's story. The parts, when added up and "framed," should reveal authorial vision. The "frame" and "voice"--the term that we writers communally use to indicate aesthetic strategy--are what make the sum of the parts, 2+2+3, not 7 but 10.
Some recent publications by serious Indian literary critics based in India, for instance by Professors Aijaz Ahmad and Harish Trivedi of the University of Delhi, indicate an emerging resentment of the appropriation of Indianality and postcoloniality by scholars of Indian origin (or of non-European origin) who have opted for U.S. citizenship and/or permanent residence in North America. The Jouvert community is no doubt well aware of Ahmad's direct attack on Edward Said--and by extension, it would seem, his indirect attack on Spivak--for "internationalizing the periphery." (That's Ahmad's phrase, not mine. I myself prefer to reject the center/periphery template, and so, resist Eurocentric vocabulary.) Professor Trivedi, who lectured here at Berkeley a few months ago on the Eurocentric implications of the term "postcolonial," was more direct in his attack on the right of Spivak, a U.S. citizen and long-term U.S. resident, to speak for the "periphery."
I think a very significant, thought probably unanticipated consequence of the controversy generated by In Theory has been the legitimation of "immigrant fiction" by writers of Indian origin as a genre quite distinct from "post-Independence fiction" by Indian writers residing in India, and from "exilic fiction" by India-born writers residing outside India. The works of Indian-Caribbean writers like Roop Lal Monar, Indian-Caribbean-Canadian writers like Sam Selvon, Sonny Ladoo, Cyril Dabydeen, Neil Bissoondath, Indian-African-Canadian writers like Moyse Vassanji, Goan-African writers like Violet Diaz Lannoy, Indian-British writers like Hanif Kureishi, are more intelligently explored in the context of exile. For works like Midnight's Children , The Trotter-Nama , The Great Indian Novel , however, the most appropriate context is exilic mythologization (of personal and national histories). On my more recent annual trips to India, especially when I've taken part in panels with Indian academics on the literature of the Indian diaspora or conducted Fiction Workshops on the University of Baroda campus, I've noted my Indian colleagues' increased awareness of the discrete aims of these two genres.
In terms of seeing connections between the South Asian postcolonialists and immigrationism, I see "diasporality" as a kind of continuum with immigrants and immigrationists at one end of the scale and expatriate or exilic figures and postcolonialists at the other. Those who decide, "all right, I'm going to go on with my life, the past is going to color my present and the present is going to color my future, but here and now, I'm a different person," these people reflect the spirit of immigrant writing by keeping themselves open to new experiences and responding second by second. They're changing and being changed: you are a new person every second of your life depending on how you act and whether you are open to bruisings and dentings. This energy is completely opposed to the postcolonial who, if he or she is not within the immediate postcolonial context, is simply talking about the past and ignoring or obliterating the present because it's so much safer to talk about a dead debate.
As for providing the larger context of politics, class and race, I've done that from my first novel on. In The Tiger's Daughter , individual actions are shaped by, and/or reactions to, the Naxalite revolution in Calcutta, and the imminence of the establishment of a Marxist government in West Bengal state. In Wife , Dimple experiences racist discrimination in a Queens shop, gendrist discrimination at home, and classist discrimination at meetings with white feminists. I just wish that scholars would go back to reading the primary texts before presuming to make [mis]pronouncements on them!
In terms of psychic violence and female sexuality, I grew up at a time and in a class in Calcutta when you couldn't say the word "sex." I'd never said the word "sex" and we certainly were not allowed to think of it; I didn't even know how the male anatomy was constructed. So for me or for my characters who are coming not from villages but upper-class, urban Indian settings, sexuality becomes the mode of resistance or a way to rebel. After all, if you're coming out of a society where sex is the unspeakable, the unutterable, then doing it or acknowledging your sexuality results not only in individual rebellion but actually constitutes an attack on a whole patriarchal, Victorian, hypocritical society. And why psychic violence? Ultimately, physical injuries are less affecting than the wounds inside. You lose a leg, you get a prosthetic. But what do you do about the scarred psyche?
It was by listening that I visualized and was mesmerized by conflict, by character, by romance, whatever. I started to read and write very early--I was in regular school by the age of three--and at that time, we used pens that you dip into an inkwell. I don't know if that was violence, but you did immediately start thinking in wholly different ways and the scratching--I can still see the blots of ink, the scratching on the paper--slows you down, but also gives you time to think. Then my relationship to story again became very different when we graduated by age nine to fountain pens. Also, the paper was so different over there; you could see bugs worked into the fabric, or big seams . . . the paper was rough and pocked with shiny bits. Seeing whether the pen nib would go over the shiny impurities or not resulted in a wholly different way of dealing with orthography and a different mental process which accompanies the writing of stories. There wasn't ever a time that I can remember when I wasn't writing stories and I remember what a big breakthrough it was when my father brought back ballpoint pens from Paris. They all melted in the heat but you could write so much faster! That was very empowering, and I went straight from that in the States to typewriter and when I started thinking on electric typewriter, again, suddenly my relationship with the word, and therefore with narrative, became very, very different, more conscious.
If by "technological developments in writing" you mean the availability of computers, software, data storage and retrieval facilities, information-design programs, virtual reality, etc., then I have to confess that technology has been for me a means of exploring and expanding knowledge without losing the writerly sense of wonder. Clark and I were among the very first batch of American writers to get into computers.
I'm not sure I agree with you that technology privileges "First" World over "Third." Much of the information transfer and accounting for U.S. corporations and mega-multinationals with European headquarters is done offshore, meaning in areas that you are designating as "Third." I've done homework on this. It's class , not geography, that's providing the hierarchy grid. Urban, upper-middle classes and professionals in Bombay, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, etc. have all the latest electronics and communications instruments. But the poor and the homeless in all areas of the world, including North America, are increasingly disempowered by technological advances. Your question seems to arise from the need of postcolonial studies scholars to impose politics as the dominant grid for measuring art. But for the writer of serious fiction, politics or race or gender is only one element of many hundred elements that go into the making of a character. Novelists aim for fullness of catharsis, not a political pamphlet.
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