Anuradha Roy. Photograph by Gala Sicart.
I met the novelist Anuradha Roy in Delhi in the mid-nineties, when she was an editor at Oxford University Press and I had just published my first book. Not long after that, she moved to a Himalayan town to set up Permanent Black, now India’s premier intellectual publisher, with her husband, Rukun Advani. She also began to write fiction. Her fifth novel, The Earthspinner, which was released in the United States this summer, is about the war on reason and on imagination in a world consumed by political fanaticism.
Though I don’t remember what was said in our first meeting, I can recall a certain hopefulness in the air—there was a lot of that about, among publishers and writers, in India in the nineties. Writing in English was ceasing to be the furtive and poorly paid endeavor it long had been. There were greater opportunities to publish; new literary periodicals and networks of promotion seemed to be creating the infrastructure for more vigorous intellectual and artistic life. Indeed, the conventional wisdom of that decade, helped by the prominence of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy abroad, was that Indian writing in English was “arriving,” no less resoundingly than was India’s embrace of consumer capitalism at the end of history. One measure of this apparent progress was the respectful international attention such work elicited. Granta and The New Yorker devoted issues to Indian writing in 1997, the fiftieth year of India’s independence from British colonialism.
In 2022, there is something very forlorn about the seventy-fifth anniversary of India’s independence. Murderous Hindu supremacists rule the country, and lynch mobs—physical and digital—police its cultural and intellectual life. Educated Indians spend much of their time and energy trying to emigrate. Literature remains, for a tiny minority, the means to cognition in the darkness, and literary festivals project, briefly, the illusion of a community. But every writer seems terribly alone with herself. The sense of a meaningful shared space and a common language, the possibility of a broad literary flourishing—many of those fragile shoots of the nineties have been trampled into the ground by the ferocious invaders of private as well as public spheres.
Over twenty-five years of radical transformations, Anuradha and I have kept intermittently in touch. While emailing in recent months, I began to wonder if other readers should be invited to reflect on the fate of writers in India today. What follows is a conversation that explores some of the historical uniqueness of this fate.
There is a line in your wonderful new novel about how ordinary days can explode in places like India, leaving us to collect the shattered pieces for the rest of our lives (I am paraphrasing; I don’t have my copy with me at present). I was struck by it, partly because not enough has been said about the writer or artist in India who has to work amidst these shocks—of history, I was going to add, but the destruction of human lives and of possibilities in India is often too commonplace and routine to rise to the status of history. In recent years, I have become more curious about writers who worked under such extraordinary pressures—the Russians after their revolution, Germans during the early years of Nazism, Spanish artists during and after the civil war, South African writers under apartheid. What was experienced in these cases is something that has never been experienced to the same degree by writers and artists in the UK or the U.S.—the marginalization of art as well as dissent; the abrupt shrinking or loss of audiences and local patronage; threats of expulsion and exile, if not assassination. How do you calibrate your own relationship with a ruined public sphere as a writer (and citizen)? I remember J. M. Coetzee complaining about the obligation to address political themes in his fiction while he was living in South Africa. Do you feel any such imperative? I ask also because your new novel, though set largely in the eighties, is alert to the multiple transformations of India in the last three decades.
You’re right—we open the newspaper every day to some fresh horror. Terrible acts of violence are not even reported any longer, and if they are, they are forgotten the next day, or replaced by some other appalling public crime. I say “public crime” because these are now outdoor performances uploaded for general viewing by vigilante groups supposedly working for a Hindu cause: protecting “their” cows, caste, women, and so on.
Not only is the destruction of human lives and possibilities in India commonplace and routine, it is now well recognized as being sanctioned by the state—which does not so much turn a blind eye to vigilante violence as actively encourage it, and which ices the hatred cake by punishing the victims instead of the perpetrators. We have long been used to mobs that melt away into the shadows. The new development is that they no longer melt away; on the contrary, they become internet stars for especially vicious hate speech.
In this situation, the kind of books we publish at Permanent Black and the kind of books I write seem to me like faint shouts in an aggressive cacophony that drowns out reasoned debate and dissent. We are completely marginal to the mainstream discourse, which is clamorous, angry, and often abusive. In Germany, a hundred years ago, this was the initial stage of a fascist process. India is far more diverse, populous, and difficult to control centrally, so there is some hope.
I am relieved that you can see hope. I am less optimistic, perhaps because I am not as exposed to everyday Indian realities as you are. I worry that unlike Germany, which plunged into vicious philistinism after a century of unprecedented achievement in the arts and philosophy, India has moved straight from a pre-Gutenberg culture to the garish modernity of smartphone screens. The divide between a minority of writers and artists dedicated to a slow culture of reflection and creation and a majority prone to hectic consumption of politics as well as entertainment feels much starker.
“A slow culture of reflection” … that phrase fills me with an overwhelming sense of loss. Over the years we have come to feel that we don’t matter, that what we write and publish doesn’t matter. This is a new feeling. With intellectual endeavor there is now a sense of futility about what we do—the sense that we are not likely to contribute through our kind of writing and publishing to an intellectual or a cultural stream that will shape or influence attitudes. The new anti-intellectual tide is too powerful and hostile for us to resist, at least within the future that we are able to foresee. We are thoroughly antiquated and irrelevant—the books, the music, the art, the political values of secularism and equality that we still hold on to, are despised as markers of elite privilege. We are seen as traitors to the nationalist fervor within which the inspiration comes not from Tagore, Ambedkar, Gandhi, or Nehru but from ideologues like Savarkar … In my college years in Calcutta we were certain revolution would come from the left—who could have foretold that the Indian version of the Bolshevik would be a religious majoritarian intent on wiping out everything that stands in his way? It’s quite striking how the Stalinist method of imposing a new era through architecture is mirrored by our government, which is transforming the heart of Delhi through demolitions of historic buildings and landscapes. There are many similarities. The persecution of writers, artists, and their families—for example in the life of Anna Akhmatova—is a sobering parallel for people in our line of work.
Yes, I have been thinking, too, of the fate of Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, and Latin American writers. But I wonder if our situation is also tormentingly different. In almost every case of an exiled or persecuted writer, the forces pressing down on him or her were clearly identified, whether as fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, or the regimes of apartheid, murder, and torture in South Africa and Latin America. India, on the other hand, is formally and widely considered a democracy, not to mention a rising economic power. Much moral prestige still accrues to it in the eyes of many readers in the West—readers who will pick up our books without an inkling of the circumstances in which they have been written and the subjects with which they are indirectly or directly concerned. (There was no such abyss of ignorance separating the refugees of Nazism from their readers in the U.S. and UK.) Even those Hindu supremacists who despoil that democracy every day are careful to claim democratic sanction, and the global prestige of people like Mahatma Gandhi, before the world at large. In other words, no new critical vocabulary has emerged to take into account the radically altered themes and conditions of Indian writing in English. It is also true that Indian writers and artists have not exactly been driven into exile like, say, M. F. Husain. They continue to write, except they are under continuous pressure from a hostile state and a volatile mobocracy; looking up for brighter horizons they see an indifferent market, a shrinking readership in India, and an uninformed readership in the West. I think that this is a historically unique mode of marginality.
You describe the situation with accuracy and insight, and I know you understand exactly how dispiriting our knowledge of our own irrelevance is. And yet, despite our cultural irrelevance, because the shadow armies of vigilantism are so far-reaching and so unpredictable one is never entirely forgotten either, and never off the radar. We are constantly afraid for many of our authors and friends as well as for ourselves. As a writer, you enter into this strange dilemma—you want your book to be read, yet you don’t want it attracting attention, or, at any rate, the wrong kind of attention. We are perpetually in turmoil—a state of debate, worry, anger, and confusion of the kind that writers in most parts of the West don’t have to face. Formally there is no censorship of written work, but the atmosphere of constant anxiety within a whole community of reading and writing people, a sense of there being violence in the air we breathe, is equally undermining.
How can we respond as solitary writers to this situation of simultaneously being engulfed and being inconsequential? As you say of Coetzee, to what extent do the conditions oblige you to write about what is happening around you? For a long time I told myself my usefulness lay in doing my own work. But was this true or was it merely a way of legitimizing my desire to somehow carry on living only as I knew how? I tried, in All the Lives We Never Lived, to find answers to some of these questions, or at least to ask the questions. In that book, the Second World War profoundly changes the course of life for several of the characters. As in our present, people find themselves trapped in baffling, violent political events that can and do destroy them. Drawing on historical parallels was a way for me to reflect on my present, to do the only thing I think a writer can effectively and truly do in a fraught political situation of imminent censorship and physical danger: to respond to it through writing about it, for as long as the conditions allow this at all.
I have come across social media chats between well-known writers of Indian origin who live abroad in which they condemn the so-called silence of Indian intellectuals about what is going on here. I want to ask them if they have any idea what unbelievable risks journalists and writers in India are taking. Perhaps from a distance it is less easy to really feel the proximity of political prisoners who are locked up with the key thrown away. You have to keep writing, but you have to be intelligent about it. I was recently reading Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, a rich and lively account of the early existentialists in Europe, especially France, and their methods of dodging censorship and execution during the German occupation felt familiar. I was somehow reassured and calmed by the knowledge that even writers like Sartre, who were resolute members of the Resistance, took care in their published works or in the theater to say what they needed to and to carry on saying it without walking into the monster’s maw. It was amusing to read of a member of their group, Jean Paulhan, who left brief anticollaborationist poems lying around in cafés and other places, signed only with his initials.
One of the people from whom I have always drawn inspiration is Satyajit Ray. He gave an interview in the eighties in which he described much the same thing. When the interviewer interrogated him about the seeming lack of “politics” in his films, he responded:
In a fantasy like The Kingdom of Diamonds, you can be forthright, but if you’re dealing with contemporary characters, you can be articulate only up to a point, because of censorship. You simply cannot attack the party in power. … What can you do? You are aware of the problems and you deal with them, but you also know the limit, the constraints beyond which you just cannot go. … It is very easy to attack certain targets like the establishment. You are attacking people who don’t care. The establishment will remain totally untouched by what you’re saying. So what is the point? Films cannot change society. They never have. Show me a film that changed society or brought about any change.
What you say about The Earthspinner being alert to political transformations is true, but look at it this way: if I had set it in the present, if I had switched things around and had a Muslim man fall in love with a Hindu woman—I don’t have to spell out how the love jihad squads would have responded. Like Ray in The Kingdom of Diamonds, I try to write what I want and ensure the book won’t be burned. I’ve set Earthspinner in the past; I’ve tackled the question of religious hatred by a slightly circuitous route. Sleeping on Jupiter, my third novel, which is about the abuse of children by a god-man, is set in a fictional temple town and a fictional ashram, and these are its capes of invisibility. There is a reason for that. Nothing like Caelainn Hogan’s Republic of Shame, an investigative book about how the Catholic Church in Ireland destroyed the lives of women and children, could be published in present-day India.
All the Lives We Never Lived deals with political questions that are charged even today, but it is set in the previous century. The historical novel was also the favored fallback of novelists who were cornered by the Nazis and Bolsheviks, like the Estonian Jaan Kross, who was unlucky enough to fall foul of both and who set his novels of dissent in the distant past to escape both sets of censors. So did the Catalan Joan Sales, whose classic of the Spanish Civil War was banned for years by Franco’s regime. The irony is that writers in India who are at odds with Hindu nationalism have to count their blessings that they are in a situation that is not yet as bad as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia.
As a novelist, you are concerned primarily with individual experience. As an artist, you are concerned, too, with form, quality of style, the texture of prose, and the rhythms of paragraphs and sentences. Indeed, these are the major concerns of most writers of literary fiction in the West: the emphasis on formalism allows fiction writing, or at least a certain mode of fiction writing, to be “taught,” while disruptive facts of violence and injustice are kept at bay. The current trend of autofiction, for instance, in which the sole referent is the author and his or her immediate affective experiences, speaks of a deeper retreat into subjectivity. But it is harder to deny in a country like India that the author and her characters are embedded in concrete, highly complex social settings and under severe pressures of ideology. I think it becomes even harder to suppress that knowledge during the kind of trauma the country is undergoing right now—which brings me back to the issue, raised by Coetzee, of the likely overdetermination of your themes by extreme political adversity.
I know what you mean. For me it’s a balancing act, but I think this can also give our fiction its urgency and strength. I’ve tried to write, in the new novel, about what I wanted to write: artists making art and ordinary people falling in love in the midst of political turmoil. But The Earthspinner is also deeply concerned with ceramics and dogs, both things close to my heart, and this choice of subjects is my way of fighting the overdetermination of themes that Coetzee complains about. I don’t see my fiction as a whole as political—I see my work as containing political threads. To me, The Earthspinner is not only about rising fanaticism but is also the story of two potters, of adolescent confusions, of our widespread indifference to the animal world. In these quieter and more personal threads of the book there are small power struggles going on, too, which for the people involved in them are as consequential as any war. The political is implicit in these domestic conflicts, but usually not recognized by readers as such.
People read what they want to read, however, and nowadays readers do seem to respond to the most glaringly political aspects of my work, though the obligation to do so is in their head, not mine. I notice this particularly when I meet Western journalists—very few of them ask me about the craft of fiction. Their questions are almost invariably about caste, religion, women, and contemporary Indian politics. This may be because they haven’t read the books, or haven’t read them as I myself intended them to be read, but it certainly has something to do with the obligation they want to heap on every writer from a non-Western country—to be a kind of artistically articulate native informant.
Of course we know it isn’t possible to separate politics, or the political threads of everyday life, from fiction—the fact is that writing is inevitably political, and the whole shape and force of a narrative makes clear the politics within it. We also know that it is not only writing but how we ordinarily live that is a political act, and right now, in our country, living itself is a hard thing to pull off.
What sustains me, I think, is that I have a sense of mountains hidden by clouds. When I say that, I am thinking of the view from my window at home in the Himalayas: you can see the lower green hills every day, close-up, but on some days the farther-off blue ones reveal themselves, and on clear winter days the white peaks appear, floating in the sky. There are still—despite the political sickness—things for us in India to rejoice in. The horror is dominant but the glory is around in fragments. As anywhere, when we are hemmed in and harassed from all sides, we try to keep these other things in view, and we carve out shells for ourselves, to keep the world at arm’s length even as we try to make a difference.
Pankaj Mishra is a novelist and essayist. His most recent book is Run and Hide: A Novel.
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