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Confusion of Tongues

 

The clichés we mock in literature are not always found in sentence structures and time-worn phrases, but also exist in re-jacketing the ideas we have about types of literature, the genres they represent, the authors who write them and where they come from. We develop biases as readers, and if we're voracious enough, these impressions develop into strong tastes. Once we begin to climb the ladder of preferences, we react to our choices in reading instinctively, not always intelligibly. Why is it always so, with books?

I recently moved back to India after a six-year stint of studying in the US. As a writer, I got down to just that-writing-with my reading list for 2015 taped to my bedside. Looking at the list, I experienced the intellectual equivalent of trying to tickle myself, which turned out to be more of a brain-scratch: there were no Indian authors on my list. (Truth be told, I am extremely selective about the books I read. I pick my literature like I pick my food and drink: grapes and quotes to freshen up after a long day, pinot noir and poetry to quicken the blood flow, burritos and trilogy box-sets to attempt commitment, noodles and novels to pace my appetite through a busy schedule. There's always some mood involved). So the act of exclusion isn't as odd as perhaps the contents of what I was choosing to exclude. Being Indian, how had I not developed a curiosity to read Indian literature in my adult life? Why did I shy away from the Indian voice? More importantly, as an Indian writer, why did I not want to un-earth what other Indian authors were writing about?

For me, the notional value of a complete work comes from a place of reciprocity. I'll bring some part, some shades of myself to its constructions of meaning and it returns, by way of reward, some mongrel sense of self; always an uneven split between what I want the words to mean and what the words are in themselves. This exchange I find I'm perfectly content with. As a reader, I search through books tirelessly for access points, entrances, hooks-any sort of attachment that solidifies my presence in its other-worldly entreaty. There shall always be a purpose, even if it is purpose for purpose's sake; even if the purpose is finding the purpose.

One would think that an Indian reading Indian literature would find an automatic hook, whether it's cultural, religious, social, or political. The expectation of relatability is almost naturalized, pre-conditioned. But when I examine my predilection for writing from the United States, Latin America, and the Middle East-all whom seem to speak to the echoes inside me, in some combination of complicit knowing or curious unknowing-I realize the attachment is not automatic; it is pro-active. Reading that which I do not know helps confirm my belongingness to a wider nexus of the contemporary authorities on literature. Perhaps it also elevates my status, my outreach as an academic.

A popular topic of discussion in the Academy is the institutionalized Euro-centrism in the Arts and Humanities, which dominates definitions and concepts exhibited in literary circles worldwide. The fear that no cross-cultural categories of contemporary international literatures can really exist outside of European and American shadows worries even the most sensitive academics who find themselves on an anthropological moral high ground. 

Then, what happens when I should be reading about what I should know, specifically a world that I intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually recognize? It strikes me. The answer I suppose, lies in guilt and the fear of inadequacy. The should-ness of it all is the cause of my discomfort.  The albatross around my neck is that when I will read Indian literature, I won't feel Indian enough.

Growing up in New Delhi, I was never compelled to define my Indian-ness. It was always a pre-judgement, a habituation. The focus was always on the I in individual, not the "I" in Indian. I presumed that my actions generated from individual instinct, not some collective or social identity. It was only when I moved from India to the US and found a new heimat did I begin to pay attention to how certain movements, certain gestures, certain colloquialisms, certain cultural nuances had manifested in me. Then came the existential onslaught-how does the understanding of my self change or deepen with a cultural realization?

Personally, of course, there were acclimatization issues that I started to experience more and more on home ground in India than when I was away, in the US or traveling elsewhere. Now, often feeling like an ex-patriate in my own country, I begin to worry about the impact my Indian-ness will have on perceptions of my writing, and myself as an author? How does the modern Indian writer take the very traditions that sculpt them and decorate them with a global voice-one that's seen the world and wants to write about it-while conforming to the Eurocentric (de-)stabilizing definition of art?

Now that I've admitted this, I'm forced to ask some profoundly unsettling questions: does this make me self-hating, or self-denying, or classist, or an internalized racist? Can your own culture feel so estranged to you that you treat it as if it is someone else's? Ah, the confusion, of tongues and of the soul.

Perhaps the reason I've stayed away from Indian literature for so long is because India-mythic, bountiful, extraordinary though it is-is also vastly incomprehensible. Languages, religion, clothing, and diet change faster than from one state border to the next. There are cities I've never been to, villages I don't even know of that exist, people whose lives will never ever be mine. Of the 122 languages counted in India's most recent People's Linguistic Survey, I only understand three and a half. My own writing style has largely been described with strong American influences. And while my pronunciation differs from my international peers, the articulation of my expression always finds a relatable audience.

Effervescing with these ruminations, I picked up renowned Indian novelist Arundhati Roy's 1997-Booker-prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things. Though I am Indian, I wanted to read Indian-ness differently. I recognize Roy's work as a modern voice, one that realizes tradition and contests it in the same breath. The God of Small Things manifests spirituality in the obscure lives of the forgetting and the forgotten, who live between the ebbing flow of noise and silence. The book is self-conscious, a tour de force of a constant being and becoming with the truth of mortality, of finality, of full circles and eternal ends hanging over it like a noose-shaped bookmark. And yet, amongst the losses and the failures it facilitates courage, movement, and the will to turn the page. And to add, Roy is one of the few internationally acclaimed Indian authors who despite writing about Indians and Indian-ness, has managed to access a literary web that is a problematic reality for so many other homegrown local writers. So I ask: what makes Roy's novel work in this duality (of one and many), and more importantly, will it work for me? Herein begins the pro-action to find a meaningful attachment to my country's own literatures.

When I picked up The God of Small Things, my head and my solar plexus were already in stasis, a rather common symptom of inner conflict. While reading the novel, I found myself more deeply embedded in paradoxical, sometimes paralyzing gestures. There were days I couldn't let the book go, a thin veil of finger-sweat seeping into its jacket, and at night when I slept with the book near my pillow I was thrilled it smelled like me. But then there were also days I wanted to stop reading the book by reading it quickly into its oblivion; racing not pacing myself to its final pages like a woman on the run; escaping not in to, but out of the book.

The days and nights that I sat and slept next to Estha and Rahel, the protagonist twins at the very heart of the narrative, had the most personal consequence for me out of all other thematic factors in the book. Their response: "Let's leave one alive so that it can be lonely" (Roy). Isolated though I felt at certain points during my reading, between Estha's silence and Rahel's emptiness, I didn't feel pressurized to renounce the innocence that comes with lack of understanding, or re-assimilation, or a cerebral awe for what the God of Big Things has achieved in us as a human race (and consequently what we can achieve through writing).

Strung into a reality that's unrecognizable to me in many ways, Estha and Rahel were persuasive gate-keepers. But the distance between me, Reader, and them, Protagonists, was vast, and largely new for me given my preference for confessional narrators like those of Plath, or available stream-of-consciousnesses as in Woolf's case. Whenever I sensed their internal vacancies (or "blank space" for a more literary technical term), I temporarily set up camp in their existence, in their potential for survival, and their making-believe of an already make-believe (for me) life. The deferred action of the possibilities was endless.

Conversely, it was not just the third-person omniscience that kept us a part, but more importantly it was the other main characters: Chacko, Mammachi, Ammu, and Baby Kochamma who decided it was only appropriate for them to dominate the voice of the children who were failing to make sense of their world-rural Kerala in recently-independent India, putting its social complexities on display. (Incidentally I was born in Kochi, Kerala even though my entire family is from Northern India and parts of what is now Pakistan. Six months after I was born, my parents uprooted and we moved to Singapore. Although I tend to offer this information in facts, the fated feeling sticks: I was always meant to be born near the ocean, but on Indian soil. Must have been  a conspiracy between the gods of Big and Small Things. But like Estha and Rahel, though I was born on Indian soil, where I authentically take root I cannot say). So despite the third-person omniscient narrator keeping us at bay-and I've found that most Indian literature has  that quality of distance, of maintaining both a spatial and philosophical length between the characters and the reader, and might I add, one I do not love-Roy's writing is magical because she un-earths spirituality by allowing the animism to radiate from all lives in mention and the objects that they touch-a babbling brook, a Love-in-Tokyo hair tie, a moth on the heart. . .

Unlike her characters, then, Roy herself does not discriminate between Christians and Hindus and the not-entitled-to-religion Untouchables; nor does she pick between India and Britain, or favor a color of skin. Featuring a temporal split between 1969 and 1993, Estha and Rahel's constant invention of world/reality is the epitomic expression of legacy, and the novel, though rendering them quite voice-less, highlights the navigation through and to adulthood. While Baby Kochamma, Mammachi and Pappachi are proclaiming the "love laws. . .the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much" (Roy), Ammu and Chacko are demolishing those foundations through divorce, through inter-caste and inter-racial marriage, through clandestine affairs. Ammu, being a woman and the daughter of the house is subject to different "love laws" from her brother, Chacko, and inadvertently perpetuates her confusion in an unstable mothering of her own son, Estha, and daughter, Rahel. The twins live in the constant fear of being abandoned for not being ‘good' or ‘virtuous' or ‘pure' enough perhaps because they never really understood the "love laws" and yet, had their existences measured by them.

Moreover, the novel's recurring obsession with Great Britain, the English language and all things British is ironically destabilizing not just for the reader but for the characters themselves. Roy writes, "There is a war that makes us love our conquerors and despise ourselves." Chacko and his time away at Oxford, Baby Kochamma and her relationship with Chacko's British ex-wife Margaret Kochamma, Estha and Rahel's perception of Chacko's half-white daughter Sophie Mol; and of course, the town Ayemenem's own historical salute to the "mother ship" with its English signs, and dress, and spontaneous elocutions of Shakespeare as the stamp of modernity, of progressiveness, of status and value and standard, has been instilled in the belief system of Indians from the time of the British Raj. In fact, even as Roy writes in English she estranges it from English-speaking tongues at the same time, with her arbitrary capitalizations and objectification of language into its phonic and scriptural components thereby stripping it of its meaning:

Nictitating

   ictitating

       titating

         itating

           ating

             ting

              ing

 

(Roy)

 

Roy acknowledges this hypocrisy in her novel, and at times even seems to mock this Indian obsession with the West. But the message I receive is to embrace one's own Indian-ness with pride, because a lack of understanding, a confusion of tongues, has severe consequences on the soul and on one's life, quickly transforming the God of Small Things into the God of Loss.

How do these characters expect to rationalize their belief systems that they pride as being the epitome of Indian-ness, when the definitions vary, when the inspiration comes from some "other"? Does not Baby Kochamma attempt to take her destiny into her own hands, when she falls in love and tries to be with a British priest, Father Mulligan? It is the violation of her "love laws," and not an offense against her Indian-ness, that turn her into a bitter, vengeful, unhappy woman. In other words, because Baby Kochamma felt unloved, she was unable to give love to those around her. Such are the concerns of the God of Small Things: the crevices buried deep down in our astral bodies, where emotions, both repressed and otherwise, live. Watching Estha and Rahel feel compelled to rise to a standard, while the standard itself is ungraspable to them, singularly inspired the most empathy in me. In their re-creation and re-interpretations of reality, language, relationships, feelings, ideas, desires, both Estha and Rahel were trying to discover themselves and their Indian-ness at the same time. While the other characters were also involved in a similar caveat, the resignation of their existences to their here-to-now beliefs troubled me. Albeit the spiritual undertones in the book are powerful, some of the characters like Ammu and Velutha seem trapped by their destiny rather than enmeshed in its infinite flow. Their sexual and emotional relationship is a transgression for a number of reasons put forth by a number of different characters. Both their deaths in the book-hurried and incidental-seem to be Roy's way of granting them escape; an eternal release from the "love laws" of their land. At this thought, I grow deeply saddened as the novel fills me with a despair, something like tear-sweat on my insides. But the book ends with yet another act of contrition, as Estha and Rahel commit another crime of the "love laws" through an incestuous union. The taboo in this case is perhaps more universally in place, yet what's re-iterated here is a desire for one-ness, a completeness that comes from having a rich and immense inner life. And from the very beginning, Estha and Rahel were always one. Perhaps they were only seeking to define a feeling of whole-ness that convinces us we belong to whatever world, real or imagined, that we're in. And as I realize, as long as one belongs to oneself, one will always belong somewhere.

As I've analyzed Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things in part for its thematic tribute to Indian-ness, what I've found is cultural cross-pollination; even as it attempts to highlight borders, it attempts to traverse them as well. I am reminded of humanity, the human struggle, the universality of individuality and the pervasiveness of the human condition: a feat of great literatures, whether international or Indian. The theology of the novel-if we can even say that a book full of gloomy, decrepit characters and lewd actions is one about divinity at all-resounds because of its all-encompassing appeal. Perhaps I do feel foreign reading about these characters' lives, who are just as alien to me as someone living in the 1920's in Russia, but the connection exists whether or not I choose to rationalize it in some form. If anything, as a reader I applaud the agency these characters have to make me feel something, anything at all-even if it has been an ugly-cry on the inside. The break-down of prehistoric notions of identity and culture is more rampant today than ever before. As a writer, I am convinced that the authenticity in my voice will come from wherever I choose to cut in to the dialogue.

Finally, given the point of this exercise, I realize the characters do not question my Indian-ness at all; they question my humanity, all aboard the ferris wheel of self-acceptance and denial. The slice-of-life cut just happens to be situated in India.  My relationship with my Indian identity is much like the "love laws" themselves. While there may be expectations of Indian-ness imposed by other macro-factors, the navigation is my birthright. That I am Indian is a fact, but what it means to me is my prerogative. Roy writes:

If you are happy in a dream, Ammu, does that count? Estha asked. "Does what count?" "The happiness does it count?" She knew exactly what he meant, her son with his spoiled puff. Because the truth is, that only what counts, counts....."If you eat fish in a dream, does it count?" Does it mean you've eaten fish? 

The answer is yes, Estha, it very much counts.