At readings by Indian writers in English, two related questions, or some version of them, will invariably be asked by a member of the audience, whatever the setting—bookshop, university seminar or literary festival. The first question is, ‘Which audience do you write for?’; and the second, ‘Are you exoticizing India for a Western audience?’ The questions seem to arise from some residue of the idea of a moral custodianship of literature, at a time when no one—neither the reader, nor the person who attends readings, nor the scholar—seems to have a clear or reliable notion of what ‘literature’ is. What is it we are trying to protect when we ask these questions? What is literature or, for that matter, ‘Indian writing in English’—entities largely created by writers, and apparently susceptible to being sold and peddled like wares by them?
‘Literature’ as a category has, for some time now, lost its integrity and recognizability, and there is no persuasive and intelligent debate, let alone a consensus, on the nature of Indian writing in English. Ever since the politics of representation, rather than the definition of literary practice, became a principal preoccupation of literary departments, there has been a tendency for tired moral gestures to usurp the role of a robust and ongoing discussion of, and enquiry into, what it is we are making those gestures on behalf of. And the politics of representation—for questions about a writer’s audience, and his or her use of the ‘exotic’, are political questions—has passed into the common parlance, in the way that more complex ideas from, say, Rousseau or Freud or Marx have in the past been simplified as they were translated into the public sphere, where they are free to be used as a knee-jerk response to the problematic.
As to the two questions above, those who pose them generally seem to assume that they arise spontaneously; that they have no history or source. Of course, it is perfectly possible, even plausible, that there are Indian writers who conceive of their projects with something like a ‘Western readership’ in mind; Nirad C. Chaudhuri, embarking on his autobiography, is an example, and one that at once complicates the issue. But surely the questions themselves tell us more about the intellectual formations and compulsions of our time, and about this moment in Indian literary history, than their supposed answers would illuminate the impulses that go into the act of writing? The questioner, anyway, is hardly as interested in those impulses as in stating certain moral parameters for writing and thinking. Where did those particular parameters come from? The questions are not timeless, but the questioner invests them with the authority of timelessness. And yet, to my knowledge, no one asked Bibhutibhushan Banerjee or Manik Bandopadhyay whom they wrote for, or if they were ‘exoticizing’ rural Bengal for a metropolitan readership.
English, then, is part of the problem; the act of writing in English was, in India, potentially an act of bad faith, and some version of the old suspicion regarding the motives of those who write in English remains and is still at work among us. But the focus in those earlier attacks on Indian writers in English, such as the famous one led by the Bengali critic Buddhadev Bose, was artistic practice, even if that practice entered the discussion negatively, with a metaphysical fatalism; it was apparently impossible for writers fully and deeply to address their subject except in a language that was their ‘own’. By bringing the audience into the picture, the emphasis and the debate shift from writerly practice to cultural, social and economic transactions—from the mystery and riddle of the creative act to the dissemination of texts and meanings, by publishers and newspapers, in the academy and in bookshops; from meaning to the production of meaning.
This is where Edward Said comes in; Said who, in a devastatingly effective substitution, replaced ‘meaning’, in the post-structuralist enquiry (still fresh at the time) into its production, with ‘the Orient’. The notion is brought in, almost casually, as an interjection, when Said says that his concern in his study, Orientalism, is to examine the ‘enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient’. That ‘and even’ should not distract us from the fundamental importance Said and others after him have attached to this notion. In the last few decades, there has been a palpable but often unspoken feeling that the production of the Orient has moved beyond Europe, and Europeans, into the realm of the so-called diaspora, and of Indian writing in English. The spread of globalization and the free market, coinciding roughly with the advent of the post-Rushdie Indian novel in English, returns us to the epigraph from Disraeli in Said’s book: ‘The East is a career.’ For the production of the Orient involves, implicitly, its consumption; the circle is incomplete without the ‘audience’.
But the concern with this form of ‘production’ has given us not so much a critical eye or sensibility, but a sense of vigilance and, at a cruder level, a kind of vigilantism; this is where the astringency and aggression of those questions come from. In reflecting on the many legacies of Orientalism—the book, not the phenomenon described within it—we may say that this particular brand of vigilantism is one of them. It is the Saidian inheritance that gives those questions their urgency; but since they seem to have no provenance, and little critical content, I would say they are vulgarized legacies of Orientalism, among the many by-products of that great polemic that are both ubiquitous and do not bear close scrutiny. This does not prevent those questions from being reiterated, as a constant, irrefutable challenge, and their standpoint from remaining unexamined; vulgarizations permeate language, and become a habit of thinking.
Maybe we could enquire about what sorts of presuppositions these questions—‘Which audience do you write for?’ and ‘Are you exoticizing your subject for a Western audience?’—are based on. Take the first question, which accuses, by implication, the Indian writer in English of being removed from his or her ‘natural’ readership: an Indian one. The question relies on utopian ideas, which are always present in the way we think of these matters.