This was published in the September 2011 Hindu Literary Review.
"Any healthy man can go without food for two days--but not without poetry." So said the French poet Charles Baudelaire, and I think he meant it quite literally. For the centre of everybody's life, rich or poor, oppressed or oppressing, working or idle, is a dream, a world created inside the mind, an imagined perception of the way things are. Surely, then, to forego the nourishment of this omnipresent imaginative faculty, is to fall sick. And surely, art is the cure.
But if the sickness should abound, and yet be wrongly diagnosed, then there will be no cure, only a likely aggravation. Such would seem the case with Indian writing in English, whose condition can only worsen, if it continues to be misunderstood. So far, this lack of understanding has begetted many damaging ideas- the idea that our literary establishment can safely piggy-back on the West's; that the tide of home-grown 'frothy' fiction should be celebrated, because it sells. And most recently, the idea that non-fiction can take over from fiction, and tell us the stories that will make us well again.
A Mistake in the Making
For a while now, this view has been gaining currency. Nilanjana Roy informs us: “In 2010, when Basharat Peer’s memoir of Kashmir, Curfewed Night, was published, one of its most enthusiastic champions was William Dalrymple... A few months later, Dalrymple spoke of his excitement at what seemed to be a new trend — the slow shift towards non-fiction replacing our somewhat obsessive focus on Booker-winning novels and other fiction.” Also in 2010, Alok Rai, reviewing Annie Zaidi's book of non-fiction, Known Turf, wrote that: “Despite the hype surrounding the novels-with-large-advances, the best writing today is happening in non-fiction. Of course, fiction presents certain unique problems... but the gravity, let alone tragedy, of human existence apparently lies beyond its clownish scope.” This year, in an interview published in April, Chiki Sarkar, the then chief editor at Random House India, said: “I am largely unimpressed by current Indian literary fiction, but I think we're going to see extraordinary non-fiction from the younger generation. Basharat Peer, Samanth Subramaniam, a young writer called Aman Sethi who we publish this year, Sonia Faleiro - these will be the real stars of the coming years.” And while praising Aman Sethi's A Free Man this July, Nilanjana Roy added: “For years, a writer friend spoke wistfully of the Great Barsati Novel: a mythical beast that would do for Delhi, presumably, what Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City had both done for New York. But the road to the Great Barsati Novel has been paved with failed attempts, and perhaps Delhi will find its chroniclers in non-fiction rather than in fiction.”
Now, what is interesting about these quotes, is that they do not merely commend the state of our non-fiction; they also feel the need to compare it with the state of our fiction. This is understandable, just because comparisons are tempting. But it is not very helpful, because the categories here are essentially incommensurable. There is no sense in gladly decrying bad fiction, as though, with the arrival of good non-fiction, it has ceased to be a worry. Moreover, to expect that the blessing of high-quality non-fiction can redeem us, in any way, from the burden of low-quality fiction, is to misunderstand the nature of the two forms- and to risk harming both.
The Nature of the Forms
The names are almost self-explanatory. Fiction is make-believe; it entails a positive commitment to imagining. Non-fiction is anything but make-believe; it requires, in the face of the facts, a scholarly restraint on imagining. These territories are entirely different, and the boundaries, though they may be porous, are also impassable. Thus, a piece of reportage that is full of lies, does not become a piece of fiction (except in poetic condemnation), because to imagine a few facts is not to commit to the imagination. Nor does a factual account told with imaginative verve become fiction- because the facts will keep that verve in check. Conversely, once the imagination is fully deployed, so that it takes, quite literally, a life of its own, then it does not matter if the contours of what follows are traced from reality- one is still making-believe. And by making-believe, one is submitting to the test of 'story'. Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, 'story' is beside the point; what matters are the fruits of inquiry.
These are the general distinctions, which are also easier to recognize than to articulate. But once they are understood, what does it mean to say, like Hartosh Singh Bal, that “the one genre that can overcome the limitations of Indian Writing in English is well reported non-fiction that is specific to a time and place”? It can only mean that Indian writing in English has no need for make-believe. And what does that mean? That as writers and readers in the English language, we must stick to interrogation? With our environments held fast under our microscopes, and its contents the subjects of our scrutiny? But this is not how anybody really lives. A city, for example, may be chronicled ever so brilliantly in non-fiction- and to great benefit- but it is only in fiction that it can recede to an abstract setting, that dream-like blur through which we all actually pass, not scrutinizing, merely living. It is only in a story that we can really feel its spirit.
The Root of the Matter
In the nature of things, then, non-fiction, no matter how superior on its own terms, cannot serve the ends of fiction. But why is this view taking hold at all? Why are we loath to accept the necessity of fiction? The answer, I think, is that by requiring a real commitment to one's own imagination, it is fiction that strikes the raw nerves in our psyche. The guilt and self-loathing and sense of uprootedness that afflicts the Anglicized, Westernized Indian imagination, can still be kept at bay in non-fiction. With its separation of object and observer, non-fiction allows us a certain distance from our selves. Not so fiction; that demands absolute introspection, a gouging out of the self, the courage to take one's own emotions so seriously as to transmute them into an offering. And it is these emotions that are specially painful to the touch. Even the timid 'clownishness' that Alok Rai spoke of, which has so degraded our fictional output, is only a kind of anaesthetic.
However, if the aim is to get better, there is no escaping the places that hurt- and there is a high price for trying to. Just as Indian English fiction can only worsen from neglect, so Indian English non-fiction can only buckle, if handed the burden of trying to do two jobs at once. That way lies half-heartedness; flimsy treatments both of subject and self, which might masquerade as high literature, but will take us far in neither direction. Let us not, therefore, get too comfortable in condemning our fiction. We cannot do without it.