Monday, April 30, 2012

The Patrick French Pankaj Mishra Literary Spat: Who Won?

In this article the prolific Patrick French argues that foreigners like him have a right to comment about India. Al Baruni has done it, so has Ibn Batuta. Also, a seventh century Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang and, of course, our own Sir Vidya, Salman Rushdie and  Suketu Mehta. (It is apparent from the article that he is a foreigner married to an Indian and therefore a Person of Indian Origin (PIO).) He says there are the following categories of writers about India:

1. The language writers (to whom, apparently, according to him, lip service is provided)
2. Indians who write about India (the pits)
3. Expatriate Indians who write about India (slightly higher than the pits, the hill, maybe)
4. Foreigners who condescend from their ivory towers to dip feather in vitriol and write about India (the peak).

I would classify Patrick French among the fourth lot though I haven't read him, not yet. But I do follow him on Twitter where he is PatrickFrench2.

Pankaj Mishra in a scathing criticism of Patrick French's book India: a Portrait calls him a Curzon without an Empire and, sort of, implies that he hasn't the credentials to write about India in this article in Outlook. I don't know if that qualifies for a literary spat in the rarefied atmosphere of non-fiction writing but of one thing I am sure French sure has a point, since he is in the rarefied atmosphere of No. 4 (the peak) above and Mishra is in position 3 (slightly higher than the pits).

Drum roll! Now my own humble opinion which I flaunt here because this is my blog and this is my own territory. The best commentators on India have been foreigners: Huen Tsang, Fa Hien, probably the above mentioned Xuanzang (possible Huen Tsang I mentioned), and Ibn Batuta. And then comes writers such as Rushdie, Naipaul and Mehta. We, Indian Writers in English (IWE) who live and work in Indian have lost our sense of proportion and objectivity when writing about India. Is there a decent travel book written about India by an IWE? I know Samanth Subramaniam wrote Following Fish, which I am yet to read.

That's why I was prompted to write To God's Own Country, an account of my travels in my native state of Kerala, which when I peddled around to publishers met with a cold reception. "Books on India by Indians don't sell," is what I was told. I said, "This is incendiary stuff, this is a anthropological treatise, it's an eye-opener, etc. etc." It didn't cut any ice and the reception remained at sub-zero level. Gah!

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