The Bread & Butter Papers

The Tehelka readership survey finds that Indians read books not for pleasure but for self-advancement. Given our writers, can we blame them?

Charged with his compound of sensational
Sex plus some undenominational

Religious matter,
Enormous novels by co-eds
Rain down on our defenceless heads
Till our teeth chatter.

-W.H. Auden

IT IS mostly a solitary activity, unhelpful to advertising. Reading helps us sidestep the cultural demand that we find lucidity only in speed. For a long time, the quality of your reading was the measure of your character. But since character has become a poor predictor of fate, pushy books are now firmly denied access to the mind’s garret. Urban condominiums lie bursting with the plushest modern comforts, the phone directory, and perhaps a lonesome book like Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead. Our habits of distraction have vaporised an entire way of life. With the commitment to reading on the wane, the shared currency of conversations is now movies, YouTube videos, tweets and the occasional toy that masquerades as a book.

Deep reading is deeply anti-social, demanding a private absorption where for much of the time you live in an alternate world, where the alternative is you. You become a purist, but people keep mistaking you for a puritan. It can wear thin, this way of living, and can dry your wit to wan: the waistline compensates for the hairline.

Yet beneath all this po-facedness is joy and abandon and discovery. The bounce of sentences, their tug and music, the annihilating aptness of a phrase, metaphor’s ability to elongate thought, telling truth to power – all the elements of original writing leave the reader cuffed with kisses. Why read? To learn, by vicarious experience, the two virtues we need to steer modern life – a sense of empathy and risk.

The great books have given us these things and then some, across cultures and time, from the great Russians to the Americans and beyond. We’ve had no lack of modern exemplars – Swift’s eager whiffs, Chekhov’s half-laughs and Woolf’s distracted precision have had able progenies in Angela Carter’s cholesterol-rich incorrigibilities, Grass’ carnival sprees, Vargas Llosa’s cosmopolitan wit, Kundera’s reversekitsch, Rushdie’s hectic punning, Nabokov’s gander games, Roth’s seditious guffaws, or the vaguely cragged silences in a story like Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. “I like,” wrote Emerson, “dry light, and hard clouds, hard expressions, and hard manners.” What CEO’s memoir can match the peaty lessons in Emerson’s journals? Books have always provided the sweet menthol of succour and amplitude of thought — the antidote — to the shrinking and packaging of our personalities that commerce insists upon.

The writing we feel closest to reliably emerged from societies in turbulence. A writer’s strangeness is really her surprise at the world. It is the stability hummed from a precarious stance. So why is nothing great emerging from contemporary Anglophone India? There is certainly ample churn in our society today — from the public menaces of Naxalism or mining scams to the private anxieties of coping in the new economy or with the colliding mores of generations — the changes in our lives are only accelerating. And contrary to the general moaning, there is ample Indian writing in English on ambitious themes – from Kota Neelima’s novel on rural power plays and Mukul Deva’s military thrillers to our serious young litterateurs of talent like Mridula Koshy and Palash Krishna Mehrotra, whose stories explore the spurts of affection and grime in ordinary living, or Anjum Hasan and Aatish Taseer, whose new novels show the Indian city’s rapacious effects on young people. So far so good.

But reading contemporary Indian writers in English leaves you with a feeling that there remain stubborn layers of butter paper between their prose and the actual life they’re trying to describe. It is really a problem of foggy realism. They remain too mannered and fey to excite their verbal life with an original voice, to drive language hard, to mint indigenous metaphors, and provide little catharsis or pleasure to the reader. Aiming for vividness, they stop short at vivaciousness. Worse, the weaker ones sink into preciousness, petulance, grogginess. Aseem Kaul, one of the contributors to TEHELKA’s recent Fiction issue, blogged about his disappointment with some of the issue’s short stories in English and his excitement at reading the two stories translated from vernacular languages. For all the brouhaha about Indian writing in English in the last decade, our writers are still better in their native tongues when it comes to stretching the dough of language to local shapes.

There are consequences for a culture where writers keep vomiting out family and wedding sagas. TEHELKA’s English book readership survey found that what Indian readers seek most in books is a kind of newspaper – their top reasons for reading are self-education, improving their English and gaining knowledge and data. The Indian reader is, above all else, functional in his approach. For him, a book is just another lifestyle accessory — a mobile phone for the mind — and he likewise decides how it might be paisa vasool. The likes of Paulo Coelhos and Robin Sharmas provide him mental balm for a life of material tensions. There is no problem with reading for inspiration, aspiration or improving skills – it’s with having such a pedestrian threshold for exaltation and language. The cost of these simplistic books’ popularity is a thinning of imagination and public debate. Readers everywhere do, however, show a strong preference for regional writers in English or otherwise, which might be the punctual silver lining – globalisation should make translations only sexier and abundant.

So one finds that in the developing world, Stendhal’s mantra still rings true — a novel is a mirror carried along a road — we still seek information from our books, irrespective of genre. But when you lose fineness of thought in pursuit of that synthetic goal, you get the clumsy constructs of a Chetan Bhagat or a Shiv Khera. While our literary writers stay stuck in their high modernist ethic of deeper meanings, Bhagat reaps dividends from his rage for relevance. His books might be cinematic melodrama, but they grip you with their genuine feel for how young people are now living. And his shallow depictions don’t grate with his readers – for them, these books are aspirational candy at the price of a caffe latte. Also, success begets success. The bestseller sensations of Dan Brown or Shiv Khera operate like bad movies, accumulating new consumers who only want to keep up with what the majority of their compatriots are already consuming.

With the lower costs of bringing books to market, big publishers often put out everything they can get, with hasty and minimal editing, and hope something sticks. This mass approach is not about to change. But there remains a vast minority of literate Indians — quietly scuffling with public taste — who seek a finer sense of the texture of life. These people await more than they are yet receiving. There is a case to be made that these gentle readers have always been in the minority – the works of Joyce and Kafka were no blockbusters either. As Philip Roth once said, if your five thousand readers came through your living room one at a time they’d leave you in tears.

The careful reader is still, however, blamed for being a killjoy. How to defy such priggishness? Perhaps an answer might be approached indirectly: just as a newborn’s forehead wrinkles like an old man’s, a great book complicates even as it appeals. The final problem with any reading is that it is not idle enough – and so one must continue. The world reads you. You must read back.

Meanwhile, someone explain to our utilitarian compatriots that if they don’t learn to risk and empathise, how will they be sly?

First published here.