An alarming number of new Indian writers are content to be Indian rather than writers.
Seven out of ten books are a uniform parade of red saris and spicy food, no matter which part of India they’re set in or what they’re trying to say. Yet, India is most emphatically not the sum of its parts. It’s not even clear know how many parts there are.
“Mango tree books” is what we call them, my friend and I. A shortened version of “My Grandmother's Mango Tree”, which was the derisive title of a hypothetical book, created to honour the annoying rash of “exotic Indian” writing that followed “The God of Small Things”. They got the exotic part, but missed the quality that made Roy's book a book worth keeping – integrity.
Or whatever the word is that means it's about writing because something clamours to be written, not read.
I have begun to avoid anything with silk and sindoor on the cover and am suspicious of blurbs that promise “vivid, unforgettable” prose. “Lyrical” is synonymous with empty nonsense now.
I probably missed some good books in the process, but on the detour I discovered that it's not an exclusively Indian phenomenon. There are Irish mango tree books, South African ones, Iranian, Lebanese, Australian, Middle-American. There's the “Modern Romance” category, spawned by Bridget Jones, the “Modern Man” category inspired by Nick Hornby and the “Boyhood” ones sprung from “Paddy Clarke ha ha ha”. They’re lesser than the originals and diminish them criminally.
It seems the mango tree is really the spreading banyan tree of marketing.
On the other hand, in the words of Amin Maalouf's Balthazar: “How can I who doubt everything not doubt my own doubts?” It's all subjective, after all. Reading is intensely personal, like the music one listens to alone. If someone likes it, surely it's entitled to exist unmolested? Why should anybody have to justify their tastes? I certainly don't! So does it matter? The answer is still a resounding yes.
If books are sold on the basis of the writer's origins, then so will they be judged. If all you’re doing is trading on your ethnicity, how can you expect to stand up and be counted as a writer? And unforgivably, it makes a mockery of those that deserve to be so counted.
Is it okay to read “100 Years of Solitude” only as “South American Writing”, if “Things Fall Apart” has no value outside of Achebe's roots, or if a promising Lavanya Sankaran is judged only within the parameters of Indian writing?
As the world gets smaller, the minds seem to be shrinking to fit. In a time of sound bites, bullet points and quick edits, there’s no room for the whole truth, just enough to lend weight to the stereotypes and validate the pre-conceptions. Time was when reading broadened the mind, but that’s not a guarantee anymore.
Perhaps the only thing worse than a world that doesn’t read is one that is so eager to read the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
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