Is The World Becoming Flat Again?
The diversity of thoughts, speech, literature and the arts is under attack in many parts of the world, either in the name of religion or in the name of ‘look-alike, think-alike’ globalisation.
THIS ISSUE OF Resurgence is a celebration of diversity – the importance of being different; the value of each individual vision. Literature means many voices. As writers we project our unique points of view. As readers, we need many different writers who show us that there are other visions, other values, other ways of living and thinking. India has always seemed to me to be a good place to have a celebration of many voices. One of my favourite writers, Gabriel García Márquez, once called his continent a microcosm of the human race, and India is pretty much the same kind of mix and muddle of races and cultures. In India we have a plurality of religions and languages. Racial purity, a single Book, a single Way of Life, one prescription for solving the world’s problems would all seem absurd to us in India.
Diversity here as in many parts of the world, is under attack. And because diversity is at the very heart, the very meaning of literature, I have wondered how creativity in life and literature is going to be affected by the relentless drive towards sameness that is being laid down by religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and on the other hand by the increasingly ‘look-alike, think-alike’ world that globalisation based on marketisation is producing.
I’ve used the word ‘celebration’ but recent events have given us more cause to mourn than to celebrate. Next door to us, in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was murdered because there are those the world over who believe that assassination is the way to deal with opposition. Next door to us again, in Bangladesh, the writer Taslima Nasreen has had to flee her country because neither her life nor her writing is safe there. Here in India Muslim hardliners have forced her to withdraw what they call offending passages from one of her books. And not long ago a valuable archive in Pune was attacked and a manuscript burned because it supposedly hurt Maratha sentiments. In post-modern India all this is happening.
And what is happening elsewhere is as disturbing. In Turkey a misguided nationalism is persecuting its writers, including one who decried the ferocious ethnic cleansing of its Armenian population. In the West famous and admired writers have supported the war against Iraq, and have had nothing to say about the invasion, occupation and plunder of a sovereign nation, or what such lawless behaviour has done to international law. Famous and admired writers have fallen into the trap of seeing Islam as an enemy and Muslims as terrorists, forgetting others who unleash havoc and terror in parts of the world. And Muslim-phobia has made young and old Asian immigrants in the West fear being targeted as terrorists.
There seems to be no clarity about how to deal with multiculturism – how to cope, what to allow, what to ban. And this sometimes results in well-intentioned governments working with extremist and obscurantist opinion among Asians, in the mistaken notion that they are the real representatives of their culture – not realising that there is a very different and much broader framework to Asian identity and aspiration. India has shown that a multi-culture society where religions are valued and practised can be based on a secular ideal. Multiculturism is nothing new to the world. Empires, including the Ottoman, lived with it. Until recently Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union practised it. And today many societies are experiencing aspects of it.
CULTURES NEED OTHER cultures in order to re-charge and revitalise themselves. Others who are not the least like ourselves have to be admitted, accepted, understood. It is the outsider who crosses our path who brings the fresh air and excitement of new ideas and new vistas our way. Languages run into and invigorate each other. New forms of expression come into being in response to other forms and feelings and ideas. But need I say more when we look at the exhilarating effect of immigrant writing on English literature, and the intoxicating things that happen when vastly different art forms and traditions come together?
Some years ago at a concert in London I heard Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar perform together. I would never have believed that a violin and a sitar could combine in a duet and that this unlikely combination could make such music happen. It was a magical and unforgettable experience. And more of this is now happening in cinema, the theatre and other art forms.
‘Post-modern’ is also connected in my mind with a climate ruled by commercialism. The other day I was interested to read that no less likely a person than the former Attorney General of the United States had called globalisation based on economic power, consumerism and materialism deadlier than armed conflict, because the spread of sameness – the same technology, the same kind of entertainment, the same junk food, the same desire for the same endless toys – will wipe out the distinction between one culture and another. Ultimately whole areas of human experience and accumulations of human imagination will simply disappear. And if this is the process we are in, how are our minds going to stay free and open in such a climate?
The ruling theories and philosophies of any era shape its thinking and create its mindset. The things we believe in restrict our imaginations or set them free. The mindset of people who thought the world was flat was very different from those who knew it was round and could set out to explore the difference. What I’m afraid of is that the world is becoming flat again and we are getting locked into an either-or, we-and-they way of thinking; a stereotyped, clichéd world with no room in it for search, for shades of meaning or for adventures of ideas – and this is a condition for which the laid-down certainties of our time, whether religious or economic or violently nationalistic, are all responsible.
WRITERS USED TO react to and comment on such defining moments and developments – and this moment is as defining for our time as the difference between a flat and a round world once made. Writers stepped into controversy, took sides, said this is right and that is wrong. Will this kind of involvement become unfashionable in the 21st century? There are those who argue that this is politics, or this is economics, and nothing to do with literature; but when have politics and economics not been part of literature? What else are they but the conditions we live under, making us the kind of people we become? The politics of every century has always affected private life.
Pablo Neruda explained his transition from love poetry to political awareness in the words of a poem called ‘Let Me Explain a Few Things’: “You will ask: and where are the lilacs | and the metaphysics petalled with poppies | and the rain repeatedly spattering its words…| Come and see the blood in the streets | Come and see the blood in the streets…” Yet becoming politically aware didn’t prevent him from writing odes to red wine and artichokes or lyrics to the body of his beloved. Neruda’s poetry, his personal life and his politics were all one, as was the case with so many poets and novelists and playwrights in the 20th century who also became – perhaps for that very reason – the most widely read writers of their time. Will the 21st century produce this breed? I don’t say times mustn’t change; only that writers have to play a part in the changes, decide what direction change should take and influence it, not stand by and let it happen, for better or for worse.
Incidentally, I’ve been told by my daughter who is familiar with it that great things are happening in children’s literature in Britain: that it is more varied and wonderful and profound than it has ever been. It has always been wonderful, but now it covers a wide range of ideas and emotions, from metaphysical questions to the heartbreak of divorce for children. It seems to have escaped being sucked into our confining climate and has created a climate of its own.
I’m probably more aware of the commercialism of our current book climate because it is so different from when I started writing. My first novel was published in 1958. No-one then judged a manuscript by how many copies it would be expected to sell. Agents and editors had a part to play in recognising quality and taking risks if need be to nurture it. Books of topical interest were important and there were plenty of them, but fiction was not a matter of topical interest or current fashion. I remember asking my editor at Alfred Knopf whether he thought a particular novel was “timely” and he said they chose fiction for its timeless quality. And Victor Gollancz, who published me in Britain, had much the same attitude. Publishers considered themselves taste-makers, opinion-makers. Agents and editors did not intrude into the process of writing – I never had so much as a change of sentence.
This came back to me very strongly when a few years ago a successful young Indian-American writer told me how beholden she was to her agent for the content, shape and structure of her novel. He had told her what to enlarge on, what to leave out, and generally decided how her product should be ‘packaged’ for the best effect. I don’t know how typical this is, or whether it is necessary now that books and publishing are big business, but I am grateful that I made my start in times when nobody told me what or how to write, and before marketisation and corporatisation had taken over the arts. I even wrote novels with political backgrounds which were not in keeping with the general understanding of what India was all about – which was quaint customs, local colour, arranged marriages, maharajas and the like. But thanks to enlightened publishers I got published, sold and read.
POST-MODERNISM HAS not led to post-nationalism. We are as far from becoming one world as we ever were – though we are a better-connected world. The nation-state is very powerfully with us. But fortunately a truly universal literature is growing out of a wealth of national literatures. India alone has ancient literatures among her many languages – and voices among them in prose and poetry that have never reached mainstream publication. Translation and world interest are at long last bringing at least some of these a wider readership, and a recognition that only an Indian writing in English has enjoyed. The bond between soil and story remains a unique and irreplaceable one, coming as it does out of a people’s own history and geography and collective consciousness.
Strange as it may seem at a time when cross-cultural experience occupies centre-stage on the literary scene and English is the dominant language, most of the world’s people still stay put on their own soil and the writers among them write in their own language. I hope enterprising Indian publishers will bring the works of foreign writers to India through translation into Indian languages and that translations will flow both ways. That foreign – mainly, I think, British – writers choose to live and work here, just as a number of Indian writers live and work abroad, is testimony to the truth that literature knows no frontiers and an artist’s country is the realm of his or her imagination. Neither do civilised instincts know any frontiers.
I grew up during India’s nonviolent fight for freedom, with parents who spent their lives in the struggle. Yet my
father, who was a passionate patriot committed to the overthrow of British rule, and was to die of his last imprisonment under the British a few years later, wept when London was bombarded in the blitz and when Hitler’s army marched into Paris. If anyone had asked him what race he belonged to, he would undoubtedly have said the human race.
The Indo-British connection has been of special interest to me and I was reminded of the distance it had travelled by a story my mother told me. She was in England in the early 1950s after she had been elected the first woman president of the UN General Assembly, and Winston Churchill, who was then Prime Minister, asked her to lunch. In the course of the conversation he suddenly turned to her and said, “We killed your husband, didn’t we?” She was so taken aback at this remark from this old arch-enemy, this diehard imperialist who had vowed never to quit India, that she didn’t know what to say; and then she found her voice and heard herself saying, “No. Every man lives only to his appointed hour.” The end of the story is that they became friends and he later told her that her brother, Jawaharlal Nehru, had conquered humankind’s two worst enemies, hate and fear. Am I imagining it, or is that supremely civilised approach to one another missing from today’s climate?
As I’ve been writing I’ve had more uncertainties than answers in my mind. But of one thing I am certain: writers will write, whatever the odds, and I want to wish them safety and freedom in writing.
This article is adapted from the inaugural address at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2008. www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org