Last week, I picked out two books from the middle-grade fiction shelf at Mulhenburg, my corner NYLP. I hadn’t specifically sought them out, but was amazed at one random but major coincidence: Grk Smells a Rat (by Joshua Doder) and Small Acts of Amazing Courage (by Gloria Whelan) both have connections to India. Neither book is by an Indian author and both are of completely different genres.
I’ve only briefly thumbed through Whelan’s book and the jacket tells me that it is about Rosalind, an English girl in India in 1918. The first Indian character to be mentioned in the book is Ranjit, and imagine my surprise — NOT — to discover that he is the head servant.
Grk…,with an illustration of the Taj Mahal on its cover (although it was the spine that caught my attention and that doesn’t even feature the Taj on it), tells the hilariously-funny adventure of the British tourists Tim, Max, Natascha and their dog Grk as they arrive in New Delhi for the Vijay Ghat International Lawn Tennis Association Under-Sixteen Championship. I read this book cover to cover. It was delicious, and I devoured every page.
My heart jumped with joy when I read about Mr. Vijay Ghat: “Vijay Ghat was one of the richest men in India. He had made millions and millions and millions gambling on the stock market. He’d made millions of dollars, yen and euros too.” Finally, an Indian that isn’t a beggar or a doctor, nor a slumdog millionaire, I exclaimed. But perhaps too soon. The kids also meet Krishnan, a boy who sells them a pirated copy of Harry Potter and belongs to the Blue Rat Gang, a group that enslaves children.
As I mentioned earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire novel, but couldn’t help roll my eyes at some of the stuff captured in it — like the Blue Rat Gang. I questioned if it was cool for the author to spin a yarn about a woman who controlled thousands of children by listening to a talking rat. Did he set it in India simply because mine is a culture full of exotic things like elephant-headed gods? Is that supposed to make it believable? Perhaps not.
But then I had a long, hard think about my own writing and took back all the eye-rolls. I’ve never intentionally intended to or set out writing about Indianness as an agenda. One of my stories is about a girl caught in a punctuation war, while another is about a man and his runaway moustache. Both stories are set in India, and that is certainly NOT why they are (I hope) ridiculous. I wasn’t ever trying to milk my ‘exoticism’: in my defense, the stories unbelievability exists due to its fictionability.
But the Indianness is inescapable. My background and my culture bleeds into my writing in a way in which I have no control. Heck, I even have a character in one of my stories who is a kid from the slums. But that said, in a large portion of my work, I’m certainly NOT painting an accurate and believable picture of India myself. Isn’t it great that fiction allows us to create worlds that are familiar to ours, and yet very different? And if I can let myself get away with it, I must allow other writers to do the same.
Writing about ethnicity is always a sensitive issue. When people from one ethnicity or culture write about people from other cultures, there’s always the chance of someone being offended (this may include even those who share the same ethnicity as the author). It makes it worse when people lose their sense of humor and imagination. Often, people get offended by things that may be completely unintentional. I’m pretty sure the authors weren’t suggesting that all of India is full of illiterate con artists, servants and beggars that are controlled by talking rats, but maybe for a split-second the thought couldn’t help but cross my mind. Still, taking offence would only make me the ignorant one.
Before I came to New York, I had been warned about ignorant “white” people who would ask me if people back home really lived in trees and travelled on the backs of elephants. But I’m very proud to be in a city and in a school where I pretty sure I will never meet that “white person.” I don’t feel the need to explain the way things are back home (or to remind people that they’re not that different), because frankly, us Indians are inescapable. We’re just too many of us, and we’re everywhere.
Some of my classmates are always asking me for more Indian details in my writing, they want to see everything, smell everything, taste everything and touch every little thing, just to get a sense of how real it is. I hope I can give them a blend of what they want, while balancing out the fictional world that I am trying to create. In the meanwhile, I’m hoping to see books by great contemporary Indian authors such as Paro Anand, Kalpish Ratna, Anshumani Ruddra and Sampurna Chattarji on bookshelves here in NYC.