You, a sensitive ingénue freshly arrived from the subcontinent, face the gleaming metropolis for the first time. Having hardened yourself to the feelings of your family, you have abandoned a prospective career as clerk in a lawyer’s office and a stable relationship with your third cousin, Padma, for a life of self-actualisation.
A bookish sort of fellow, praised in your Commonwealth public school for your poise and intelligence, you dream of writing a novel. A proper one, full of lengthy digressions and state-of-the-nation screeds. You want to convey the psychic disruption and emotional tumult of the postcolonial condition. You suffer from double vision, blurred vision, seeing triple of everything, but one thing you do see clearly, though, is the glory. Your book will sweep the Booker, the Whitbread and any other prestigious bauble you could think of. You imagine the valley of tears from critics and fans alike, the letters of gratitude, the visiting professorships and the honorary doctorates. It’ll be the greatest novel ever written about the continent – if only you could just get past the first line.
You need a guide. Someone to distil the wisdom of those gone before you, to give you a vernacular into which you’ll pour the distended palpitations of your heart. And here lies such a template. You didn’t ask, my dear friend, but you certainly shall receive.
Your protagonist has arrived in London to study, but feels alienated and misses the ‘warm, red-coloured dirt’ of their homeland. They are naïve, impressionable yet intelligent, albeit in an uncultivated, immature way.
They need cultivating. They meet a male member of the British intelligentsia. If your character is male, the intellectual will serve as a mentor (and implied lover). If your character is female, the man will become her actual lover, adoring her exotic complexion and calling her something like the ‘Nightingale of Kolkata’. He’ll gaslight her into believing she’s unworthy of his love, that he contains a depth and heft of feeling that she cannot comprehend. You, the author, believe this, and so does she. He’s British and wears horn-rimmed glasses, after all. She wants to be a poet, but this seems fanciful.
She’s a hummingbird, a songbird, and this avian quality filters its way through her poetry. Her beloved indulges these creations, calls them ‘delicate’ or ‘evasive’, and urges her to take claim of her heritage, to touch and take on the East. She cannot, or will not, summon the Eastern magic that is expected of her. The past is a foreign land and she has become (whisper it) Westernised. This is unsettling. The couple’s relationship cools. Sexual intercourse becomes intermittent, if not impossible.
Intimacy will be unattainable. Something has happened, somewhere in the deep void of your character’s subcontinental subconscious which prevents this. Don’t mention what it is. Glance toward it. Fragment your narrative and spice it with dark allusions to a terrible misdeed that occurred in the savage motherland. Capitalise things unnecessarily, such as History and Revenge and Hate and Love. Collapse words together like ‘Orangedrink Lemondrink’ and always narrate things in a detached, first-person indirect style. It’ll be a postmodern, postcolonial masterpiece.
But maybe this kind of writing doesn’t suit you. Maybe, my young émigré writer, you have very different desires. You yearn for scale, size, sheer breadth: you want, nay need, to write a big, weighty tome.
You crave a broad canvas in which to paint your struggle and prove yourself equal to those 19th-century masters you used to obsess over. You want to write about India in all its multiplicity. Now, such a task is daunting, even for a writer so prodigiously gifted. You’ll be wanting a frame, a crutch, an ordering principle. Something that is understandable to the intelligent reader. For a young nation coming into its own, a coming-of-age narrative is needed. You need a young, garrulous narrator – call him Nadeem, Saleem or Raheem – and have him weave tall tales. Long sentences are a must. As intense and as rich as sticky toffee pudding. Sentences so long and grammatically confusing that critics lose all sense of reason, fawning (or is it yawning?) over their Proustian echoes. Instead of a madeleine, why not cake rusk?
Fill your narrative with a panoply of gods and goddesses, nymphs-in-flight, many-headed demons, monkeys, elephants, sex, death, murder and rebellion. Fill it to bursting, and don’t worry about accuracy. Who needs to be true to life when hyperbole is so much better? Balance the serious stuff with tales of a Bombay childhood filled with dusty streets, farting uncles, bougainvillea, snot and seminal experiences in every sense of the word.
Your male hero, of course, must have a beloved. She’ll be a simple girl from a lower-caste background. This doesn’t cause much of a scandal, because the relationship isn’t important. Call her Meera or Lakshmi, it doesn’t really matter. She’s there to listen to Nadeem/Saleem/Raheem’s story, to pout and voice an occasional objection, but otherwise love him unconditionally. Call her a ‘dung-lotus’, let her be illiterate, a bit obtuse, grouchy and at home in the muck and slime. No interior life is necessary.
But alas, what horror! Your narrator has become, prematurely for such a young man, withered and aged, impotent even. Fissures and cracks appear all over his body. Staring at the looking glass, he sees himself, reflected, a broken composite. Much like the nation that was once whole and now has been torn asunder. A crumbling edifice, he doesn’t know how to fix himself. It’s all very clever, very metaphorical.
Maybe hyperbole and humour don’t interest you. That’s fine. Maybe you want to talk about the schism, the great rupture, the fall. No, not the fall from Eden, I’m talking about Partition. Perhaps, like Manto, you want to grimly record the bloody effects of a grotesque part of our shared history. Unlike Manto, you weren’t actually there, and unlike Manto, you have no idea what the real flesh-and-blood humans on either side were like. That’s a bit of a roadblock for a young author ready to carve out their reputation.
So, you go to the facts, figures and statistics. You see the dead, the wounded, the destroyed property. You pore over survivors’ testimonies, which provide little windows into their emotional lives. You should ignore all that wishy-washy emotional stuff. Instead, focus on the carnage. Gritty realism, sparse sentences and detailed accounts of devastation: it’ll all make for a slender volume of suffering.
Create a story told from the perspective of twins (you’ll notice a recurring trope here) aboard a train from India to Pakistan. Recreate the terror of being on a train where squads move from carriage to carriage with murderous intent. No one crosses the border. The children’s innocence lets you render everyone nameless. That is a good thing. Everything becomes a congealed mass of violence and the dead can’t be differentiated. By some miracle the children cross the border. (Don’t. Be. Specific.) In later life, the children’s innocence will become indifference. Such is the way of things.
All the guts and violence of Partition seems so passé, though. It’s too grisly, too complicated and messy to fictionalise. It just isn’t true to who you are. Perhaps you’re a perceptive, moderately successful academic, gifted with a pen, who’s determined to forge a career as a novelist. You’ve recently been transplanted to a different country as part of your research, where you have tried, and failed, to put pen to paper. Still, the novel that you know is inside you remains stubbornly locked away, out of reach. It gnaws at you. Inadequacy bubbles to the surface.
Neither grand narrative nor trauma porn quite suit your temperament. You want to write something that reflects what you think you are, an intellectual member of an upper-middle-class, international bourgeoisie. Your existence, much like a chai latte from Pret, is predicated on the intersection of capitalism and orientalism. You have a globalised aesthetic, and your art must reflect that.
Don’t worry, friend, the solution is quite simple. You must write thinly veiled autofiction about life as a professor in a European city. Don’t describe teaching, research or doing anything meaningful. No, you shall have your man (and of course it is a man) meditate on his identity and place in the world. This way you can approach the motherland obliquely, at an angle, under the guise of European adventure.
Make room for plenty of disquisition on the ‘here and now’ and emphasise just how adrift your protagonist is. At a certain time of day and in a certain light he is reminded of London, a second home to which he also doesn’t belong. Locations blur and become indistinct. He barely remembers what home looked or felt like anymore. ‘Is it possible to separate the past from the here and now?’, he wonders, fretfully.
In the end, he sacks it off and goes to the pub. You know the kind. Low-lit, wooden flooring, populated with the kind of people who combine roll-neck sweaters with hoop earrings. Everyone is earnestly reading some poetry collection or other. He’ll sit there, drinking a hot toddy because he feels deeply unwell, all stuffy-nosed and ill at ease with the world.
The novel ends on an ambivalent note. And you’ll want to get this book sold, won’t you? For that you’ll need to find suitable representation. Market yourself as the erudite exile, cut mercilessly from the teat of the motherland and forced to make your own way. Tell prospective agents that you exist in an imaginary homeland and that this novel is written ‘outside of history’, whatever that means, but that it also holds up a ‘mirror to the nation’. Tell them that you are a ‘mongrelised person’ (you are 100 per cent uncut South Asian), whose fragmented experiences are the fate of all immigrants and exiles.
You’re suburban, metropolitan, but most importantly, subaltern.
You describe the book as its own sort of mongrel, a dog-eared syncretistic hybrid of The Odyssey, Don Quixote and White Teeth. You urge them to get in on the ground floor. Someone will eventually cave, either out of ill-advised ambition or morbid curiosity at this franken-text.
At your agent’s behest, you sit down for an interview with a Guardian features writer. You should respond soulfully to questions about migration and displacement, make allusions to the ‘trouble’ back home, and above all, maintain what you believe to be an air of detached sophistication.
Growing up, you say that your family had lots of British friends in a way that left you feeling alienated, a divided self. Now, you split your time gleefully flitting between continents. There are drinks with a minor Gandhi in Bombay, afternoon tutorials with Parul Sehgal in New York and Café Cecilia brunches with Kamila Shamsie in London. It’s a privileged existence, sure, but wealth is no great leveller. The visa requirements for country-hopping are draconian. Travel is so problematic, and sitting in some embassy reception waiting to get documents signed off almost makes you want to get a paddle and start rowing. Finally getting British citizenship will be a relief. There’ll be fewer forms to fill in, at least.
They’ll ask about Rushdie. They always ask about Rushdie. What about him? You must insist that you were never influenced by Midnight’s Children. That’s right, there was no magical realism for you growing up. You ought to situate yourself in the solidly familiar: say you admired Waugh (Evelyn), Wodehouse (P.G.) and Roth (Philip). It’s Brideshead over Bengal, always. Make it clear that you are a comic writer working within a comic tradition, but also a serious practitioner of literary realism and therefore worthy of Anglophone respect.
You’ll want to repeat this next bit verbatim.
‘It’s all fun and games, but I don’t want my novel to be baby food,’ you’ll say. ‘What?’ The journo might query. ‘I don’t want it to be baby food,’ you will repeat. ‘Baby food is sweet and easy to swallow. I want something tough and difficult to chew. I like writing the sad bits. Wodehouse is baby food. There aren’t any sad bits at all in Wodehouse.’
I leave you free to embellish the rest.
You talk about culture more generally. A good mix of highbrow and lowbrow keeps you relatable. You love the Carry On films, reggae, Beckett, etc. You like Satyajit Ray, but only when he mimics hard-boiled detective films like The Maltese Falcon, definitely not that lyrical, avant-garde bullshit he attempts later in his career. You don’t want to over-orientalise the pudding. An exotic name working in a familiar genre will do just fine for English-speaking audiences. Feluda is but a brown Sherlock Holmes, after all.
On Twitter, you get into an argument with Hanif Kureishi, centred on who was influenced by Rushdie the least. Mohsin Hamid gets involved, before Uncle Salman eventually wades in, if only to offer a virtual, paternalistic dressing down. It causes a brief stir in the literary world, boosting pre-sales of your book. Eventually, you all agree that Haroun and the Sea of Stories was quite good, actually, and go about your lives.
The novel will be devoured upon release. Critics will fall over themselves acclaiming your greatness. You’ll be like Proust, but a brown Proust, clad in a shalwar.
At the gala lunch celebrating your book’s coterie of awards, you should mention your hope that this work will help build a new, modern world, and that out of the double vision of the formerly colonised subject, the future will come. Well done, my dear friend, canonisation is all but secured. Rest easy and publish, intermittently, worse versions of the same novel for the rest of your career.