Sunday, November 3, 2013

Do I hate Indian authors and blindly adore Western authors?

I've written many blogs refuting or rebutting views by others like Thamizhachi's slander about Gandhi or another blogger spewing venom about celebrating September 5th as teacher's day in memory of S.Radhakrishnan. Those blogs were written after extensive due diligence and cross referencing of sources. When I wrote the rebuttal to Thamizhachi I referred several biographies of Gandhi and Tagore. I painstakingly cross-checked the facts because if I had gotten a single fact wrong the entire blog could have been brushed aside as 'flawed'. When those I criticize have a bigger following I tend to be extremely careful. Above all I owe that to my intellectual integrity. My last blog was a shame in as much as I had rushed to judge a work of fiction. Though the blog was written circumspectly an unfortunate remark, saying the work was plagiarized, on social media, overtook the remarks in the blog which walked back those remarks. The remark made on twitter created a very unfortunate chain of events. I still regret the mistake and my apologies to the author. I thought I had had done my due diligence but apparently not so. Credibility is a precious commodity. Its a bitter lesson.

A blog has a personal flavor and I used that to narrate what set of my search of the source material. I had said that the author, despite being a recent immigrant to Boston, gave detailed descriptions of locales elsewhere including knowledgeable references to cancer treatment hospitals. I had said I wondered how at such knowledge by a recent immigrant which in turn made me want to find out about the source material. This was grossly misunderstood by some and intentionally misinterpreted by a person in whose website the story had appeared.

A few weeks after my blog on a biography of Lalgudi I received an email from Jeyamohan. Jeyamohan while commending my 'strict' review of the biography asked "would you show the same strictness to a western author", "you cite Walter Isaacson's 'authorized' biography of Steve Jobs, why do you think its not a 'commercialized' biography and not the biblical truth". I replied back to him that I am well aware of the short comings of Isaacson's biography and I am very well aware that the book was rushed to the market to capitalize on the death of Steve Jobs. My citation of the Jobs biography was in the limited context of how an 'educated' Jobs 'chose' Isaacson compared to 'uneducated' Lalgudi relying on a fawning author who happened to be the mother of his student. I had also explained to Jeyamohan that in the west an 'authorized' biography is done under strict contracts where biographers would insist on walling off the subject from influencing the book. If Isaacson had written a sugary fawning account he would lose his integrity and the book would be panned resulting in a commercial failure.

Jeyamohan who knows that I live in America and have a fondness for Pulitzers and western authors unfairly alleged that my wonderment about the short story's author's knowledge of America stemmed from being in thrall to Western, particularly, white authors. He had forgotten that I had, with his help, defended Gandhi at length with patient scholarship. He says he reads me every now and then. Maybe he missed my defense of S.Radhakrishnan.

In my first year at college I won Rs 300 as prize money from various competitions. After collecting the money from college at a function I took a bus straight to the only dingy book store in Tanjore and bought all 3 books by Nehru and an omni-bus edition of Kahlil Gibran. I remain a big admirer of Nehru. I've avidly collected and read books on Nehru, Gandhi, Indian history, Indian philosophy, India's freedom movement, post-Independence India, Indian literature. For a guy living in America I think I've a very decent collection of books on India. Many are by Indian authors and some by western authors. I've avidly bought and read every good biography that is there on Gandhi starting with Louis Fischer to D.G.Tendulkar's 8 volume to Lelyveld. I scrounged and saved to buy S.Gopal's masterful 3 volume biography of Nehru in 1993. I did not like Stanley Wolpert's biography of Nehru. In college I used to scavenge and look for books on Indian philosophy by S.Radhakrishnan. Only by S.Radhakrishnan. I was dismissive of Kannadasan's attempt at philosophy. Seeking to learn about ancient Indian history I've bought, with great effort, books by Romila Thapar, D.D.Kosambi and Neelakanda Sastry. An interesting book I recently had the chance to buy was Indian expatriate experience in America which contains impressions of America by Indian writers during their visits to US. On the partition alone I've read Yasmin Khan's well researched 'Great Partition', a rare illustrated copy of Khushwant Singh's 'Train to Pakistan' and in my recent trip, to attend to my sick dad, I acquired a 2 volumes of writings on Partition edited by noted historian Mushirul Hasan. Oh just on the way out at the airport I happened to buy a good edition of India's freedom movement by Bipin Chandra et al. At that store I also bought a collection of stories by Puthumai Pithan in addition to Jeyamohan's own book that I had bough earlier in the trip. I remain an admirer of Ramachandra Guha's books.

All that said am I blind to the follies of western authors? Thomas Friedman earned a Pulitzer as New York Times's foreign affairs correspondent in Beirut. Friedman is a keen journalist who wrote the best possible introduction to globalization in 'Lexus and the olive tree' at a time when such a book never existed. But then he started thinking of himself as an expert on globalization. I bought and read his 'The world is flat' and sold it back on with disgust. The book painted a very rosy picture of India's emergence. Its a book that every CEO, on a flight to India, loved to read and think they understood India. I started seeing Friedman losing his focus. The saving grace in America is the book was panned in some reviews. Particularly Friedman's flawed analogy of Columbus declaring the world is round. That was Magellan. The book was embroiled in a controversy too over a cover photo for which the publisher did not have the rights.

Alex Haley's biography of Malcolm X used to be considered a work of scholarship. Then came Manning Marable who exposed how Haley had exaggerated Malcolm X's days of hooliganism to play up the conversion to becoming a radical. Then Marable set to work on a magisterial biography of Malcolm X that was unflinching at some of Malcolm X's weaknesses like anti-semitism. Marable was awarded the Pulitzer, posthumously.

In the same year that Marable's book won a Pulitzer for biography another book that could not be ignored was John Lewis Gaddis's equally impressively written biography of American statesman George Kennan. Now, this was an authorized biography. Gaddis was given access to all of Kennan's papers, extensive interviews were done but Kennan never knew what Gaddis wrote. Further the agreement was that Gaddis will publish the book only after Kennan died. Kennan lived to be 102. The book was published to great acclaim. To accommodate another Pulitzer for a biography along side Marable's book one of them was moved to the general fiction category.

Talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey also runs a 'book club' and a book being selected by her can help sell the book in millions. Once she selected an auto-biography by author James Frey. The book, 'A million little pieces', skyrocketed in sales. I've never considered Oprah Winfrey to be the arbiter of literature. I've seen old classics being re-issued with a stamp "An Oprah Book Club Selection". I'd never buy that copy. James Frey was then exposed as a fraud. An enraged Winfrey called Frey to her studio and dressed him down in a live telecast watched by millions. Later columnists ripped Winfrey for not accepting any responsibility for her own shoddy research before hailing a book and for deflecting all blame to Frey alone. Welcome to America.

I maintain strict standards on books I buy. I often go by book reviews in Economist and New York Times. I follow where authors while speaking of their recent book will pick 5 books they consider good in the same topic. I follow the Pulitzer and National Book awards obsessively.

I was amused to note being characterised as a guy who hates Indian authored books. When Siddhartha Mukerhjee's classic 'Emperor of all maladies' was in the running for a Pulitzer I was checking at exactly 1:01 PM when Columbia university announces the prizes. None would have rejoiced more than me when Mukherjee won the Pulitzer and other awards for the same book. I've gifted that book to several doctor relatives. On the same genre I love Atul Gawande's 'checklist manifesto'. Atul Gawande is a rare doctor-literatteur combination, a pleasure to read. I attended Brooklyn Book festival simply because Indian author Pankaj Mishra was going to appear and present his latest book "From the ruins of the empire", a scholarly treatise on rebellious intellectuals who remade Asian thinking.

I used to like Jhumpa Lahiri a lot until she started hawking her latest book 'Lowlands' like cheap merchandise. By the way I am aware that many may not like her writing but this is about whether or not I ignore Indian authors.

I am careful to pick books by authors who are unassailable subject matter experts in the topic. When I see books by authors whose primary area of educational background is different from the subject matter I carefully weigh.Terry Eagleton an English professor wrote 'Why Marx is right' and Francis Spufford, another English professor, wrote "Red Plenty". Spufford's book traces the planned economy phenomenon in the Krushchev era and presents it within a fictional format. The book was so well written that Economist reviewer exulted "when the time comes for an award it will be difficult to judge if this book should be awarded for non-fiction or fiction". Eagleton's book on the other hand is polemical and therefore never garnered my attention beyond the customary browsing at a book store.

Paul Krugman is a case in point. Ever since the liberal economist won a Nobel prize he has been writing a regular column in New York Times where he opines on every issue beyond economics. Even within economics his specific expertise is limited to trade. Yet, Krugman, will weigh in on how Obama should promote healthcare bill. His columns have now become a joke and according to rumors NYT staff have a tough time editing his column for inaccuracies. In a well publicized debate republican commentator Joe Scarborough took Krugman to task on changing his stance to suit his politics.

Gore Vidal is a brilliant novelist who does scholarly researches for his fiction. Yet, when Vidal wrote a trashy polemical tract sympathizing with Timothy McVeigh, the guy who bombed a federal building killing many, he was roundly ignored.

The first time I heard of Jeyamohan was when he wrote a series of articles critical of Ayn Rand. I had no idea who Jeyamohan was. One day late into the night after reading pages and pages of his critique I shot off an ill written email. While it had valid points Jeyamohan used the ill structured language to ridicule it and brush it aside.

Ayn Rand was the subject two different biographies a few years back. One biography was authorized by Ayn Rand's literary heir Leonard Peikoff another biography was not authorized. That meant one author was given access to Ayn Rand's papers held in the institute run by Peikoff the other author lacked access. But both books were highly readable and appreciated by critics. As much as I love Ayn Rand I am well aware of her inconsistencies and foibles. The problem with India is that most often there is only one book on a topic. There are no multiple books by various authors giving a textured view of the subject. How many good books are there about Chola history or of the history of Kamba Ramayanam?

Why do my Facebook posts and twitter feeds mostly speak of Indian authors, especially Tamil authors, in a bad light? Its a phenomenon due to various factors. Much of what I read and get excited about is not the area of interest of many friends. I am not sure how many would even read a post about George Kennan or Arthur Schlesinger Jr's tract on why Kennedy, not Nixon, should be chosen? Most importantly America has institutions for criticism and debate. India lacks that. I've never seen a single critical letter about a single issue or story that has appeared in Jeyamohan's site or anybody else's as for that matter. S.Ramakrishnan, popularly called 'wikipedia writer', has a penchant for dishing out inaccuracies by the bushels. Yet he goes completely unchallenged in public forums other than a facebook post here and there by one or two. This institutional failure makes me an outlier when I continue to call out inaccuracies. Letters that criticize are scrutinized for the letter writers intellectual standards, fairness, veracity and more. Whereas letters that praise, even letters that are written by patently mediocre minds, are published gleefully. I, again, regret the mistake in my initial outburst that was not undone by the blog. My last blog is not what I am talking about. I am talking in general.

So was I racist in wondering how an Indian immigrant who recently came to US could have such detailed knowledge of US locales? This was a cop out by Jeyamohan who, despite knowing me personally and corresponding personally, used that ruse to rubbish the criticism. But to be fair to Jeyamohan another friend asked me "Aravindan you essentially said a H1B guy could not know about America". Point to be noted I had never alluded to visa status. I then explained to my friend about the controversy over 'slave narratives'.

Amongst my collection of books relating to slavery and civil rights is a wonderful book called "Slave narratives", a collection of writings by slaves, edited by pre-eminent Afro-American scholar of black studies in Harvard Henry Louis Gates Jr. The writings show great depth and high literary quality. As I was narrating this my friend interjected "Aravindan those could be written by the notes takers or transcribed into better language". I then stopped him right there and said "see you are assuming that a slave could not have written it". A similar controversy arose over 'The Bondwoman's narrative'. Only recently it was decisively concluded that it was indeed written by a slave woman.

When women write steamy novels it raises an eyebrow. This happens even in the west. Shobha De made a commercial killing on that premise. Women poets writing explicit verse has always kicked off a furore. Stereotypes do not happen in a vacuum. They do happen with some reason. When my American colleagues raise an appreciative eyebrow about my knowledge in American politics it means "well I am surprised that a recent immigrant knows about America's arcane primary election rules etc". Likewise when an American colleague, married to a Kashmiri, talks about Laloo and Tamil Nadu I am, indeed, surprised.

It was beyond malice to suggest that my wonderment had to do with slavishness to anything that a white skinned author may dispense. Many have used that argument against me because I live in America and mostly read English books, mostly written by authors who happen to be white. I've with great zeal sought out books on slavery, slave literature and civil war. I don't have to prove that I seek books by and about blacks just to burnish by racial credentials. It is disheartening to see that any criticism of India, Indian things from America by an Indian expatriate are rubbished by many as "disgruntled NRI", "seeks to be white", "coconut" etc.

East or west my standards are always the same. I am not blind to the west, I am not in thrall of everything western, I don't hate anything simply because an Indian might be involved. After, all, I am Indian too by birth. A cousin's wife, whenever she used to criticize anything in India, would add a disclaimer "I am not suggesting everything is great in America". I always disliked that. It was unnecessary and hypocritical even. If America was as bad as India we would not only not have emigrated here but we would also not continue to stay here. Here in America I can question Pankaj Mishra in an open forum.

By the way I am often told that my blogs are 'harsh', 'abrasive'. I am advised that I should pay attention to my 'tone'. When an author who confesses to not being a great speaker scolds an entire society, with choice words, just because an audience in one event walked out, due to rain, while he was speaking, then am I the one to be corrected? When a Sahitya Akademi winner narrates, in an award function, in colorful vernacular, how an award committee member would run 'butt naked' in Mount Road if Sundara Ramasamany got an award, then am I the one to 'tone' down? I guess having an award or two helps in earning the freedom to be abusive. That said reality does tell me that me being no decorated writer, no Sahitya Akademi or Pulitzer, when I have to get my point across to those above my station I need to tone down a bit. I hope I did that today.


R Gopu said...

Yours seem to be a Congress view of Indian history, based on the books you have read. I used to have the same perspective, until I expanded my reading list. May I recommend that you read "Buddha and the Sahibs" by Charles Allen? Or "History of the Tamils from the ancient age to the sixth century" by PT Srinivasa Iyengar?

Anonymous said...

For the last few months, I have been digging into JeMo's website for interesting blog posts.. Now I am stuck with yours.. :)

Thanks for mentioning "The Emperor of All Maladies". Few pages from Amazon's Look-Inside were enough to make me want to buy the book ..

I usually buy books at the airports and I will never spend my money on a book written by an author with an Indian name.. Your article has changed my attitude..