With the publication of Midnight’s Children in 1981 Indian Writing in English was finally said to have come of age. Such proclamations notwithstanding, even a quarter of a century after Rushdie’s magnum opus Indian writers in English continue to be assailed with questions such as whether they are being authentic to their culture or commodifying it for the benefit of foreign publishers, markets, and readership. Writers like Vikram Chandra and Amit Chaudhuri, among others, have written passionately in defence of the writers’ legitimate right to artistic freedom to choose whatever tropes they see fit without fear of what Chandra calls the ‘God of Authenticity’. And yet, when one comes across a novel like Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? the somewhat stale critical discourse of authenticity, commodification and exoticization seems more than relevant. Badami’s third novel is set against a backdrop of watershed events in India’s recent history: the Partition of 1947;
the secessionist movement in the late 1970s and early 80s for an independent Sikh homeland; the Indian army’s invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984; Indira Gandhi’s assassination four months later by two Sikh bodyguards; the arson, looting, and murder of over 3000 Sikhs in its aftermath, and finally, the 1985 Air India crash which killed all 329 passengers aboard in one of the worst tragedies in aviation history.
The novel begins in 1928 and winds its way through the lives of three women, Bibi-ji, Leela and Nimmo, over the next fifty years. In a now familiar move in postcolonial writing it inserts personal, impressionistic memory into larger historical events. Nimmo lives to see the deaths of her husband and her two children at the hands of a rampaging mob in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Bibi-ji is inside the Golden temple complex when the Indian army launches Operation Bluestar to flush out terrorists from the sacred Sikh shrine, and Leela is on the ill-fated Air India flight from Toronto to New Delhi when it crashes off the coast of Ireland. This is rich territory for historical fiction, or even fiction set against a historical backdrop, but this writer’s reliance on readymade markers of cultural difference which may indeed add to the novel’s commercial viability, have only resulted in a trite and clichéd piece of landscape.
Thus, Dr. Majumdar, a minor character in the novel, teaches Women’s Studies in a Canadian university: ‘I tell them about the condition of women in Third World countries and all. They love hearing about dowry deaths and sati and child brides and such things,’ he says. ‘The thing is to give them what they want. They need to feel a righteous indignation about heathens.’ The cynical Dr. Majumdar here is not just protesting the ignorance of his western audience but also their ostensible need for crude narratives which shore up their sense of superiority to other cultures. Sadly, Badami’s own novel seems to have been written for readers who do not care much for subtlety. Sam Hunt may be deliberately constructed as the stereotypical ‘old British India army officer—bottle-brush moustache, staccato speech, stiff-backed gait’, but other white characters don’t do much better than him: from the stranger in the car who calls Balu Bhatt a fucking Chinese driver who should go back to where he came from, to Mr. Longbottom, the school principal who insists on identifying Bibi-ji with the faraway Punjab even as she herself thinks of home as being on Main Street, they are all much too familiar faces of white racism which take no effort or imagination to recreate. Token gestures towards cultural hybridity are sometimes made to lend complexity to characters such as Sam Hunt who mouths appropriately racist sentiments (‘All these people coming in. Too many of them. Messing up the place. Don’t know why we let them in’.) even as he frequents the local Indian restaurant where he orders the hottest curries. Such gestures might elicit a small smile from Bibi-ji, the proprietor of The Delhi Junction, but they are finally too predictable to be of interest to a reader familiar with the stock-in-trade of postcolonial writing.
Badami’s treatment of her South Asian characters is not very nuanced either. Everything is signposted twice over, often typographically through use of capitalization (‘Home’) and italics, and too often through laboured descriptions of cultural beliefs and attributes whose quaintness is designed to appeal to readers looking for alterity. Nimmo’s worries about her neighbour casting an evil eye on her family is just one instance of a writing style that could do with some understating: ‘It’s just that that stupid Asha will go on and on and on about it. She will put the evil eye on us, I know it, with her jealousy’. And a couple of lines later, again:
Yes, brooded Nimmo, gazing at the square of the night sky outlined by the window, cut into dark slices by the bars, each with its sprinkling of stars. Yes, it was her life. But there were hundreds of people like Asha out there who were willing to tear it into little bits for no particular reason. She would rather stay in a small crowded place and attract no comment than invite Asha’s jealousy with another room. She feared that envious gaze for those who knew what miseries it might invoke.
The quaint simplicity of the indigenous mind steeped in superstitious beliefs goes only too well with the quaintness of the indigenous cityscape. Here is how people apparently give directions in Bangalore: ‘That way, two furlongs past the neem tree that belongs to Sheshadri Rao, or Left, past the police station, and then right after the dog sleeping in the shade of the dispensary. The black dog, not the brown and white one, mind.’ Even Narayan’s Malgudi sounded more of a town in the 1960s than Badami’s Bangalore in 1967.
Of course, all writing runs some risk of exoticization, and as Vikram Chandra says, the writer cannot abandon his heritage, both old and acquired, just because someone somewhere is going to find it exotic. But the writer also has to write well. And part of the business of writing well involves some awareness on the writer’s part that even when its politics is counter-hegemonic, postcolonial writing remains vulnerable to recuperation. And this is where Badami’s novel fails. Its characters from time to time show an awareness of the politics of metropolitan reception of postcolonial writing, but such critical insight does not seem to inform Badami’s own aesthetic practice. Its warmth and its pathos notwithstanding this novel remains at best the literary equivalent of the musical genre called Easy Listening.
Ira Raja teaches in the Department of English, University of Delhi, Delhi.