An Indian Monsoon At Bookstores In The U.s.

Posted: September 04, 1990

America's attitude toward Indian culture suffers from a bad case of Trump Taj. Even our artsy sophisticates only pay attention if it's a really big Mehta - a Zubin, Ved or Sonny event. Elsewhere, the images linking our mass perceptions mostly embarrass: late-night Sabu, childhood Kipling, scratched Shankar, faded Maharishi, unfed Gandhi.

Mention Indian literature and Salman Rushdie - virtually alone - comes to mind. (He's from someplace around there, isn't he?) Anyone remember India's only Nobel laureate in literature? Why, it's peripatetic poet Rabindranath Tagore - a People cover-shoot born (1861) before his time - but his days of photo-ops with fabled Westerners such as Einstein and Bertrand Russell seem as desperate for colorizing as the newsreels that once recorded them.

Yet, suddenly this summer, bookstore shelves hummed with the sound - often muted, assimilated, adulterated - of the Vedic tradition. Do we credit this Indian summer to the success of Masterpiece Theater's The Jewel in the Crown? To the afterflow of India's 40th anniversary of independence, in 1987? To Bharati Mukherjee's winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction two years ago with The Middleman's Daughter? To Sonny Mehta's ascension to Alfred A. Knopf editor-in-chief?

The cause remains uncertain, the high number of book "units" on the shelves clear. Leading the onslaught in late spring was Random House's May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons by Elisabeth Bumiller, whose former star status at the Washington Post guaranteed her subject - the plight of Indian women - a media agendas. From Knopf, beach reading included Indira Ganesan's The Journey, a first novel about Indian-American sisters facing the world of their origins after a cousin's death.

Viking/Penguin, traditionally the most devoted publisher of Indian literature, offered The World of Nagaraj, the 14th novel by R. K. Narayan, India's Faulkneresque master. Addison-Wesley recently reissued Nirad Chaudhuri's classic The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian in paperback. Columbia University Press contributed Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India by Gauri Viswanathan. From the University of Chicago came Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality by Sudhir Kakar, a groundbreaking study by the leading Indian psychoanalyst. A dozen more titles could be cited.

The flood reflects an utterly American approach: Here are the goods, get thee to the market, then you're on your own.


Not so fast. If the merging tide of India-theme books confirms anything, it's an axiom Rushdie understands better than most: Culture clash is no merely commercial matter.

Warren Hastings knew that without a death threat. In 1784, Hastings, Britain's unusually empathetic governor-general of India, got all excited about promoting a new translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. Clearly a spiritual father of all PR directors in publishing, Hastings recognized that the epic poem faced sniper fire from Westerners. He urged them to adjust their standards:

"I should exclude . . . all rules drawn from the ancient or modern literature of Europe, all references to such sentiments or manners as become the standards of propriety for opinion and action in our own modes of life. . . . I would exact from every reader the allowance of obscurity, absurdity, barbarous habits and a perverted morality."

In fact, the books of Indian summer demonstrate by one shared focus - the abased status of Indian women - that old questions from Kipling don't disappear simply because Indian voices now come nicely packaged by international conglomerates. Colonialism, cultural imperialism, social- climbing and slumming - they're all still the Raj. And this summer's best nonfiction about Indian culture - Kakar and Bumiller - jars us into reflections on the fictional women of Anita Desai, R. K. Narayan, Mukherjee, and those of younger writers like Ganesan.

Five years ago, Bumiller covered Washington night life as the Washington Post Style section's lead social reporter, inheritor of Sally Quinn's beehive, deconstructor of Nancy Reagan, part-time Proust for imperial Washington in the age of American empire. Her project among the abused women of India has surprised some - imagine Liz Smith devoting a few years to Bangkok's exploited prostitutes. But May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons displays the virtue of precision feature-reporting tied to social outrage.


Bumiller takes us back to the source of all evil - Manu's thinking - in which the codifier of Hindu law sometime between 22 B.C. and A.D. 200 decreed that "woman is as foul as falsehood itself." According to Manu, a husband, ''though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities," must be "constantly worshiped as a god by a faithful wife." Manu's dictum became an Indian truism: "From the cradle to the grave a woman is dependent on a male: in childhood on her father, in youth on her husband, in old age on her son."

With a reporter's 35mm eye and the dogged research of a no-nonsense graduate student, Bumiller traces the consequences over the ages and up to the minute: the still-existing practices of suttee (immolating oneself on a husband's funeral pyre), dowry (payment by the bride's family for being relieved of her), female infanticide (thus the title of her book), purdah (isolation of women from outside social life) and bride-burning (as much a staple of sensationalized Western reporting about India as items on ferry sinkings in Bangladesh).

Bumiller is, as one of her sources called her, an excellent Ameriki

pooohnee wallee ("American question-asking woman"). She gives us resounding detail: the "rippled, splotched skin" of the bride-burning survivors, the menstruating women ordered to sleep outside their houses, the dazed looks on brides at arranged marriages, the young wives who immediately become 24-hour beasts of burden. ("I am like an animal," one 40-year-old farmer's wife tells Bumiller.) She reports the peculiar logic at work. (Malti Devi, a 30- year-old village woman, tells Bumiller she loves her husband "because if I don't, he will beat me.") We read of the rising dowry murders and the still- fledgling attempts of Indian feminists to fight tradition.

While we've experienced this misery - the choice of prisoner or slave - through Indian and Indian-American fiction before (one thinks of Mukherjee's Wife), Bumiller's and Kakar's accessible nonfiction heightens the problem's urgency. Indeed, Kakar's meditations on Indian sexuality provide a fascinating context for the nonspecialist reader of recent Indian fiction.

Intimate Relations introduces the lay reader to many staples of Indian sexual culture: the chauvinism of Indian folk wisdom (e.g., the Hindi saying, ''Ghoda aur aurat ran tale"; "The place of a horse and a woman is under the thighs"); the frequency of adultery with in-laws; the fear of the wife's sexuality and infidelity in Hindu marriages; the lack of emotional intimacy between many husbands and wives (remarked on by Bumiller as well); the martyrish romantic fantasy of women celebrated in Indian films; the ubiquity of sexual humiliation of women in Indian tales, with a preponderance of rape by father figures; the enduring influence of famous gods such as Krishna and Rama, and their paradigmatic stories.

It is a world in which, as Kakar writes, the "good woman" or pativarata, must subordinate "her life to the husband's welfare and needs in a way demanded of no other woman in any part of the world."

American critics thus face a quandary. Revisionist scholarship, independence movements and trendy cultural relativism all tell us to be wary in judging other traditions. Scholars such as Edward Said attack traditional Orientalists for disguising how evaluation of the East by Western standards accompanied the application of political domination. Viswanathan's new book expresses all the classic bitterness of the anti-colonialist. To her, British teaching of English literature in India simply implemented "sociopolitical control."

At the same time, thanks to Addison-Wesley's contribution to the Indian book boom, we hear again the 1951 voice of Nirad Chaudhuri, Naipaul-like in its skepticism of too much deference to supposedly "native" Indian mores.

In The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, considered by some the greatest modern Indian autobiography, Chaudhuri insists on the "essentially foreign character of modern Indian culture." To Chaudhuri, Hindu civilization was ''the creation of foreigners coming into India."

If one shares Chaudhuri's view, short, resentful polemics like Masks of Conquest not only reveal historical blindness but also prove his point in their aping of faddish, Western lit-crit jargon. Chaudhuri often identifies civilization itself with these importations, and he remains a red flag to patriotic, anti-colonialist Indians - he described India as the "Vampire of geography, which sucks out all creative energy. . . . "

Yet to American readers increasingly staring down Indian culture, increasingly confused by simultaneous charges around the world of cultural imperialism ("How dare you think your values better than ours?") and isolationist apathy ("Aren't we human beings deserving of the same rights you have?"), critical reflexes don't come easily.

Should we judge the debasement of Indian women acceptable because, as Ramakant Sinari wrote in The Structure of Indian Thought, "the unique characteristic of the Indian mind is its concern with the otherworldly and the beyond . . . "? Or should we no more allow those beliefs to restrain our imposition of "Western" values than we would allow Catholic belief in heaven to interfere with criticizing Graham Greene?

Indira Ganesan's first novel indicates that we can't expect answers from Indian-American fiction, workshop style. Formularized by way of Vassar, Iowa, the MacDowell Colony and Provincetown, The Journey calls to mind not a passage to India, but a creative-writing operator's hopping between fellowships. Ganesan's sisters return to a mythic island off India (one thinks of Goa) only to drop the usual references to American comic books, pop songs and Walkmans, as though we were still on the Upper West Side.

True to workshop instructions, we get small reporting exercises, in lame language, of irrelevant scenery, such as a Long Island quick-stop store. ("Acrylic visor caps, sunglasses that folded up, plastic combs guaranteed for a lifetime. . . . ") Literary names drop - Gogol, Gregor Samsa. Meaningful anecdotes get retold and back-referenced.

Along the way, Ganesan brushes against some problems of Indian women - older sister Renu seems willing to indulge an arranged marriage - but you never feel the intensity that slices through Mukherjee's fiction. The water buffalo, the relatives, the seer, come from Central Casting, Delhi Division. To the workshopped Indian-American writer, home is where the material is.

If Indian summer becomes a yearlong season in American publishing, blessing us with a less Eurocentric publishing business, we should eventually learn enough to absorb spinoffs and updates of Krishna and Radha just as well as we swallow rewrites of Romeo or Juliet. More important, we might also gain confidence in passing cultural judgment on a sexist country whose national song remains "Vande Mataram"; "I Bow to Thee, Mother."

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