Under my byline

Outsider inside

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 9 January 2010

From foreign correspondents to William Dalrymple, why are foreigners’ books on India celebrated?

“I love India for personal reasons,” wrote the former New York Times South Asia correspondent A M Rosenthal on August 15, 1997, in an article marking 50 years of India’s independence. “It gave me decades of discovery, learning and friendships — and lots and lots of stories to write. All I had to do was go out and scoop them up; for reporters a golden land.”

Right there in that statement is a handful of reasons why foreigners are able to say meaningful things about so complex a society as India — things which are new and useful even (or particularly) to knowledgeable Indians. The newcomer sees and judges differently, so he can find the jewels hidden in plain sight. In everyday life an utterly innocuous event can become the stuff of conversation — so imagine the rich gift of material the outsider storyteller gets in India.

Two cows cause traffic jam! Hundreds die in riots of medieval ferocity! English-educated prime minister has demigod status in vast, illiterate nation! Costly wars fought between poor, billion-citizen nations! Computer geeks from Third World towns provide technical services to average-Joe Westerners! Mindboggling wealth a few metres from soul-sapping poverty! Too often, indeed, the picture of India drawn by outsiders is focused on contrasts — but mere repetition doesn’t make paradox a bad tool to grasp the realities of our Indian world with. In the right hands, paradox can go a long way.

Take for instance William Dalrymple, the Scottish historian and travel writer who has authored several books on India. Most recently he wrote Nine Lives, about fringe religious experience in South Asia. In it he recounts the life stories of nine spiritual seekers from different traditions, some of which are endangered by the modern world even as they coexist with it. That’s just one aspect of the paradox. Another is that non-mainstream cultural experiences are being erased by the homogenising effects of “progress”. For Western readers, this is a good travel book; for urban Indian readers, this is an introduction to an India they may not know well and a mild warning that it is at risk.

Dalrymple told me: “Of all the subjects you can tackle in this country, there’s no subject which is more surrounded by minefields of cliché, of Orientalism” than mystics and religion. It’s true, and though a bestselling author, Dalrymple is not always praised by Indian reviewers. In another interview he said, “I think good perceptive writing is good perceptive writing, whoever writes it,” and that “it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying and observing another culture necessarily ‘as an act of domination’.”

Domination works best when the dominated acquiesce. Indians need not accept what outsiders say about us — but the only way to fight back nowadays is to say it better. So far, we have been slow to do so. For every Ramachandra Guha, Sudhir Kakar, Sunil Khilnani or Nandan Nilekani — or Chanakya and Vatsyayana — there are several outsiders, like Dalrymple, V S Naipaul, Mark Tully, Charles Allen, Bill Aitken or Alice Albinia, apart from Edward Luce and any number of foreign correspondents. One should really start the list much further back, perhaps from the Roman historian Arrian, onwards through Fa-Hien, Marco Polo, François Bernier, James Prinsep, Rudyard Kipling, Jim Corbett and innumerable others to the present day.

In some sense India has been backward for a long time, exporting its raw materials to be returned as finished products. Once it was raw cotton and cloth, more recently iron ore and steel — but also consider its vast buried past, which Europeans like Prinsep uncovered, and even raw experience, which outsiders find here, write up and theorise, and then return to us as an intellectual product: perspective. If we don’t always thank the outsider for this, we certainly buy his book.

Some foreigners have the knowledge of India that comes from years of study, which many Indians haven’t the opportunity or taste for. Consider American professor Wendy Doniger’s controversial book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, or the older Hanklyn-Janklin: A Stranger’s Rumble-tumble Guide to Some Words, Customs and Quiddities Indian and Indo-British by Nigel Hankin, a Briton who lived most of his life in Delhi. Even rural India is a foreign land to many urbanites: recall how well roving journalist P Sainath’s book of rural reportage, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, did in bookshops. Experience shows.

“Indian narrative non-fiction has started to come into its own only in the past decade or so,” says Thomas Abraham, head of publisher Hachette India. “We’ve still some way to go before we have accessible histories written the way an Antony Beevor would or travel-writing-meets-narrative-non-fiction the way Eric Newby or Paul Theroux did. Suketu Mehta and Pico Iyer, if you count them as ‘Indian’, are the only real non-fiction brands to have made the international scene the way Indian fiction writers have.”

In an echo of Rosenthal’s “golden land” comment, Israeli photographer Sephi Bergerson, who has lived in India for years, told me that “I can dream here, and pursue my dreams. Ninety per cent of my ideas haven’t been done here. It’s still a virgin country.” He came, fell in love with street food, ate, travelled, took pictures, and this year published a luscious coffee-table book on the delicacies that most Indians are so used to that they rarely think about. Looking through outside eyes, we see ourselves afresh — this is their unwitting gift to us.

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