Under my byline


Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 25 June 2010


Fuss was made this week over Delhi’s new airport terminal. Passenger trials got under way, publicity photos appeared, and the likeably inarticulate G M Rao of chief contractor GMR walked the talk with Shekhar Gupta on TV. The photos were interesting. They came captioned with superlatives like “stunning” and “world-class”, but the vision they offered of acres of shiny floor, glass walls and lines of booths was pretty much what anyone has come to expect from a large modern airport. That is, dull and efficient — despite the supposedly Indian touches like giant moulded glass hands in various dance mudras.

I’ve got no argument with efficiency and quick dispatch, but think about the human context of going to an airport. Externally, from drop-off to check in to security to boarding everything generally proceeds smoothly. The human is ingested in front, pushed along from process to process and eventually squeezed out the back into the correct receptacle. (No wonder they keep the place so clinically clean — the metaphoric resonances are of toilet or assembly line.) Now consider what happens internally; remember for yourself the emotional turbulence of arriving and leaving, of shifting from one mode to another, from one set of encounters to another — whether you’re travelling for work, amusement or family.

Where is the airport in all that internal processing? Absent! It plays no role except to isolate you and treat you as a packet of data to be shifted along, or as a unit of consumption to be catered to. Queues notwithstanding, you hardly rub shoulders with another human. You needn’t utter words other than please, thank you and excuse me. You needn’t watch where you’re placing your feet, or dodge oncoming foot traffic. You just line up and shuffle ahead.

Clearly there is a dissonance here that architects just do not know how to address — so they settle for soaring verticality, an interesting roofline and stylish spindly supports. All you can do in a place like this is throw your head back and say “Ooohhh…” And then your work as a participant is done.

Can any storytelling come out of an environment like this, unless there is a system breakdown of some sort? I don’t think so. If you think back on the “places” that feature in the novels or stories you have liked, few if any will be an airport, or for that matter an office, mall or private car. No, instead you will recall scenes set in schools and colleges, elevators, trains and train stations, villages, buses, bedrooms, kitchens, restaurants, markets and streets — places where unplanned human encounters can happen and the storyteller is free to play.

(Mind you, I think malls are promising unexplored territory for contemporary Indian writers; they bring out all those gritty and writeable human feelings of greed, envy, inadequacy, lust, oppression, social competitiveness, helplessness, boredom… It’s not difficult to imagine a collection of very good short stories set in an Indian urban mall. And workplaces may soon get their time in the fictional sun, now that the bestselling British pop philosophiser Alain de Botton has written a whole book lamenting the fact that fiction has so little to do with everyday work, and meanwhile the literary American motorcycle mechanic Matthew B Crawford — one of my heroes — has written a whole book on the importance of manual labour to the well-lived life. The seeds have been planted.)

And thus to the main point: in India, in English, the cycle of publishing has gone badly out of phase with the cycle of writing. There are lots of publishers getting savvier by the day at marketing and publicising their authors; there are chain bookstores; there are bestsellers which even paan shops can stock; there are more people willing to pay for books. So sales and visibility are up. But there are not very many genuinely good books being written in English. All our natural fictionable environments are being paved over — even our great train stations are being airport-ised. Publishing has developed capacity and customers very fast of late, but the universal processes of “efficiency” are dimming the imagination. The gap will have to be — is being — filled with poorly written local books, and huge numbers of imported titles.

(This column has not been published in the paper. Call it a Web exclusive.)


2 Responses

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  1. Vikram Johari said, on 29 June 2010 at 12:25 am

    Was wondering about this in the paper this past week, then found this. interesting as always. this sunday’s eye had a story on the poor quality of english “literature” in india. hope you are well.

  2. Rrishi said, on 29 June 2010 at 11:21 am

    Hi Vikram, good to hear from you!

    Yup, I read the Express story (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/a-literature-for-rs-100/638802/0). Mint did something, too (http://www.livemint.com/2010/06/04220506/Price-point-every-one.html). Literally now, anyone can write a novel. Just read these two articles and do a bit of primary research with a stack of Rs 100 books to find out how.

    To each their own, I suppose, but I do wish good-quality writing were able to keep pace.

    Send me book recos anytime…

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