Last week, The Paris Review carried an extract from Naben Ruthnum’s Curry: Eating, Reading and Race — ‘Curry Lit: Writing Authentically about India’. It’s a fine recap of writing in a familiar genre, spanning the gulf — or the lack of it — between Karma Cola and Eat Pray Love, and between Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. What’s missing is a subhead which could have made more interesting reading: ‘Writing Authentically about India While being Indian’. While the question of authenticity has been discussed widely in the context of the diaspora, it has also preoccupied generations of writers here and ranges in intensity from the obvious tension between people who write in English and those who who write in their mother tongues (those whose mother tongue is English are, naturally, beyond the pale), to the radically different realities revealed by the rise of Dalit literature.
But, perhaps, the quest for authenticity is itself inauthentic, for authenticity rests on consensus. People must agree in significant numbers that it is the real thing. Is a consensus at all possible in a nation with so many languages, and never mind the demarcators of caste, religion, community, class and political conviction? Ruthnum quotes the Pakistani-American writer Soniah Kamal, who wonders if putting a mango in her story would heighten or undermine authenticity. That’s the crisis of the expat writer, who may be accused of reimagining a lost homeland (the prevalence of mangoes in contemporary literature suggests that it is a pervasive problem).
That’s a crisis concerning an object which is identified as Indian, and never mind the fact that Sainsburys favours Caribbean mangoes. But even qualities like colour are defined differently across languages. Most languages have about a dozen common words for colours, but some, like the Himba language of Namibia, make do with fewer because they notice saturation rather than hue. Over there, dark blue and dark green are seen as similar, because “dark” is the more meaningful element. On the other hand, the Himba are able to distinguish fractional differences in saturation of blue or green which would mean nothing to us. That colours do not mean the same thing to all people, and that our perceptions are conditioned by the language in which we express meaning, was noted in the 1960s. The phenomenon may be less obvious today, since minority languages are dying out.
The biggest community which still thinks in different colours is the clan of printers and print designers, who see in terms of the inks used for the four rollers of a printing press — cyan, magenta, yellow and black. You can see little squares in those colours at the bottom of every colour page of this newspaper. The printer uses them to detect if a roller is out of true, which would print fuzzy pictures. And printers and designers actually “see” cyan and magenta, which other people do not notice because they aren’t in their vocabulary. So, which is the more authentic statement, “He wore a 30 per cent cyan and 30 per cent magenta tie”, or, “He wore a rich blue tie”? Depends on whether you work with a press or not.
Literary translators routinely do battle with attributes which have different connotations in the source and target language. “Warm” and “cool” suggest diametrically opposite sensations in the temperate regions and the tropics, on account of the climate. We negotiate this difference unconsciously. In India, you try to keep to the shade for most of the year, whereas in the UK, one seeks sunshine. But when translating a literary text, one becomes consciously aware of the difference. “A warm day” in English would translate literally into “an unpleasant day” in most Indian languages, in which “cool” is a pleasant attribute, just like in jazz and blues. But, just to confuse the translator, “warm” and “cool” retain their meaning across latitudes when they refer to emotions.
And, finally, even when resident Indians write in English, it would be inauthentic for us to follow Wren and Martin (PC Wren was, by the way, a popular writer of tales set in India). When Hamish Hamilton published Swami and Friends in 1935, they had the good sense to leave RK Narayan’s wonderful Madrasi English alone. Doubly so because the English used to be frightfully normative and taxonomically obsessed. Very likely, a contemporary editor would forcefully cull, with extreme prejudice, Narayan’s phrases like “After the night meal”, “Further progress was stopped” and, “Don’t beat me, sir. It pains.” If he were to go to school today, Swami may not have been allowed to be Swamy. He could have been most inauthentic.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.