I recently attended the ' Words Without Borders' tenth year anniversary benefit in a lovely open warehouse space in TriBeCa. Established in 2003, ' Words Without Borders' works to promote international writers and writers in translation. It is an impressive organization and the guest list at the event proved that many industry giants obviously support its efforts.
Towards the end of the evening, I ended up standing next to Teju Cole. 38-year old, Nigerian-born Cole is slightly shorter than me and has a warm and endearing face that makes you want to confess your darkest sins to him. We got talking and I soon realized that I was in the presence of quite an intellectual. He seems to know about everything. I quickly tried to move the conversation to the one thing I thought I’d know more than him about— India. “My wife is Indian,” he said, “And my sister-in-law. I’ll be there in January. I love the country.”
At this point, we were joined by a pretty, young, wealthy woman from Bombay whom I know from my graduate program. She asked him where in India he’s been and he rattled off a list of places—Jaipur, Agra, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Goa, Kerala— and I was about to say that he’s seen a fair bit of the country when the other woman said, “Oh, so you haven’t seen the real India.” I was curious about what this woman— who grew up in a lovely house in South Bombay, studied in Cathedral and then London, and now lives in New York City— considered the real India.
When I started the two-year creative writing program at Columbia in 2011, I was surprised to discover a world sidelined by Indians. At Columbia, the Creative Writing Department is in the same building as the Film Department and the latter is filled with Indians— Indians from India and NRIs. Next door to us is the Journalism School— also full of Indians. I didn’t mind being the only Indian in my year. I enjoyed being different. Being one of one billion, it’s not easy to feel different. Between the program, my internships, and literary events in New York City, there wasn’t much time to make outside friends and I quite liked being the ambassador for India in the program. Writers of Indian origin feature regularly on our reading lists. We read Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry, Akhil Sharma and V.S. Naipaul, amongst others. At the end of my first year, when we were discussing The Namesake in class and everyone turned to me expectantly, I wasn’t offended. On the contrary, I was quite pleased to have the opportunity to act as an authority. “Well, speaking particularly as a half-Bengali…” I said with confidence.
As their peer, I had full ownership of the representation of India through Indian eyes in the program for that first year. They couldn’t cross-examine the writers we were studying but they could ask me to validate or repudiate their ideas. My writing is deeply rooted in India but it isn’t the India of mangoes and henna; it is the India of shiny cars, sleaze, ambition, and unintentional comedy and that was the India I got to tell my classmates about. If any of them were to land in Bombay tomorrow, they would have a completely different and singular experience.
But at the 'Words Without Borders' event, I was forced to share a conversation with a woman who insisted that the real India was lurking somewhere. I genuinely don’t know what she was implying was the real India. Ashrams? Poverty? Wealth? Villages? Mega-cities? Antilia? Had Cole missed seeing the real India because he hadn’t been invited home to dinner at Antilia or because he hadn’t spent a night in Dharavi?
There is a terrific episode of 30 Rock in which Liz Lemon sets out to find the real America. After a series of hilarious incidents ending with her suffering from a bout of diarrhoea as a result of eating a questionable part of a pig, Liz has to concede that there may not be such a thing as the real America. A hipster in Brooklyn can lay claim to it just as much as a single teenage mother in the middle of middle Alabama.
To me, that is what the promotion of international writing and literature should aim to showcase. No matter what our nationalities, no matter where we come from, no country has a single definition and thank God for that— not just for the sake of potential world peace, but for the sake of potential entertainment.
I am no longer taking classes at Columbia. My peers are not reading my stories about a middle class family that has to navigate a sudden increase in its wealth. I had the luxury of being the only voice describing India for them. I only hope that the Indians who join the program after me have differing ideas about what true India is so nobody is stuck with only Antilia or only Dharavi. Or even only the dichotomy of the two.