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It needs more than love to write about India

Thursday August 18, 2011 02:35:25 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

New Delhi: Stepping into the soul of India is not easy for a foreign writer; the journey needs more than mere love for the country. The process requires an identification with history, facts at fingertips and an uncanny nose for immediate socio-political contexts, show landmark books written over the years.

When Belgian corporate executive-cum historian Dirk Collier decided to walk into the mind of 16th century Muslim visionary, emperor Akbar, for instance, he nearly adopted an Indian identity for himself.

Collier, who made at least 50 trips to India over 10 years and took seven years to write the book, said he was inspired to write a book after seeing a painting commissioned by Akbar's son Jahangir in which the latter was shown holding his father's portrait.

"It was as if Akbar was talking to his son from behind his grave. I wanted to know more about Akbar," Collier recalled while speaking to IANS. The thought resulted in "The Emperor's Writing" -- a book in the form of a letter from Akbar to Jahangir.

To write well about India, however, one needs more than just affection, one needs evidence, Booker Prize winning writer Aravind Adiga observes in a review of Patrick French's "India: A Portrait" -- one of the most talked about books on India last year.

"What is missing in French's book is evidence of a struggle to understand India and one's own place in it. French never gets much beyond the glib assertion in his preface that the new, cool India is the 'world's default setting for the future'," Adiga said.

The book paints a racy picture of a cool 21st century India by drawing its strength from statistics, details, reportage and candid observations. But it fails to show a flair of contextual histories.

The act of writing about India requires an identification with its history; both social and political.

"A number of modern British writers, including Geoff Dyer, Patrick French and the late Bruce Chatwin, have been fascinated by the country that their ancestors ruled," said writer Karan Mahajan in Asian Window, a pan-Asian literary platform.

William Dalrymple, the author of bestsellers such as "City of Djinns" and "The Last Mughal", is an example of what a foreigner can bring on the table at a time when Indians are also writing non-fiction about their country, Mahajan said. "He has an unabashed eye for exotic details."

While Indian writers are sometimes taken in by the seaminess of the current state of the country's affairs, readers often find themselves denied of perspectives of "history, ethnicity and religiosity" in literary works. Dalrymple steps in to fill this void, Mahajan said.

For Geoff Dyer, the author of "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi", the spiritual nirvana of Varanasi was the anchor of semi-autobiographical Jeff Atman (the protagonist of his book) who comes to the pilgrim town in quest for renunciation.

"Venice and Varanasi are very similar because of the water - but Varanasi was so concentrated and sense," Dyer told IANS.

US-based Wendy Doniger, the author of "The Hindus: An Alternative History", has been tapping into the wealth of Indian myths and dynamics of the Hindu faith for decades now to cater to a new segment of western and Indian audiences who are still curious about eastern mysticism in a spillover of the flower revolution of the 1960s-70s.

"The wild misconceptions that Americans have about Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making them aware of the richness of Hindu texts," she says in her book.

French religious scholar Michel Danino cashes on the myths surrounding rivers to bond with the Indian soul in "The Lost River: In the Trail of Sarasvati". The book has been shortlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Literary award 2010.

"India has always been an object of fascination for foreign writers because of its exoticism. Even the earliest of travellers and chroniclers like Ibn Batuta wrote about India extensively but with the specific purpose of cultural understanding," Dipa Chaudhuri, chief editor of Om Books, told IANS.

One of the finest writers was Arthur L. Basham, whose book, "The Wonder that Was India", was a historian's approach to India that was, Chaudhuri said.

The British Raj has been a strategic inspiration for authors such as M.M. Kaye and E.M. Forster, whose sustained affairs with India resulted in an amazing collection of unparalleled Anglophone literature.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at




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