Language for a New Landscape
By Saikat MajumdarJuly 12, 2022
As Donald Trump’s campaign for president gained erratic steam in the US, my initial few months in the Narendra Modi–led India revealed to me that the two countries, in spite of being as different as possible, had developed a range of unexpected resemblances in the globalized/iOS-ized 21st century. They inspired the strangest visitation of past life in this returning native who had left the US soon after college, to return after 17 years. This was already before that fateful single week in November, when Modi would demonetize the Indian currency, Trump would be elected president, Delhi would experience one of the craziest spikes in air pollution in decades, and Leonard Cohen would die — all making the globe feel like the small pit of a single nightmare.
But weeks before that, the most striking kind of déjà vu was evoked by a certain pattern of suburbanization. It struck me most vividly one morning in September, when I entered the alternate universe of Gurgaon, where six-lane freeways and massive tollbooths suddenly melted away to reveal quiet residential streets and gated communities that evoked Florida and the Bay Area, without the noise, mess, and street vendors everywhere in the streets of neighboring Delhi. But it was what I found inside my destination, the evocatively titled homestay Cinnamon Stays, that took me back most emphatically to my days as an MFA student in creative writing in America.
Entering the homestay, I met Write and Beyond, a readers’ and writers’ community that fused together a book club and a writers’ group. My connection with this community and its individual members has deepened over these past few years, and I have begun to work with them on their magazines and anthologies, and participate in various discussions and workshops. Much about them, I must say, speaks to me as the pulse of a new India, with its emergent forms of exchange and articulation. Indeed, when I spoke recently to Kiranjeet Chaturvedi, the convener of the group who had invited me to that meeting in 2016, it became clear to me that these were indeed the filaments and sensibilities of a new country, partly put in motion by this very suburban landscape, and the new and invisible digital topography that overlay this emergent urban expansion.
That the internet and social media have made the desire to write a public and often widely disseminated affair is a cliché now, and like most clichés, it has truth in it. But what Kiranjeet told me was that the new suburbs, especially around Delhi and Bangalore, articulate new patterns of migration, loneliness, and connection that have institutionalized spaces for writing communities like never before in Anglophone India. While face-to-face events happen whenever possible, a good chunk of these connections have remained virtual, disembodied topographies in which friendships and connections remain scattered around the nation and the world. It is not a coincidence that a large proportion of the participants in these writing communities are women, as indeed I noticed that day in Gurgaon. The need for communal connections, Kiranjeet argued, are often felt more intensely by women, who usually have less control than the male members of their families over the ways professional migration radically alters their personal and familial locations.
Another friend and fellow writer, Anjum Hasan, who runs a popular creative writing workshop in Bangalore, offered another reason behind the cresting popularity of English-language writing communities in India that is intimately connected to the nation’s technological and economic landscape in the 21st century. “Many of our students,” she says, “have been IT sector professionals, which reflects the nature of the city, Bangalore being a big IT hub. There is the stereotype of the soulless engineer, but often writing by engineers does reflect a sense of estrangement — not quite feeling at home in their routine jobs and trying to revive the creativity they might have once nursed dreams of.”
There is no such thing as a time or a country ripe for writing. English-language writing, in any case, has thrived in India for nearly 200 years, prospering past the post-independence skepticism about the use of a colonial language for artistic practice. But the enthusiasm for creative writing workshops — that rather American pursuit — now seems to be bubbling up all over Anglophone India. While the desire to write cannot be a new thing, the need to forge these communities charts the real and virtual aspirations of a new India, of the jagged ambitions of its geographical formations, with its many fears and anxieties. In a country where coaching camps and manuals for entrance exams in engineering and medicine have always been sure-fire best sellers, suddenly there is a new contender that straddles all age groups — the creative writing workshop.
As someone who has been involved in setting up one of the very few university-housed departments of creative writing in the country, I’ve had a curious vantage point from which to watch the writing aspirations of young students of writing in India today. And I’ve sensed a major drift of the imagination of young Indians — especially of a certain class and education — away from the immediate sensory reality around them into the mystical space of the virtual. It has been deepened many times over by the home-confined dystopia of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I noticed it when I started teaching here in 2016. Childhood and early youth are often times of fantasy and magic, and even those of us whose lives precede the digitally mastered childhood can recall the mesmeric power of myth, magic, and fairy tales, whether in books or stories heard from our elders. But for the post-millennial generation, the world of Hogwarts has made an unnoticed transition to the hyper-reality of Black Mirror. Especially if they belong to the air-conditioned class of Indian society, the ironic absurdity of whose Balkanized lives has deepened many times over through the dystopia of the global pandemic.
It was a contrast that looked sharper as I continued to conduct community writing workshops in different cities nationwide, organized by publishers, literary festivals, and writing groups. It became clear that when older adults write, they create the reality of their workdays, the intricacies of family life, the banal excitement of everyday life — a wholly different intersection of the alien and the familiar that makes art. Young adults of a certain class in India haven’t yet gathered the beautiful debris of this crushingly quotidian workday, whether in the kitchen or the office, but neither do they seem particularly interested in it. Why would they be? Reality is always boring when you can plug it out, on the move or in bed. And after a couple of years of drained reality, the dread still with us, it is easy to feel that it is not even a matter of choice anymore.
I remember speaking at an elite school in Mumbai — before the pandemic — where the classroom window literally opened onto a busy street. After discussing a couple of thrillers set in techno-futuristic worlds, I just had to ask them: “This is good work, but have you even thought of looking out of that window?” Watching the micro-epics of Indian city-streets?
There are other stories. The vernacular ones stand out. Some come from spaces outside the modern metropolis, the satellite towns and suburbs, which are already a huge force in popular Indian English-language fiction and Bollywood films. Others embody what I try to describe as the vernacular life of English. A student writer from Bangladesh writes poems and stories in English that feel translated from Bangla, because, as he later tells me, that is how he shapes them in his head. I encourage him to write in Bangla, and a year later he tells me that he has almost finished a novel in that language.
In her 2010 book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman writes about making a choice between a writing fellowship in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and a PhD program in Russian literature at Stanford. The aggressively romantic appearance of the writing colony in a windswept trailer not only contrasted with Stanford’s lush landscape of affluence and high-tech vigilance but also offered a pointed opposition to what the director of the writing colony dismissively called the academic study of literature. In contrast, Batuman identified the American creative writing program as offering “the ideal of craft” — symbolically nestled, that rainy afternoon in New England, in what she described as the Puritanical culture of “creative writing.”
Batuman, who went on to finish her doctorate in Russian at Stanford and turn that possession-obsession adventure into material for her life as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, does not have kind words to say about the “craft”-centered vision of American creative writing programs. For her, literature is better imagined as a profession, an art or a science, anything but a craft. The preoccupation with craft produces nothing but soulless technical exercises of a limiting kind, leaving the big questions untouched. “What did,” she asks, “craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?” The pedagogy of craft merely hands down “negative dictates”: “Show, don’t tell; Murder your darlings; Omit needless words.”
If we are to escape a vision of writing as being purely a personal, idiosyncratic, or mystical process, then a focus on craft feels like the easy way to create a pedagogy for it. But as I teach and shape the curriculum in a new creative writing department, I realize that I share much of Batuman’s reservations about making craft the center of our pedagogy. Her reservations remind me of my own frustrations during my American MFA, when my peers did not understand why I was writing rambling, Joycean stories about riding in crowded Calcutta buses and staring raptly at the worn bags of bus conductors, and I did not get their Carver-esque tales filled with the clipped dialogue of middle-aged white men drowning their angst in bars. This conflict between postmodern minimalism and modernist lyricism, Carver versus Joyce, leaves me embarrassed today, but there is more to it, much of which I recognize as I hear Batuman’s voice.
Specifically, I hear an echo of my own frustration as I read her words: “I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns — like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words.” Our colleague in my new department, the poet and novelist Amit Chaudhuri, has articulated a comparable uneasiness about the craft-driven approach to creative writing programs on various occasions, including his essay “Travels in the Subcultures of Modernity,” a memorable account of his time in the MFA Program in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where his teaching of Indian-language literature in translation prompted unpredictable disruptions in the Western model of craft.
Indeed, the dominant language of craft that informs existing creative writing pedagogies bears the recognizable signature of the American MFA program. Even an American writer like Batuman, drawing on her deep adventure with Russian books, recognizes the limitation of this craft-centered approach, to say nothing of other American critiques of MFA pedagogy and subculture, such as Chad Harbach’s “MFA vs NYC” or, more pointedly, Junot Díaz’s sharp race-critique “MFA vs. POC.” Harbach and Díaz bring very different reservations and objections to the table, including political and economic ones that are inextricably entwined with the aesthetic texture of the pedagogy. Chaudhuri’s intervention in the Columbia MFA program, teaching Indian literature to American students (“to civilize the natives,” in his ironic formulation), also brings to light the failure of the existing narrative of craft when confronted literature from a non-Western culture. Enabling creative writing pedagogies in India, something for which there seems to be tremendous readiness and enthusiasm both within and beyond the academic campus, requires a long and hard look at the existing idiom of craft-based pedagogy, and its limitations in a country like India.
It is impossible not to feel deeply divided by this question. On one hand, one often feels that there is no dearth of talent in the arts in India, but the arts seem to lack systems that can harness learning and experience for people. Like most things in India, the arts, too, run on idiosyncratic talent and eclectic charisma, rarely accompanied by a structure that would allow a larger cross-section of aspirants to benefit from the talent and experience of individual practitioners. But this is also a country where one of the most intense forms of artistic training, in classical music, has been traditionally organized via family loyalties and local traditions, rather than via the community-agnostic openness of Western seminaries. As creative writing makes a pointed entry as a new field of learning and discussion, we have to reckon, notwithstanding the excitement, with the unanswered questions that look us in the eye.
Acknowledgment: A section of this essay appeared as an op-ed in The Hindustan Times in April 2022.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of four novels, most recently, The Middle Finger (2022), along with The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015; published in the US as Play House, 2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013); a work of nonfiction, College (2018); and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). His current book-in-progress, on reading, autodidactism, and amateurism, tentatively titled The Poor Reader: Amateur Criticism and Postcolonial Consciousness, is contracted to Bloomsbury.
Featured image: "Cyber City View" by Tarun4u is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
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