I am maxed out.
For the last twenty days the Kennedy Center in Washington DC has put on a vision of India. A vision filled with art, music, politics, literature–a vision filled with noise and texture and soul. Maximum India looked to grasp an idea of Indian culture and bring it to the United States. On Friday I attended my last event (though the last of the festival will be a free performance by Panjabi MC) a literature panel with Salman Rushdie and Nayantara Sahgal. The first is the author of Midnight’s Children (an RPSNE book club book) and is known for his incredible use of the English language, while Sahgal, an author in her own right, is known for setting her books against the backdrop of change in the South Asian subcontinent–in addition to being the niece of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Ahdaf Soueif, a political and cultural commentator, moderated the panel.
So the discussion kicked off with a question to each of the panelists about why their work in literature is suffused with discussions of politics. The short answer? Writing is a form of resistance. That the written word proves that identity is not a collection of stereotypes, but rather what you want it to be. Each looked to their generation, Saghal of the revolutionary, and Rushdie from a transitional India, and found separating what happened around them from what happened at home was unfathomable. For both writing involved an element of the public and the private –and that the only way to make sense of change, to reconcile that change with the vision of India the republic, one had to integrate narratives from the personal and political.
Sometimes dealing with current events, sometimes a lively exercise in humor this lecture touched upon some serious ideas. I was drawn to, as I usually am, to the conversation about language. Rushdie, after being complimented on his lack of “respect” for the English language and his ability to embrace its malleability, spoke of how this malleability makes writing about India in English possible. That he had to find a way to break down the “cool, quiet, formal” English of the British Raj to be compatible with the “hot, noisy cacophony” of languages from India. He said that he wanted to “take English away from the English.”
He wants to push language towards the joyful. Hear. Hear.
This thought, amidst the many other topics from this lecture, inspires me. The way we speak to one another, the way we articulate reactions and actions on the familial, local, regional, national and global stage says much about who you are, who we are, who I am. That politics and literature define these identities and often are linked together to tell the stories that official history neglects to tell.
Naturally, this part of the conversation led to the question re: who owns the narrative? Who owns the past? What perspective is the most valid? A subject near and dear to every historians heart–and it is acknowledged that the closer you are to the event/situation the harder it is to see beyond your blinders. Writing in the moment has some value, but taking a step back (that is an act of time mores so than a physical taking a step back) can bring details into focus that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
An obvious assertion, one that I’ve heard a few times in a few different places. Distance and time bring truths closer to the one reality. For literature that is deeply rooted in the larger public narrative of the place in which it is set, that distance and time makes a story stronger, more reliable, more resonant….