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“Full of odd names and customs”

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 22, 2008 No Comment

David Baddiel, a former judge for the coveted Booker Prize, my Times of India tells me, revealed that he has long held “narrow-minded” views against Indian authors writing in English. Among other things, he admits to “a prejudice that Indian novels are likely to be magical, mythic, sweepingly historical, quirky of humour, and spring from the tradition of folk tale; all things I don’t want in a novel.” [It is interesting, by the way, that I find it less astonishing that he held these views than that he chose to “air” them so publicly.] He goes on to say that his prejudice is “Not a racial one, hopefully, but a literary one” [emphasis added]. Hopefully? He characterizes an entire nation-a race, if you will-as generating a particular kind of literature, and somehow we are to understand that his prejudice is not racially framed and underlined? In what intellectual dimension does that make sense? I am deeply offended at the self-confessed ignorance and lack of depth of someone who has wielded power in British and Commonwealth literary circles, someone who’s had some control over how Indian authorship in English is perceived and rewarded. The concern is not simply that he indulged in stereotypes in such a frivolous and shallow manner; what bothers me especially is this rather untenable notion that ideally, “novels” do not contain elements of “magic,” “sweeping history,” “quirky humour” (his-British-spelling, not mine), or that they should not be birthed in “folk tales.” If this reasoning is applied to British novels (that is, English novels authored by British authors), and all those texts found to contain these elements singled out, many mainstream canonical texts would find themselves orphaned from the genre. It’s not unusual to hold strong views about what does and does not belong in a textual genre-we would not have a canon or be able to talk about genres otherwise-but this is absurd.

“I know my prejudice against it is a narrow-minded impulse,” he said, adding he feared Indian books were “full of odd names and customs and sometimes with ornate decorative covers.”

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