Shared perspectives

The Words on Water Literary Festival, which takes place this weekend, sees South African authors in conversation with their Indian counterparts.

The festival will feature writers whose work focuses on social issues and the way history affects the present. These issues will be discussed in relation to both fiction and non-fiction writing. The festival will also look at the role of writers and the ways in which they are best able to articulate the issues and concerns of society.

Dilip Menon is director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits University.
We spoke to him ahead of the festival about South Africa and India’s special relationship, their differences and similarities, and how writers have interpreted their similar histories.

Tell me a bit about the festival, its aims and its focus this year.
The Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits has had a focus on histories of mobility and migration, particularly in that giant fairground of trade, ideas and empires: the Indian Ocean.

The festival tries to think with the idea of how ideas travel beyond the imagined boundaries of modern nation states across the vast realm of the oceans. Hence the title Words on Water. Its aim is to bring together in conversation two major civilizations—the African and the Indian—whose connected histories had been disrupted by the intervention of colonialism. It is important to remember that the old route from Europe to Asia ran around the Cape of Good Hope and the impress of that connection can be seen in the presence of Indian communities in Africa as much as Africans in India.

The focus this year is on the experience of “the modern” and the experimentation with modern forms of literary creation: the novel, free verse and so on. Post-colonial academic scholarship tends to concentrate on novels and short stories at the expense of poetry and the theatre and we are trying to showcase these forms in particular.

Tell me a bit about the cultural relationship between India and South Africa. Is their relationship based on the diaspora, or is that too simplistic? How much do similarities between their histories influence this relationship?
To say that the cultural relationship between India and South Africa is based on the diaspora is both to say too little and too much. We tend to look at immediate histories when we speak of the diaspora: hence the hype last year about the 150 years of Indians in South Africa. The Dutch East India Company brought Indian slaves from eastern and southern India in the 17th century. Van Riebeeck himself had Indian slaves that he manumitted who then went on to marry within the best Dutch families on the Cape.

This history of miscegenation is at the heart of the foundation of the modern world. There is a cultural relationship at the elemental level in shared histories, even in cuisine from Cape Town to Durban. But above all, we are part of the shared world that colonialism created; both India and South Africa were British colonies and Gandhi, as we know, cut his teeth on political agitation here in the early 20th century.

It is not just the relations between Indians in South Africa and Indians in India and the sentimental and somewhat condescending idea of Bollywood or bunny chow as Indian culture that we need to think about. We need to think beyond the idea of Indian, white, black, coloured culture and think about our common histories of cultural production: that Coetzee and Rushdie come out of the same crucible.

Is there anything unique about the way politics affects the arts and literature in India?
This would depend largely on what we mean by politics. In our parts of the world, coming out of legacies of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle, we have a tendency to see politics as that, which engages with the state. There is also the politics of the everyday; that engagement with questions of equality, justice, and dignity that suffuses our existence as humans.

Under the post-colonial dispensation the Indian state has set up several bodies like the Sahitya Akademi and the Lalit Kala Akademi which are academies that adjudicate questions of value in literature and the arts. In one sense, there was an attempt to kick-start an avant garde.

Alongside this there is the fact that India in 1947 as now, is a nation divided against itself by language, caste, religion and so on. The visual arts and literature in English and the regional languages reflects this raw contest within society (not always expressed in only ‘progressive’ ways) and in that sense exceeds the attempt to manage artistic production and produce a numb consensus about Indian culture. So in that sense, as in South Africa or elsewhere, this contest between the establishment and an oppositional culture is present in India. The inflections are different: caste in India, race in South Africa, for example.

Many “outsiders”, those who have no connection to India and do not study it, do not realize how diverse its population is. How does this diversity affect literature? Are authors trying to bridge the gaps? Are they highlighting its diversity?
Well, the defining characteristic of an “outsider”, or indeed an entrenched “insider” position is the inability to perceive diversity in a society. South Africa and India, as much as Sweden and France, are societies characterized by diversity.

We are societies that recognize, engage with and celebrate diversity whereas Europe increasingly is becoming intolerant of diversity under the guise of imposing the idea of citizenship, unmarked by religious, cultural or ethnic difference. Indian English writing, as yet, largely captures the urban middle class experience and it has been left to the social science literature in English to empathise with a reality that is not part of the author’s class existence.

Writing in the regional languages reflects more the social histories of the region and the fractures of class, language, gender and ethnicity. I mean this as a descriptive rather than as a normative distinction. This disconnect at one extreme is evident in the inability of Indian writers in English to create characters that are not of their class, or capture the cadences of everyday speech. For example, lower caste characters whether In Arundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh are cast in a heroic mould: they are handsome, morally upright and represent an unsullied commitment to equality. There is no nuance here. In regional languages like Tamil and Marathi for example, Dalits (formerly untouchable castes) have produced a vibrant contestatory literature.

How can SA and India learn from each other when it comes to these issues?
In this I think India has a lot to learn from South Africa. When I read South African writing in English—whether Gordimer and Coetzee, or Krog, Mda, and Vladislavic—questions of inequality and the corruption of privilege are ever present. It is like reading the literature from the American south, from Harper Lee to Faulkner and Carson McCullers; there is no turning away from the fundamental fault lines of society. In India, literature in English is largely forgetful of the casual brutality rampant hierarchy that is the Indian reality.

We seldom talk about “regional” writing in SA. How is this different in India?
There is writing from the various states of India in the regional languages as also a distinct genre of writing particularly in Hindi, that defines itself as regiona. The distinct category of regional literature tries to capture the nuances of dialect, the rhythms of distinct eco systems, and the lives of marginal groups like tribals, landless labourers and fishermen. On the other hand, regional literature in the mundane sense echoes many of the frames and concerns of writing in English: existentialism as in Agyeya and Nirma Verma writing in Hindi; magical realism as in Vijayan in Malayalam and Shivarama Karanth in Kannada; surrealism as in Vilas Sarang writing in Marathi.

As for regional writing in South Africa, I suppose there is yet a modern literature to emerge in Sotho, Pedi, Tswana which are language groups which also map on to regions. However, I wonder sometimes about the status of Afrikaans literature in relation to English. Reading van Niekerk’s Triomf and Agaat in English translation I have the same epiphany of a world revealed epiphany as I do when I read some writers in Indian languages.

How free are Indian authors when it comes to hard-hitting issues, or criticisms of power structures?

Indian writers in English on the whole are free to write what they want to so long as they are not seen as hurting religious sentiments. Very few books or works get banned: if they do it is nearly always on the grounds of inflaming animosity between communities. On the other hand, very few authors have produced substantial critiques of the state or the political culture. This has been left to social scientists.

Writing in regional languages like Tamil, Marathi and Hindi or for instance, Mahasveta Devi’s searing writings on tribal experience in Bengali have in that sense been more radical in their critique of power. It is less state censorship or repression than a failure of Indian writing in English to come into its own that has resulted in the etiolated aestheticism that characterizes it.

Of late, a ray of hope has been the new literature emerging from Kashmir in English including Basharat Peer and Mirza Waheed, whose powerful and elegiac novel The Collaborator marks a watershed in engaged literature in English.

Political repression in Kashmir for over 50 years has created a new angry voice. Not to be facetious, as Shakespeare has said, sweet are the uses of adversity—The north east of India has been under armed rule by the Indian state for over 60 years as well and we now have the emergence of translations from some powerful voices.

Can you comment at all on the significance of the Kashmir festival being cancelled?
Kashmir is producing some exceptional writers in English, as I have just said, from within the crucible of state repression and the curtailment of civil liberties that has produced a generation of exiles. This is a literature that needs to be celebrated.

On the other hand, the Indian state is immensely suspicious of political gatherings that may debate issues of human rights and civic freedoms. The opposition to the festival stems from this fact: that literary gatherings are being allowed by the Indian state so as to present a picture of normalcy in Kashmir. Kashmiris, if at all, can experience normal life, only in exile. As Agha Shahid Ali wrote: “Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox/ my home a neat four by six inches—”

The Words on Water Festival: India and South Africa in Conversation kicks off at Sci-Bono in Newtown, Johannesburg on September 10. Click here to see the full programme of speakers.

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa van Wyk is the arts editor, which somehow justifies her looking at pretty pictures all day, reading cool art and culture blogs and having the messiest desk in the office. She likes people who share her passion for art, music, food, wine, travel and all things Turkish. She can't ride a bike, but she can read ancient languages and totally understands the offside rule. Read more from Lisa Van Wyk

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