In the “Indian Writers in English” class, the professor was asking the question “For whom do these writers write? Is it for an Indian audience, or a Western audience?”
He laid out some statistics on how many books by particular Indian authors had been purchased in India in the past few years. The numbers were pretty small. Only in the thousands.
“And if Indian readers aren’t reading these English books,” he proposed, “then why do Indian writers keep writing them?”
We’ll leave the second half of the question alone for the moment, because I want to focus on the first half; his conclusion that Indian readers aren’t reading English books.
When my students saw me carrying a recently-purchased book under my arm one afternoon, they were amazed. I’m the sort of person who, like Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, always has a book on me somewhere; but I’m starting to feel a little strange about it, because carrying a new book on this campus attracts attention, even if I’m just sitting and reading at the dhaba. No one has new books here. No one can afford them, and my students told me I was very “posh” for being able to carry one.
(Never mind explaining that, with paperbacks at around Rs 300, purchasing here is really the smarter idea, and that “in my own country” I would not be able to afford any of the books I’ve been carrying.)
Even the students in the “Indian Writers” class aren’t reading books by these writers. The books aren’t available. The English department has a small library, but it’s fairly limited and doesn’t have many authors more recent than Narayan. Our professor mentions Kiran Desai in every lecture, and Vikram Seth, but we’re not actually going to read Inheritance of Loss or Suitable Boy. The written word, in this class, is limited to the blurry photocopied page; an interview or an essay found somewhere online, and even that can only be photocopied once or twice and passed around the room during the lecture.
This reminds me so much of growing up in the backwoods of nowhere that my heart aches for it. I’m thinking of a young Blue, sitting at her parents’ Macintosh computer (pre-internet) looking at “the complete Time Magazine archives” on CD-ROM and memorizing details about play and film reviews, because the plays have long closed and the films aren’t available at the locally owned Video Castle, but she understands it’s important somehow to know about them.
These students are learning about literature in the same way; around the edges, with the assumption even at the outset that they’ll never read any of these books. Because – as it was for me – the books are both too expensive and too far away.
To quote Tom Stoppard: “How can you sleep for grief?”