Tuesday, 29 January 2013

India and Me

I was recently rather disparaging about people writing about Berlin, in English. And now I find myself wanting to say quite a lot about India after spending less than two weeks in the country. Obviously I have no idea about the place, so these comments can only ever be wholly subjective.

Dorothee Elmiger, Inka Parei and myself were invited by Pro Helvetia and the Goethe Institut to visit four cities - Kolkata, New-Delhi, Hyderabad and Pune, where we read from Invitation to the Bold of Heart and The Shadow-Boxing Woman and discussed our work at literary festivals and universities. We were incredibly well looked-after, escorted around but allowed our personal space to breathe, shown amazing sights and sounds and heaped with gifts, flattered and pampered and generally treated like literary royalty. We talked to a lot of wonderful people about all sorts of things, and I hope this post can pass on a fraction of what I think I found out.

In general, I arrived in India thinking I knew more about the culture than I really did. The part of London I come from has a very large South Asian population and I've always had Anglo-Indian friends. But celebrating Diwali at primary school and enjoying a good biryani is a far cry from understanding Indian culture, as it turns out. As the days passed I felt more and more ignorant - but had the great privilege of learning from locals what their lives are like. 

India and Literature
We saw bookstores everywhere we went, in some cases book stalls by the road. Books are obviously a highly valued cultural asset in India. And I loved the literary culture - every event we went to provided the audience with free food and drink. On one occasion there was even free vodka. Every event we attended or took part in was free of charge. That did mean there were a few freeloaders asking strange questions after our readings, but I'd rather read to freeloaders who just might buy the books or tell their friends about them than read to an empty room. And I know I'd go to many even more events if there was free food involved. Our audiences were mainly very receptive and didn't seem to feel shy about talking to us afterwards. Possibly because of the free vodka. On the down side, things were usually much more spontaneous than in Germany, so we found ourselves improvising quite a lot on stage. Maybe not a bad thing, and it kept us on our toes.

India and Translation
I felt people were more interested in translation in India than in the UK or Germany. I assume this is because it's a multilingual country, where many people speak three languages or more on a daily basis. Certainly I was asked a great many questions about my work, and was totally flattered to have my own little Q&A session at New Delhi's Long Night of (German-language) Literature. I spoke to a number of translators in all the cities we visited and the impression I got was that, as in many other countries, they can't make a living out of literary translation. Heck, even I can barely make a living out of literary translation. But they did seem to be making efforts to build networks on a local level, although as far as I understand there is not yet a national organisation of literary translators in India. Please do correct me if I'm wrong. The British Centre for Literary Translation is planning something no doubt rather exciting in Kolkata later this year.

India and Women
This is where I'm going out on a limb. Because of the nature of the two books - both about young women liberating themselves, and one actually addressing the subject of rape - we did talk a lot about women's stuff. And during the second half of our tour we sort of all bonded into a multinational pyjama party, laughing and sharing and discussing our lives. So I feel I did scratch the surface of women's issues in India ever so slightly. What I found out is this: India is a highly patriarchal society, where middle-class women can, however, carve out niches for themselves in the cities. We met successful women at the universities and working in literature and culture. The way sexuality is approached is changing, I think, in India, with people becoming more open about women even having such a thing. Some people talked relatively openly to me about women's sexuality and homosexuality and the newspapers I read reported on things like the morning-after pill and the "pink rupee". But social structures make it difficult for women to live their lives on an entirely self-determined basis. Basically, as far as I understand, they live with their parents until they marry, and then often move in with their husbands' families. Whether that's because of lack of space or tradition I don't know.
An interesting thing that many women told us in New-Delhi was that the city is a particularly bad place for women to live. They felt nervous and threatened when going out after dark and all took precautions to stay safe - not only since the prominent gang rape case. Nobody could quite explain why things were worse there - the only ideas were that it's a city where most people come from elsewhere, many of them from very conservative and backward areas of the countryside, who then come up against women wearing Western clothes and leading fairly Westernised lives. I can imagine some underprivileged men might have issues with resentment towards privileged women, as some men do all over the world. Rape, as we know, is about power after all.

India and Religion
Even more of a limb here - as an atheist, I see religion very much from the outside. What I noticed was that religion is very important in India. Inter-faith conflict is a major issue and has been throughout the country's history. We saw a lot of worshipping and ritual taking place, none of which seemed to be a private matter. The religious sites we visited seemed to be the only places taking obvious care of the poor in a country without a functioning welfare state, although I'm aware that there are less visible projects. I was particularly shocked by the violent and corrupt activities of the Hindu-nationalist RSS, even more so because I'd never really heard of them before. Our last day was significantly disturbed by the inauguration of the party's new leader - the blaring techno beats all day long reminded me of the US's use of heavy metal to grind down General Noriega in Panama. It felt like psychological warfare on the civilian population, an attempt to cement the party's hold on Mumbai after its old leader's recent death. Yet there didn't seem to be any political party with a clean sheet in terms of inter-faith issues.

I shall probably spare you any more amateur analysis now, but I will write more propaganda about Seagull Books and the Seagull School of Publishing.

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