Thursday, September 13, 2007

Literary Production in India and Teaching Creative Writing

I think I’ve been very fortunate to get a chance to teach creative writing. Delhi University has newly introduced this course at B.A. (P) III level. I was also a part of the team that wrote the textbook for the course. I feel that the teaching of creative writing might make an impact if not on Indian literary production and markets than perhaps on the way literary production in English is perceived. Writing the manual what Anjana Neira Dev, Swati Pal and I perforce had to do was make a study of the field of Indian writing in English. I will quote from the blurb that outlines the objectives of the manual: “What is it that writers do with words that creates literature or a news article or an advertisement? This is one of the primary questions addressed by this book. It deals with all the hard work that goes into the writing of poems, stories, plays, travelogues, newspaper reports and features, writing in the electronic and new media, etc. It aims at demystifying the world of creativity. The English language being an immensely flexible one, it allows many different cultures to express themselves through it. As this book expects its primary reader to come from somewhere within the Indian subcontinent, the authors have taken excerpts largely from Indian English literature that carries with it the flavour of plural traditions. The book should therefore succeed in instilling confidence in the reader to use English in a uniquely assertive manner.” In an interview that we conducted for the manual Mahesh Dattani was asked the reason for writing drama. Q: what drew you towards writing drama A: the dearth of good material in Indian English. Having tired of the Neil Simon comedies that was staple fare then on English language stage, I thought maybe I should try my hand at writing plays ‘about us’. Dattani has been commended for his style of language that Angelie Multani in her overview of Indian English theatre calls “ completely natural and rooted in an urban Indian ethos” At a workshop conducted recently at ZHC to discuss the pedagogy of creative writing one of the most interesting questions that came up for discussion had to do with drama. “How many Hindi words can we use in our creative piece for the portfolio?” a student wanted to know. A pitched battle ensued between teachers who felt that Hindi scenes interspersed with English scenes should be acceptable and teachers who argued that such a creative piece would pose insurmountable problems of evaluation. I can’t help but feel that through this course that emphasizes ‘doing’ – writing exercises and workshops – over a theoretical or historical perspective many such issues about the use of language would get highlighted and debated. “If someone asks where Shahid has disappeared, He’s waging a war (no, jung) beyond English” So sings the poet Agha Shahid Ali in his ghazal ‘Beyond English” that we used to discuss rhyme, rhythm, metre in one of our workshops. Poetry and drama are the neglected genres of Indian writing in English. Indian fiction in English has been commercially the most successful. I would like to conclude with what I hope is a poignant tale about what is accessible to an Indian course in creative writing and what is not. To discuss plot, character, point of view and setting in the Fiction section of the Manual we had decided to use the Pulitzer award winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s story ‘Sexy’. Our publisher got back to us in some panic: “We can’t get copyright permission for the story,” she said. We asked her to use the usual ploy: Indian university, too poor, it’s for students etc etc. “Oh no! she said “You know we don’t get to talk to the author at all. Her agent is a shark. We can’t afford Jhumpa Lahiri.” We had found the story ‘Sexy’ appropriate not only because it is well-crafted but also because it would provide entry points into gender, class and race. Looking for a replacement we were cautioned to avoid the big and the famous because of the issue of copyright. Hunting for a suitable story among the lesser-known writings proved to be extremely rewarding. It would be presumptuous to say more but I did get the impression that there were several fine literary offerings by Indian writers in English. In his ‘Notes of a working writer’ Vilas Sarang who writes simultaneously in English and Marathi observes that the short story form is taken far more seriously than the novel in Indian literature whereas it is marginal in England and America. The story we ultimately selected was Aamer Raza Hussein’s ‘Sweet Rice”. Protesting against ‘hamburger and chips and artificially flavoured yoghurt that colonised her family in London the protagonist Shireen finds a recipe book Naimatkhana by Muhammadi Begum. But ultimately it is not so much the recipe as the history of her admirable ancestress that empowers her in the alien land. All three of us – the writers of the manual - unanimously felt that ‘Sweet Rice’ was abundant recompense for what we had lost to copyright. There was meat here by way of fiction, history and above all a celebration of small everyday creativity. I’ll end with a quote from the story: “Sweet rice. A delicacy remembered from the day she’d kept all her ramzan fasts for the first time. Not the insipid sweet yellow stuff speckled with shaved nuts but something lush and golden orange, laden with succulent pieces of chicken and ripe with the subtle suggestive perfume of fruit. Grandmother had made it for her and named it – or so, in her 8 year old’s arrogance she had imagined . Shireen pulao, sweet rice.” (Excerpted from a presentation at the Workshop on ‘Contemporary Indian Writing in English and the Indian Market’ organised by Ferguson Centre of African and Asian Studies, Open University, UK, and Independent Publishers’ Group, Delhi)

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