Voice to the Indian
Mahmood Farooqui is known as a theatre personality and a scholar whose translations have enabled William Dalrymple’s popular and excellent history books. In the freshly released Besieged: Voices from Delhi, he gives us a series of selections from different sources that not only put the 1857 “mutiny”/ “war of independence” in context but also give greater voice to Indians than has often been the case in the past.
Memories, and accounts, of 1857 vary: There were accounts of atrocities and heroism on and by both sides. However, by and large, the dominant (British-inspired) perspective is that of a doomed uprising of “sepoys”, reluctantly led by an aged Mughal emperor who was a prisoner in his own palace. There are some elements of truth in this version. But the accounts in Farooqui’s book reveal a greater complexity: For instance, it becomes evident that an extraordinary effort was launched by Bahadur Shah Zafar to fight the British. Thousands of labourers and tonnes of materials were mobilized, funds were gathered, the police monitored food prices and a functioning bureaucracy was vigilantly maintained—right until the city’s fall. There were prescient attempts to prevent Hindu-Muslim conflict (which was being anticipated by the British) by banning the slaughter of cows, etc.
Pop reads: Delhi’s history and Bollywood.
Farooqui’s translations from the Persian and Urdu include such fascinating pieces as the constitution of the Court of Mutineers, letters from soldiers threatening to leave Delhi if they were not paid their salaries, complaints by citizens about unruly soldiers, and reports of courtesans, spies, faqirs, merchants, volunteers and harassed policemen. The book brings forth the rich vibrancy and complexity of the historical event, mostly in the words of ordinary men and women.
I was recently interviewed by a journalist who was unhappy at what he saw as the tendency of Indian editors to promote pulp fiction in English. He correctly noted, as I have also pointed out elsewhere, that the recent surge of English-language pulp fiction in India blinds us to the fact that other Indian languages have more interesting histories in the area. Some of it has been made available to readers in English, as in the two-volume The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction by Blaft.
What do we make of this boom, if there is one, of pulp fiction in English? Put simply, the boom relates not just to the increasing commercialization of the book trade but also, more interestingly, the growing confidence of the Indian middle class. This means that the Indian middle class is no longer hides its crassness behind pulp fiction authored by seemingly prestigious British and American names.
On the other side, a thin line divides pulp fiction from genre fiction. And while pulp fiction can be dismissed, genre fiction deserves the attention of every serious writer. What, you may ask, is the difference between pulp fiction and genre fiction? At its simplest, pulp fiction does not challenge or explore the limits of its own generic conventions; genre fiction does so. That is why Philip K. Dick and Walter Mosley did not write “pulp”; sci-fi or crime fiction; they wrote genre fiction.
Amid the weeds of pulpy repetitions, there always bloom the flowers of genre fiction.
Much though I dislike the term and its hegemony, one has to concede that the rise of interest in Bollywood has also led to some good studies of Indian films. A new one is Valentina Vitali’s Hindi Action Cinema: Industries, Narratives, Bodies. This is serious, useful stuff about the world of dishoom-dishoom and main tera khoon pee jaoonga.
Tabish Khair is an Indian writer based in Denmark. His latest novel is The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at email@example.com