'A readership is being created by offering them exotic tid-bits to titillate them'
Women authors, particularly in the West, are
in some way or the other being promoted in a manner which portrays
the 'flip side' of their marginalisation as writers, says
Sunetra Gupta, who received the prestigious 1996 Sahitya Akademi
award this week.
One among the handful of young achievers in the world's ever
expanding writers community, she received the coveted prize
for the first of her three novels, Memories of Rain. Her other
two novels, Glassblower's Breath and Moonlight into
Marzipan, have also won her considerable acclaim.
After years of discrimination and indifference by the
publishing industry and society as a whole, the writer felt it was probably
easier now for a woman to get published. In England, where she lived with her
English husband, she said, "if you are a
black woman writer, you are likely to be published.''
''Unfortunately it does not mean that some revolution has
actually taken place as people think it to be. Fifty years ago
there was tremendous discrimination against black writers and now
the situation is otherwise, but the same sentiment works behind why
they are published more these days,'' she said.
When asked whether Indian writers, especially contemporary
ones, are better accepted in the West, she said, ''Indians
sell better than they have in the past. But it is symptomatic of a
particular state of mind -- probably the same one that causes a lot
of Englishmen to take holidays abroad.''
''I don't think there has been an uplifting change in the psyche
of the readership there. I don't think many people are reading
Toni Morrison because they are in a developed state of being, but
because it is 'trendy' to read her,'' she pointed out. ''I find all
this very disturbing and my inclination is to withdraw from this.''
The language of market forces has come to affect the body of
contemporary literature in a great way and for Sunetra, it is
another disturbing phenomenon. ''A readership is being created by
offering them exotic tid-bits to titillate them. This is not obvious
as something like pornography but the reader is fed a bit of China,
bits of India, of this and that and everything is handed over to him
on a platter. The reader does not have to work at all and this is
something very dangerous,'' she said.
Writing for her is an essentially spiritual exercise. ''I am
not involved in any political movement and my main interest is to
try to uncover human conditions,'' she asserted.
Asked if she belonged to a group of contemporary writers who have
sort of 'globalised' Indian literature, she said her work often
had a 'transnational' setting on which the events took place,
something one would find in other Indian authors like Amitav Ghosh. ''My
characters are really not representative of a particular
culture and essentially explore various issues that cut across
geographical boundaries,'' she pointed out.
But does such a style help foreign readers appreciate an
Indian author better? ''Well, at least for me nothing is deliberate
and I am not concerned whether a foreigner understands the nuances
of the reality I am presenting in my book.''
As a woman writer, does Sunetra highlight feminist issues in her
novels? ''I really don't have time for joining any movement, but
yes, some of my characters -- like Esha in Marzipan -- are very
strong. She represents those women with strength of character and
dignity who do not find under the prevailing circumstances a role to
fill in. But they are juxtaposed with other women in my work who
represent a consumerist approach to life with an appetite for
exotica but lacking in their vision to get to the root of matters,"
Writing her first novel was quite an experience for her.
''Suddenly you come to touch a part of yourself,'' she said. Asked
to describe her 'growth' from the first novel to her third, Sunetra
said, ''My concerns have become more and more spiritual and there
is an obvious effort -- a religious dedication if you may say so --
to come closer to the truth.'' The initial self-consciousness,
ambition, wanting to present India or Bengal in her work and to be
included in a certain community of writers was now over, she said.
''My work is more 'free' now.''
Her father, who teaches history at Calcutta university, remains
a major influence in her life. ''Whatever I have achieved today
would not be possible without him. My exposure to literature and
writing and especially my appreciation of Tagore was conditioned
by him,'' she said.
With a Ph D from London
University, she now works as a research scholar at the zoology
department in Oxford. How does she find time to write?
''You always find time if you want to,'' she says.