Piazza, George Street, Oxford, 2017.
The Piazza and the Car Park: Literary Activism and the Mehrotra Campaign
It was 1989. I was a graduate student at Oxford. I had made little progress with my doctoral dissertation and I had written a novel that had almost, but not quite, found a publisher. One of the routes that had taken me in my fiction towards Calcutta was Irish literature – its provincialism and cosmopolitanism, its eccentricity and refinement. So I was pleased when I heard that Seamus Heaney was the likeliest candidate to win the elections for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. Paul Muldoon’s anthology The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry had reintroduced Heaney to me: the magical early poems about the transformative odd-jobs men of a prehistoric economy – ‘diviners’ and ‘thatchers’; the features of that economy – wells and anvils; the Dantesque political cosmology (Heaney’s overt response to the ‘troubles’) of Station Island.
A diversion was caused by the nomination of the Rastafarian performance and dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah. It was a strategically absurd nomination, made in the political tradition that periodically produces a fringe contender from the Monster Raving Loony Party to clear the air. Meanwhile, Heaney himself had begun subtly to remake himself as a postcolonial poet since Wintering Out and particularly North By ‘postcolonial’ I mean a particular allegorical aesthetic to do with power, Empire, violence, and empowerment: an allegory that, in Heaney’s case, had seen him scrutinising, since 1971, Iron Age John Does buried for centuries in the peat and Tollund men who had once been the victims of state violence; it now also involved the glamour his words imparted to bottomless bogs and to Celtic orality. There was a hint of magic realism to North’s politics and poetics. In retrospect, I realise this reinvention on Heaney’s part was making me uneasy.
Naturally, Heaney won by a wide margin. The poet’s lectures were thronged with students and Heaney’s performances often had the dazzling quality of brilliant undergraduate papers. There was another narrative unfolding in these lectures, though, which would become clearer when they were collected in The Redress of Poetry, some of these thoughts having already been rehearsed in The Government of the Tongue. It was to do with Heaney’s exploration of artistic delight alongside his increasing disquiet about, and premonition of, the emptiness of the poet’s life in liberal democracies. Against this he had begun to counterpoise, more and more, the exemplary aesthetic and moral pressure that East European poets experienced under punitive, totalitarian regimes. Those regimes seemed to become a kind of inverse pastoral for Heaney: enclosed, isolated, and capable, paradoxically, of producing the great artists that the West no longer did. Was Heaney at a dead end? Had he been made less creative somehow, or less powerful – not only by success, but by the inexorable collapse of those regimes that had unwittingly legitimised what for him was the only great poetry being written at that time: regimes that, one by one, began to fall almost immediately after he took up the Professorship?
A decade is a long time in the life of a culture, and much changed during the 1980s. But arguably far more changed, and changed unthinkably, between 1989 and 1993. The American writer Benjamin Kunkel, founder-editor of the journal n+1 and the author of a book of essays on Marxism and capitalism, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis, said in an interview published in 2014:
…I’m now old enough to remember when the Cold War just seemed like a permanent geological feature of the world. And then it just vanished. Then people would talk about how Japan was going to be a wealthier economy than the United States in ten years. It would have seemed totally insane that there was going to be a black president and that gay people were going to get married… 1
Kunkel is telling us how difficult it was, and always is, to predict the outcomes that we now take so for granted that we no longer even think about them; no longer, experientially, perceive a discontinuity. But perhaps he’s also telling us how hard it is to remember – actually to feel the nearness and veracity of a time when it would have seemed ‘insane’ to make those predictions. The imminence of a changed world order, a new cultural order, and the ignorance of that imminence are only two features of that world to which Kunkel is referring – for that world also had an infinity of other features whose reality it is now almost impossible to recollect, let alone feel. In order to remember, we need to rely on a species of voluntary memory, that is, a willed remembering whose consequences are largely predetermined and shaped by the conceptual structures of the present; so we are led to recall large categories, but not what it would have meant to inhabit them. Kunkel is trying to imply the lived immediacy of inhabiting a moral order by one of the strategies through which we can move beyond voluntary memory – by gesturing towards, and recuperating, the unthinkable: ‘It would have seemed totally insane…’ In this business of recollecting the world before the free market, before globalisation, voluntary memory misleads, and the flicker of involuntary memory throws up, as ever, an array of fragments and sensations, but doesn’t, in itself, instruct us in the ethics of the vanished order, an ethics we have critiqued but whose proximity we no longer sense. So it is almost impossible now to remember – as it was impossible then to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of President Obama – that poetry was the literary genre to which the greatest prestige accrued until the mid-1980s; that one might have spent an afternoon talking with an acquaintance about the rhythm of a writer’s sentences (in my specific instance, the novelist I have in mind is James Kelman, the acquaintance an English graduate student in Oxford whose name I have now forgotten). In the same way, it’s hard to recall that we didn’t think of success in writing mainly in relation to the market, and in relation to a particular genre, the novel, and to a specific incarnation of that genre, the first novel, possibly until 1993, when A Suitable Boy was published, or maybe a year earlier, when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History appeared. It is now difficult to understand these examples as watershed occurrences in an emerging order, and difficult to experience again the moral implications of living – as I lived then, and maybe Benjamin Kunkel, who is much younger than I am, did too – in an order that was superseded.
This might be because the brain or mind or whatever you call it – our entire emotional and psychological make-up – is geared to cope with death, not just our own, but especially of our loved ones, with whom we identify the founding phases in our lives. Upon a significant death, we mourn the irrevocable closure of that phase; then, pretty consistently, we find it almost impossible to comprehend what it means for that person not to be alive.
This mechanism constantly translates into our experience of the everyday. In Oxford, I recall a dimly lit car park next to the cinema on George Street that was finally turned into a fake piazza in which a market now congregates on Wednesdays. I find it difficult to recall the car park except theoretically. But I know very well that it was there. I have to rely on a moral variant of voluntary memory, on a willed excavation, to bring it back. This excavation – this ethical variation of voluntary memory – is increasingly important to those of us who have lived through a bygone epoch into this one. Without it, we accept the timelessness, the given-ness, of whatever is equivalent to the piazza in our present-day existence. In other words, voluntary memory – or that form of excavation – must take us towards what from our point of view is plausible, but essentially unthinkable: not just the past’s ignorance of its own future, as in Kunkel’s anecdote about a world presided upon by the Cold War and unable to conceive of its own contingency, but the past studied from the vantage point of a present in which we know the Cold War to be a historical fact, but unthinkable. To truly attest today to the existence of the car park, or our habits of reading before the free market, is, to use Kunkel’s word, ‘insane’: or uncanny. We presume, immediately upon taking on new habits, that those habits are inborn reflexes. We are shocked to hear that poets were central to the culture; that writers once deliberately distanced themselves from material success. The past, as we reacquaint ourselves with these unthinkable facts, begins to look like that rare thing: compelling science fiction – utterly new, and unsettling. Our excavation is perhaps all the more important because we have been inhabiting, for twenty-five years, an epoch or a world in which there has been really no contesting order, no alternative economic or political model. Only through a moral variant of voluntary memory might we, who belong to a particular generation, intuit a diff erent order and logic which isn’t really recoverable, and which challenges the present one – the piazza – simply by exposing its contingency, its constructedness.
What are the features, since the 1990s, of the piazza that have almost obliterated our memory of the car park, making us doubt if it existed? Let’s enumerate, quickly and crassly, some of the obvious developments in literary culture, focusing on publishing and dissemination, and the ways in which they converged with a rewriting of the literary. Let me restrict myself to Britain, my primary location during that time, taking the developments there to be in some senses paradigmatic. For one thing, most British publishing houses, as we know, were acquired by three or four German and French conglomerates, leading to a version, in publishing, of the Blairite consensus: a sort of faithful mimicking of the absence of true oppositionality in British politics following the creation of New Labour in the image of the Thatcherite Tory party. Bookshop chains such as Dillons and Waterstones emerged, at first heterogeneous in terms of their individual outlets, then becoming merged and increasingly centralised. As many of us also know, the Net Book Agreement collapsed – that is, the agreement that had protected books from being sold under an agreed minimum price. Offers and price reductions not only became possible, they became the context for what determined shelf space and, thus, what was read. The books on price reductions and three-for-the-price-of-two off ers were those that had been deemed commercial by marketing executives – the new, unacknowledged bosses of the editors and publishers – and bookshop chains, the new, unacknowledged bosses of the marketing executives.
What we were presented with, then, was a stylised hierarchy in which the author, at its bottom, was, like a monarch in a parliamentary democracy, celebrated or reviled – because, as with the monarchy, there was no real agreement on whether the author was really necessary – and in which even publishers and agents played stellar roles only within accommodations predetermined by marketing men and bookshop-chain bureaucrats. This is not to say that agents or publishers didn’t believe in unlikely or unpromising books. The shift lay here: they believed in them in the cause of their untapped market potential. However, with the creation of a new marketing category, ‘literary fiction’, market potential would only be expressed in terms of aesthetic excellence. Almost no publisher would say, in their press release: ‘We believe this novel is going to sell tens of thousands of copies.’ They would say, instead: ‘We believe this novel puts the writer in the ranks of V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie,’ a literary formulation based upon analogies and juxtapositions that made perfect sense to the public. Belief is a sacred constituent of radical departures in literature and publishing: so it appeared, by a slight adjustment of language, as if the literary were being invested in.
Here was a commercial strategy that would not speak its name, except in the context of a kind of literary populism: ‘More and more people are reading books.’ At the top of the hierarchy was the figure the marketing men scrambled to obey: the reader. The word ‘reader’ possessed a mix of registers: it evoked the old world of humanistic individualism that had ensconced the act of reading, while, at once, it embraced the new, transformative populism. This populism worked so well in culture precisely because it didn’t dispense with the language of the old humanism even though it rejected almost everything it had stood for; it simply embraced that language and used it on its own terms.
Who, by the way, was the ‘reader’? He or she was an average person, put together by marketing via the basic techniques of realist writing (as Woolf had accused Arnold Bennett of creating characters by making them an agglomeration of characteristics).2 The reader was, according to marketing, unburdened by intelligence; poorly read; easily challenged and off ended by expressions of the intellect; easily diverted by a story, an adventure, a foreign place or fairy tale, or an issue or theme of importance. This reader was transparent, democratic, and resistant only to resistance, occlusion, obscurity, and difficulty. Writing must assume the characteristics of the ‘reader’: the term for this process, in which literature took on a desirable human quality, was ‘accessibility’. In order to genuflect to the ‘reader’, who, despite being invented by marketing staff, disappointed them constantly, jacket designs had to be adjusted, and literariness programmatically marginalised. But, crucially, the notion of the ‘reader’ made it possible to claim that literature was, more than ever, thriving, so that it wouldn’t seem that its humanistic context had been made defunct, but, instead, extended and renewed. There were more and more readers. New literatures were coming of age: ‘like a continent finding its voice,’ the New York Times had said of Midnight’s Children more than a decade previously, though the pronouncement still seemed recent in the 1990s. Abundance was curiously repressive. Here, via the later incarnations of Waterstones and the Booker Prize, with their ambition to capture readers, were early instances of what would become a typical convergence between the vocabulary used canonically, and retrospectively, to describe a renaissance with the ethos and vocabulary of boom-time.
Speaking of renaissances, what was the academy doing at this point? By the late 1980s, critical theory and its mutations – including postcolonial theory, which would take on the responsibility of defining and discussing the increasingly important literature of Empire – had begun to make incursions into Oxbridge and other universities. The departments of English, by now, looked with some prejudice upon value and the symbols of value, such as the canon; problematised or disowned terms such as ‘classic’ and ‘masterpiece’; often ascribed a positive political value to orality, which it conflated with non-Western culture, and a negative one to inscription or ‘good writing’, which it identified with the European Enlightenment. Some of this was overdue and necessary.
Meanwhile, publishers robustly adopted the language of value – to do with the ‘masterpiece’ and ‘classic’ and ‘great writer’ – that had fallen out of use in its old location, fashioning it in their own terms And these were terms that academics essentially accepted. They critiqued literary value in their own domain, but they were unopposed to it when it was transferred to the marketplace. Part of the reason for this was the language of the market and the language of the publishing industry were (like the language of New Labour) populist during a time of anti-elitism. Part of this had to do with the fact that publishers adopted complex semantic registers. For example: from the 1990s onwards, publishers insisted there was no reason that literary novels couldn’t sell. This was an irrefutable populist message disguising a significant commercial development. What publishers meant was that, in the new mainstream category of ‘literary fiction’, only literary novels that sold well would be deemed valid literary novels. Academics neither exposed this semantic conflict nor challenged the way literary value had been reconfigured. When, in response to political changes in the intellectual landscape, they extended the old canon and began to teach contemporary writers, or novelists from the former colonies, they largely chose as their texts novels whose position had been already decided by the market and its instruments, such as certain literary prizes.
Experts, critics, and academics took on, then, the role of service-providers in the public sphere. This dawned on me in 2005, when I was spending a couple of months with my family in Cambridge. Watching TV in the evening, possibly Channel 4, we chanced upon a programme on the ten best British film directors; the list had been created on the basis of votes from viewers. As with all such contemporary exercises, it was an odd compilation, displaying the blithe disregard for history so essential to the market’s radicalism. Chaplin had either been left out or occupied a pretty low rung; Kenneth Branagh might have been at the top. Each choice was discussed by a group of film critics and experts (such as Derek Malcolm) who, in another age, would have had the final say. Here, they neither interrogated the choices nor the legitimacy of the list; they solemnly weighed the results. Respect and a species of survival skills were their hallmark. If Channel 4 viewers had come up with a completely different list, it would have been accorded the same seriousness by the experts. They were here to perform a specific function. The programme made me realise that it’s not that the market doesn’t want the expert or the intellectual; it simply wants them on its own terms. The arbiter of taste and culture and the expert – whether they’re a film critic, or a celebrity chef, or a Professor of English judging the Booker Prize – is a service-provider. The circumstances – such as the ‘public’ vote that had gone towards the list, or the six months in which the Booker judge reads 150 novels (two novels nominated by each publishing house) in order to choose the best literary novel of the year – will invariably be absurd from one point of view, and revolutionary and renovating from the point of view of the market. The expert, in a limited and predetermined way, is a requisite for this renovation. The genius of market activism lies in the fact that, unlike critical theory, it doesn’t reject the terminology of literary value; it disinherits and revivifies it, and uses it as a very particular and powerful code. This accounts for its resilience.
What’s interesting in this scenario is how far the consensus about the logic of the market extends, encompassing what might seem to be rents in the fabrics. Take, for example, the phenomenon of ‘pirated’ books in urban India, more or less coterminous with the emergence of the mainstream ‘literary novel’ in the nineties. ‘Pirated’ books are cheap copies, illegally reproduced and sold at traffic lights and on pavements. Confronting them, you have the same sense of disapproval and curiosity that you might towards contraband. In other words, the sight of ‘pirated’ books provokes an excitement and unease in the middleclass person that recalls, from another age, a response to the avant-garde and the out-of-the-way; the word ‘pirated’ adds to the aura of illegality. Only when you scrutinise the titles do you realise that pirated books are no alternative to the bookshop chain. The selection represents the most conservative bourgeois taste; popular fiction, horoscopes, best-selling non-fiction (Mein Kampf is perennially available), and Booker Prize winners are arrayed side by side.
Any notion of ‘literary activism’ positions itself not against the market, but the sense of continuity it creates. For instance, literary activism needs to proclaim its solidarity with, as well as distance itself from, the old, invaluable processes of ‘championing’ and reassessment. Distance itself because, in the age of the market, publishers and marketing institutions such as the Booker Prize themselves became champions. Their primary aim was to enlist the notional ‘reader’ in greater numbers. In one of the many semantic convergences of the period, the language of praise and championing, so fundamental to criticism and its influence, fl owed, with the Booker Prize and publishing houses in the 1990s, into the market’s upbeat terminology of ‘bullishness’. (It would be worth knowing when betting was introduced in the run-up to the Booker results. Ladbrokes, the British betting company, seems to have been operating in the Booker arena from 2004.)
Let’s have a look at how the Booker Prize morphed from a prize judged by novelists into a fundamental device for ‘market activism’ in the 1990s, with juries comprising politicians and comedians. The off -kilter agitation caused by the Booker was, even by the late 1980s, not so much related to the excitement of the literary, which has to do with the strangeness of poetic language (or as Housman put it, ‘if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act’), as it was an effect of a hyper-excited environment. The principal way in which the Booker achieved this was by confirming, and allowing itself to be informed by, the market’s most value-generating characteristics: volatility and random rewards. The market never promised equitable gain and wealth for all; what it said was: ‘Anyone can get rich.’ The distance between equitable gain (the idea that everyone can be rich) and the guarantee – ‘anyone can get rich’ – seems at first a matter of semantics, and non-existent; but it is very real and is reproduced exactly by the distance between the reader in the 1970s and the ‘reader’ in the time of market activism. In the age of full-blown capitalism, anyone can get rich through the market, and, also, anyone can get poor; and these occurrences are disconnected from anachronistic ideas of merit and justice. In this disconnection lies the magic of the free market, its ebullience and emancipation. So the Booker Prize implicitly proclaims: ‘Anyone can win.’ As long as the work in contention is a novel and is in English, both qualifications embedded in, and representing the globalised world, we can peel away the superfluous dermatological layers of literariness by agreeing that the essay, the story, and poetry are ineligible and superfluous. ‘Anyone can win’ suggests a revolutionary openingup typical of the language of market activism. As the Booker’s constituency – for some time now, a worldwide one – accepts the fact that anyone can win, there is, ritually, a degree of volatility about the construction, announcement, and reception of the shortlist – of late, even the longlist – which captures the agitation that propels market activism. Famous writers and critically acclaimed books are often ignored; at least one unknown novelist is thrown into the limelight; one putatively mediocre novel is chosen. The book is severed from oeuvre and literary tradition, as if it existed only in the moment; the history, development, and cross-referencing that creates a literary work is correctively dispensed with.
Since the history of so-called ‘new literatures’ such as the Indian novel in English is tied up thoroughly (especially since Midnight’s Children ) with the Booker Prize and the manner in which it endorses novels, we subsist on a sense that the lineage of the Indian English novel is an exemplary anthology of single works, rather than a tradition of cross-referencing, borrowing, and reciprocity. The random mix on the shortlist and the incursion of first-time novelists as shortlisted authors, often even as winners, might echo the sort of championing that drew attention to new or marginal writing; while it is actually enlivened by the volatility of market activism. Each year there’s the ritual outcry from critics and journalists that the judges have missed out on some meritorious works. This outcry is not a critique of the Booker; it’s germane to its workings and an integral component of its activism. The culminatory outcry comes when the winner is announced; the result is occasionally shocking. Again, this phase, of disbelief and outrage, is an indispensable part of the Booker’s celebration – its confirmation – of the market’s metamorphic capacities; the prize would be diminished without it. This randomness should be distinguished from the perversity of the Nobel, where a little-known committee crowns a body of work marked by the old-fashioned quality of ‘greatness’, or rewards a writer for what’s construed to be political reasons. The Nobel’s arbitrariness is bureaucratic, its randomness a reliable function of bureaucracy.
Partly the Booker goes periodically to first novels or to unknown writers because its form of activism dispenses with the linear histories and body-of-work narratives that conventionally define literary histories and prizes such as the Nobel; it responds to the market’s compression and shrinking of time, its jettisoning of pedigree in favour of an open-ended moment: the transformative ‘now’ of the market, in which anything can happen, and everything is changing. The fact that Indian writing in English since Midnight’s Children has been handcuff ed to the Booker means that it exists in this perpetual now, that its history is periodically obliterated and recreated each time an Indian gets the prize, leading Indian newspapers to proclaim every few years: ‘Indian writing has come of age.’ The first novel of this type, published in the 1990s, came to embody this compressed timeframe in which speculation occurs, fortunes are lost and made, radical transformation effected. Publishers who contributed significantly to market activism appropriated this sub-genre and, by often calling books that were yet to be published ‘masterpieces’ (the publisher Philip Gwyn Jones’s pre-publication statement about The God of Small Things, ‘a masterpiece fallen out of the sky fully formed’, comes to mind), made pronouncements in terms of the market’s compression of time, its subtle re framing of context and linearity, its insistence on the miraculous. The word ‘masterpiece’ itself became a predictive category, connected to the market’s bullishness and optimism, rather than a retrospective endorsement. When a publisher proclaims today: ‘The new novel we’re publishing in the autumn is a masterpiece,’ they mean: ‘We think it will sell 50,000 copies.’ No novel that’s expected to sell 500 copies is deemed a ‘masterpiece’ by a contemporary mainstream publisher. Gwyn Jones’s statement about Arundhati Roy’s first novel needs, then, to be read as a prediction rather than an assessment, and a prediction made in the domain of a bullish marketplace. On the other hand, the Booker’s retrospective accolades – ‘Which book would have won in 1939?’ – again disrupt conventional histories and aim to bring past texts into the ‘now’ of the market’s activism.
The most striking instance of a publishing house and author inhabiting this ‘now’ through a literary concept that once represented historical time is the publication of the singer Morrissey’s first book, Autobiography , in 2013 as a Penguin Classic, the rubric evidently an authorial prerequisite. In 1992, Vikram Seth undertook a pioneering form of market activism by interviewing literary agents in order to decide who would be best equipped to auction A Suitable Boy to UK publishers. Notwithstanding Seth’s commercial and critical success with The Golden Gate , he had only written his first (prose) novel. Meetings between authors and agents usually take place on fairly equal footing, with the weight of authority slightly on the side of the more powerful party. Seth’s unprecedented style shifted the balance in the interests of the novel’s commercial success and the sort of advance on royalties he thought it deserved. Morrissey’s pre-publication mindset, two decades later, represents an evolution. No overt mention is made of figures or of the advance; it’s the standard of the ‘classic’ that’s at stake. It’s as if Morrissey grasps the reification of literary concepts in the ‘now’ of the marketplace. Once, critics spoke ironically of the ‘stocks and shares’ in a writer’s books being high or low with reference to their critical reputation; today, the same statement is made without irony and with a straightforward literalism. As part of this reification, however, certain words – such as ‘classic’ – become ironical, and come close to signifying a guarantee that needs to be fiercely bargained for. That Morrissey’s hunch was right was proved by Autobiography climbing immediately to number one on the bestsellers’ chart upon publication. It would surely be the one Penguin ‘classic’ to have had such an entry and such a run.
This, then, is what the piazza began to look like by the mid-1990s. We may have been bemused by what was unfolding in the first two years, but by the third year we believed it had always been like this. We had no memory of the car park. This no doubt had to do, as I suggested earlier, with the way the mind converts the dead into a fact: the dead are incontrovertible, but we don’t know who they are. But partly it was the effect of the compressed time and space of globalisation, of inhabiting an epoch in which materiality was shrinking and our principal devices could be fitted into the palm of a hand, and periodically replaced. Personal memory, cultural institutions, and popular culture responded to this shrinkage, this ethos of recurring disposability, variously, for distinct but contiguous reasons. While literary language was acquired by publishers for the purposes of marketing, literary departments reneged, as I’ve said, on any discussion that connected value to the passage of time: they disavowed the ‘masterpiece’, ‘canon’, and ‘classic’. Popular culture not only annexed these concepts, it produced its own terminology of eternity: for instance, the word ‘all-time’, as in ‘all-time favourite guitarist’ or ‘all-time great movie director’. ‘All-time’, it soon became evident, covered a span of five, maybe ten, years; that is, the time of deregulated globalisation – ‘all-time’ was a means of managing the classic. In consonance with the eternity conjured up by ‘all-time’, popular culture – and even the so-called ‘serious’ media – abounded, and still abounds, with lists: ‘ten favourite movies’; ‘hundred great novels’; and so on. Lists at once mimic and annihilate the historicity of the canon; they reduce time, making it seemingly comprehensible; they exude volatility and are meaningless because the market is energised by the meaningless. Given the pervasiveness of the ‘all-time’, it wasn’t surprising that it was difficult to give credence to the car park.
But other things were happening during the 1990s in my life that didn’t quite fit in. I was rereading, and often discovering for the first time, the modernism of the Indian literatures as I prepared to compile the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. In 1992, I’d also turned my attention to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, whose poetry I’d read on and off since the late 1970s and whose anthology, The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, published that year, seemed to be making an intervention on behalf of a discredited tradition, contemporary Indian poetry in English, without having recourse to the new interpretative apparatus. His primary intervention was the making of the anthology itself, where he brought poets and their work together in a way that redefined their relationship to each other without either explicitly rejecting or taking for granted the notion of a pre-existing canon. This was a way of looking at literary history that neither fitted in entirely with the old humanist procedures of valuation (Indian poetry in English had never anyway really been a legitimate subject of such authoritative procedures) nor subscribed to the prevalent methods connected to the postcolonial, the hybrid, or even to list-making, since Mehrotra’s juxtapositions seemed to be exploring and arguing for a particular experience of the literary.
I recalled, as I was thinking of essays to include in the Picador anthology, a long, polemical critical article that Mehrotra had published in 1980 in a little magazine out of Cuttack called Chandrabhaga and edited by the poet Jayanta Mahapatra. The essay was ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’, and I was eighteen when it came out, but I still had a sense of its central tenet: simply put, the Indian poem in English has no obvious markers of ‘Indianness’. Similarly, the poem produced by the multilingual imagination has no visible hierarchy in, or signs of, the manner in which a multiplicity of languages inhabits it. With hindsight (and upon rediscovery of that issue after a strenuous search), this argument read like a prescient rebuttal of precisely one of the sacred dogmas that came into play from the 1980s onwards: that, in the case of the multicultural literary work, the admixture and its proportions were immediately noticeable, and it was therefore possible to applaud and celebrate them, rather than necessarily the work, accordingly.
Exactly when the idea came to me of getting Mehrotra nominated for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, I can’t recall, but it was obviously post-1989, with the Benjamin Zephaniah nomination pointing towards a course of action. Not that I was thinking of Mehrotra in terms of his potential comic disruptiveness; but some sort of unsettlement was going to be welcome. Besides, I felt Mehrotra would make for a genuinely excellent lecturer, and his self-aware position as an Indian modern made him, for me, a far better choice for the Professorship than the sort of ‘great’ poet who’d lost his tenancy in the emptiness of evangelical liberal democracy during globalisation.
The Picador anthology came out in 2001. The director of British Council India, in a moment of generosity, commissioned a poster exhibition as a response to it. I asked Naveen Kishore, publisher of Seagull Books, an imprint known for the beauty of its jacket designs, whether he’d take on the brief of producing the posters. Naveen created an elegant series using black-and-white photographs he’d taken himself, playing with typeface and selecting one randomly chosen quotation from pieces in the anthology per poster. One poster bore a line from Michael Madhusudan Dutt; one a remark from a letter Tagore had written; another a quote from ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’; another simply displayed the title of an A.K. Ramanujan essay, ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?’ There were several others. Peter D. McDonald, who teaches English at Oxford and saw some of the posters I’d taken there with me, was struck especially by the Mehrotra quote that Naveen had used, a slightly edited version of this long sentence: ‘Between Nabokov’s English and Russian, between Borges’s Spanish and English, between Ramanujan’s English and Tamil-Kannada, between the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition and folk material, and between the Bharhut Stupa and Gond carvings many cycles of give-and-take are set in motion.’
The sentence is doing something that isn’t obvious at first. The back and forth, or the ‘give-andtake… motion’, between ‘Ramanujan’s English and Tamil-Kannada, between the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition and folk material’ et cetera, isn’t an unexpected sort of movement – between the ‘high’, and the ‘low’ or ‘popular’. It’s the transverse movement across the sentence, connecting Nabokov, Borges, Ramanujan, the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition, and the Bharhut Stupa to each other – characterising another kind of ‘give and take’ that enables these very analogies – that constitutes its departure. It signals Mehrotra’s unwillingness to be constrained by conventional histories of cultural interaction or influence across the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ – so that he slyly sidesteps them or appears inadvertently to ignore them. There’s a transaction between the high, the sacred with the vernacular and the profane, the sentence claims; this much is conventional wisdom. But the sentence also claims that such a transaction characterises every culture, in ways that puts cultures in conversation with each other. These conversations between cultures aren’t to do with ‘diff erence’ (in which, say, the East might play the role of the irrational, the West of Enlightenment humanism); nor do they represent a conciliatory humanism, in which East and West seek versions of themselves in each other. Instead, Mehrotra behaves as if each pairing represents comparable literary trajectories that echo and illuminate each other; one of the things that the sentence declares is that the colonial encounter is hardly the only way of interpreting the contiguity between the West and the East, or even the ‘high’ to the ‘vernacular’. The echoes that comprise the conversation (‘Borges’s Spanish and English… Ramanujan’s English and Tamil-Kannada… the pan Indian Sanskritic tradition and folk material’) exist independently of each other, but their overlaps aren’t entirely coincidental. They can only be noticed and connected in a head such as Mehrotra’s, in whom, in some way not entirely explained by colonialism and the Empire, with their restrictive itineraries, these histories (catalogued in the sentence) come together. The echoes, overheard by Mehrotra, signal a liberation from those clearly demarcated histories of cultural interchange.
It was around that time that I asked Peter to read ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ in the Picador anthology, and also to consider the thought that Mehrotra be nominated for the Oxford Poetry Professorship. I hoped that Peter would be drawn to Mehrotra’s larger statement, indeed to his work. This did become the case; so I’m not surprised to find an email query in my ‘sent’ inbox, addressed to Peter on 23 January 2009, when the opportune moment had clearly arisen:
Dear Peter, I notice they’re looking for a new Professor of Poetry to dawdle beneath the dreaming spires. Should we conspire to get Arvind Krishna Mehrotra nominated?
Peter replied an hour later, saying he was going to try to enlist colleagues in the department and then proceed with the nomination, for which ten ‘members of congregation and convocation’, or fully paid-up Oxford University employees and/or degree-holders, were required. I alerted the Irish poet-critic Tom Paulin, who was out of sorts but still teaching at Hertford. Peter photocopied ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ from the Picador anthology, I poems from Middle Earth: New and Selected Poems and The Transfiguring Places (the books, like those of most Indian English poets, were out of print) at a shop in Gariahat in Calcutta, and scanned and sent them to Peter, for circulation, and also to Tom, who said he would decide after he had investigated further.
Who is Arvind Krishna Mehrotra? No full account could be given to people – and I include, here, some of the nominators – who knew little of him and his work. All that could be done was to put samples, the essay, and a short biography out there and hope that this would open up a conversation that would introduce, in the lead-up to the elections, a new set of terms. Some might have noticed that Mehrotra, born in 1947, was a ‘midnight’s child,’ but that neither his work nor life carried any news of the nation as we’d come to understand it. The middleclass suburb figured in the most characteristic poems. He was born in Lahore. He grew up in a small town, Allahabad, and was educated there and in another one, Bhilai, and was later a graduate student in Bombay. Still later, he’d spend two years in Iowa, homesick for India, but there was no whiff , until the 2009 campaign, of Oxbridge about him. Allahabad was an intellectual centre that was moving unobtrusively, by the time Mehrotra was seventeen and already entertaining ambitions of being a poet, towards decline. And yet Allahabad is where he discovered Ezra Pound and the Beat poets, and, with a friend, brought into existence a short-lived little magazine, damn you/a magazine of the arts, echoing Ed Sanders’s New York periodical from the early 1960s, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. The publication’s name, it seems to me, is intent on turning Sanders’s challenge into a Poundian imprecation, from one who clearly shared with the narrator of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ a combative impatience about being ‘born / In a half savage country, out of date; / Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn.’ What sorts of lilies? At nineteen, he was a youthful and exasperated satirist in vers libre, in a declamatory mode borrowed from Ginsberg, opening his long poem to the nation, Bharatmata: A Prayer, with: ‘india / my beloved country, ah my motherland / you are, in the world’s slum / the lavatory.’ It was 1966, two years after Nehru’s death, a time in which the late prime minister’s projects of industrialisation and austerity continued doggedly to be pursued. Then, around 1969-70, something magical happens, and, in rhythms and imagery that glance knowingly both at French surrealism and American poetry, Mehrotra begins to produce his first mature poems, which are often parables about suburban Allahabad:
This is about the green miraculous trees,
And old clocks on stone towers,
And playgrounds full of light
And dark blue uniforms.
At eight I’m a Boy Scout and make a tent
By stretching a bed-sheet over parallel bars… (‘Continuities’)
At least two things strike us as we acquaint ourselves with Mehrotra’s life and oeuvre. The first has to do with movement. How does a person who has moved relatively little encounter and even anticipate the contemporary world of ideas and letters – in an age without the fax and internet, in which the speediest epistolary communication is the telegram? It’s a mystery that has no adequate explanation. Yet scratch the surface of the life and the history that produced it, and you find that Mehrotra exemplifies not an aberration but a pattern. It’s a pattern that defines both India and much of literary modernity, and Mehrotra embodies it in the singular way in which he traverses the provincial and the cosmopolitan. This would have always made it difficult to present him in the campaign as a postcolonial who – like Derek Walcott, according to his supporters – had somehow transcended his identity into the realm of universality. (‘With Walcott, you need only to remember the name,’ an English professor had said dreamily to students.) Mehrotra, like Allahabad, was an anomaly, and modernity was local and anomalous. The second thing that becomes clear quickly is Mehrotra’s indifference to creating an authentic ‘Indian’ idiom in English. Instead, like the speaker of a later poem, ‘Borges,’ he seems content to let ‘the borrowed voice / [set] the true one free’. In an email to me he once admitted that, as a young man, he’d turned to French surrealism because he wanted to escape ‘the language of nightingales and skylarks’. The same could presumably be said of his lifelong preoccupation, as both a poet and translator, with Pound, William Carlos Williams, and the emphatic dialogue of American cartoons. What’s notable is the historical and creative intelligence latent in this statement: the notion that neither the English language nor Western culture is a continuous and unbroken entity, that each is heterogeneous and will contain within itself breaks and departures (such as French surrealism and the diction of Pound). No break need be made from it, because that’s probably impossible; instead, a break might be effected through it by deliberately choosing one register or history over another. Modernism and Pound’s poetry, then, aren’t absolutes for Mehrotra; they constitute, instead, a breakdown in ‘the language of skylarks and nightingales’.
This breakdown will resonate very differently for an Indian – for whom ‘Western culture’ is an ambivalent but real inheritance – from the way it will for a European to whom that inheritance is a given. It also means that the Indian poet in English will be less of a creator busy originating an authentic tongue, and more like a jazz musician, listening acutely to the conflicting tonality – nightingales, skylarks, the Beat poets, Pound – of what surrounds and precedes him. Out of this curious tradition (which in no way precludes Indian writing: Mehrotra’s translations include versions of Prakrit love poetry, of Kabir, and of the contemporary Hindi poet Vinod Kumar Shukla, and it’s often at the moment of translation that the registers I’ve mentioned are counterintuitively adopted), he must make something of his ‘own’.
The enervating, bewildering, and thrilling elements of the Mehrotra campaign are too many in number to enumerate here. Let me recount a few points, some of which are already familiar to those who kept track of the event. We ended up recruiting a mix of well-wishers and personal contacts, all of them distinguished in their fields, as supporters, some of them already admirers of Mehrotra. Among the latter were the novelists Geoff Dyer and Toby Litt and the Romanticist Jon Mee. Tariq Ali was made to reacquaint himself with the work and became one of the most vocal supporters of the candidacy; Tom Paulin joined the campaign once his investigations confi rmed the value of the candidate; Wendy Doniger and the philosopher Charles Taylor discovered Mehrotra for the first time and came on board; Homi Bhabha pledged support and mysteriously vanished; old friends and recent acquaintances including the scientists Sunetra Gupta and Rohit Manchanda, the historians Shahid Amin and Ananya Vajpeyi, the political thinker Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and the literary scholars Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Swapan Chakravorty, Uttara Natarajan, Rosinka Chaudhuri, and Subha Mukherjee – all ‘members of convocation’ – put in their signatures. A lot of leg-work was put in by Dr Sally Bayley, then a part-time lecturer at Balliol College, and she didn’t seem to mind off ending the faculty’s inner circle, comprising, among others, Hermione Lee and my excellent former supervisor Jon Stallworthy. I was thinking of approaching another literary friend, the poet Ruth Padel, for a signature, when, curiously, she announced her candidacy and approached me for mine. Ruth is charming, and a good poet and speaker, but her hands-on approach to her own nomination was unprecedented; nominees are historically aloof from electioneering. Whether her style was an appropriation of the methods of market activism, to which the author’s cooperation in, and production of, PR is oxygen, I can’t decide; some form of activism it certainly was. Later, after the whole abortive 2009 elections were over, Tariq Ali, in a fit of anger, would, in an email to me, call Padel’s a ‘New Labourstyle campaign’, a style manufactured in the 1990s and discomfiting to the old Left.
Still in the early days of the lead-up to the elections, I wrote a sonorous paragraph that was only slightly tweaked by Peter: ‘Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is one of the leading Indian poets in the English language, and one of the finest poets working in any language. Influential anthologist, translator, and commentator, he is a poet-critic of an exceptionally high order. Mehrotra has much to say of value – of urgency – on the matter of multilingualism, creative practice, and translation (in both its literal and figurative sense), issues that are pressingly important in today’s world. He is not an easy “postcolonial” choice, for he emerges from a rich and occasionally fraught world history of cosmopolitanism; but he is proof – as critic and artist – that cosmopolitanism is not only about European eclecticism, but about a wider, more complex network of languages and histories. For these reasons he would make an excellent, and timely, Professor of Poetry at Oxford.’ This was circulated widely and put in the fl yer; Peter sent it out along with the poems and the essay into the English faculty. By now, the official candidate, Derek Walcott, was in place. Poems by the three contenders appeared in the Oxford Magazine, chosen by Bernard O’Donoghue of the ‘official’ camp, but enough of a devotee of poetry (and a gentleman) to convey his admiration for Mehrotra’s verse to Peter.
One thing Mehrotra had on his side as a writer was age – he was sixty-two. In the time of Romanticism and in the Modernist twentieth century, early death or suicide was the writer’s sole means of unfettering themselves of conventional valuation and breaking through instantaneously. In the shrunken time of globalisation, in the eternity of the piazza, when the constant cycles of boom and bust that governed the market ensured that many economic and cultural lifetimes could occur in a decade, the writer needed to simply survive, to grow old, so that he might outlive those cycles, the piazza’s eternity, into a mini-epoch (maybe a period of bust) when the literary is again visible. This crucial task, of growing old, Mehrotra had performed perfectly. Just as the market had triumphantly annexed and put to use the language of literary valuation disposed of by literature departments, the literary activist after the 1990s must ideally study the patterns of the free market, its repetition of boom and bust, its unravelling, to employ those rhythms on behalf of the literary. In the (often selfdestructive) unpredictability of globalisation, the literary writer’s function is to wait; and not die.
The story of the 2009 elections threatened to become sordid in the contemporary manner reserved for celebrity when The Independent, and consequently The Sunday Times and other papers, carried a report about how a dossier had begun to be circulated about Walcott’s past misdemeanours: in particular, his alleged sexual harassment of two students, one at Harvard University and the other at Boston, in 1982 and 1996 respectively. These instances, however, were no secret. Before very long, Walcott withdrew from the race, with Padel earning great resentment from the ‘offi cial’ camp as she was accused of first alerting the press to Walcott’s undeniable history – a charge she strenuously denied. Many in the ‘inner circle’ pointed out that the only honourable course of action for the two remaining candidates now was to withdraw. Among those who advocated this course of action was a different Peter McDonald: the Irish poet and Christ Church lecturer. (I’ve always believed that Oxford is a place of inconvenient doppelgangers.) All this time, another upheaval was taking place, unreported: various faculty members were discovering, via the emailed scans, a compelling poet and essayist in Mehrotra. So much so that Mehrotra became the first contender who, as a losing outsider, gained as many as 129 votes. Padel won handsomely with 297 votes on 16 May and in so doing became the first woman to be elected to the post in 301 years. She resigned nine days later, admitting, after her involvement in the matter became undeniable: ‘I did not engage in a smear campaign against [Walcott], but, as a result of student concern, I naively – and with hindsight unwisely – passed on to two journalists, whom I believed to be covering the whole election responsibly, information that was already in the public domain.’ Tariq Ali and others wondered why Mehrotra wasn’t made Professor by default, as did a New York Times editorial on 26 May, which pointed out: ‘The only person who comes out well in all of this is … Mehrotra… Oxford would do well to confirm him and allow everyone to move along until the next election, five years hence.’ But Oxford declared the elections invalid, so paving the way for Geoffrey Hill’s uncontested appointment to the post the next year: another ‘great’ poet hobbled in some ways by the political order under liberal democracy, envious, occasionally, of the authoritative suffering caused by a now-historic totalitarianism.
What the 2009 elections are largely remembered for is Padel’s radical, discredited, sui generis style, leading at first to success and then disgrace, but which widened the arcane sphere of the professorship into the logic of the epoch: the activism of the marketplace, where volatility now takes on the incarnation of literary value, now of justice, but remains otherwise irreducible. It is remembered for those regal, glacial categories or objects, such as Walcott’s reputation, and, on closer examination, the undemocratic ‘inner circle’, that transcended the workings of the market, but were vulnerable for precisely this reason and in a way appropriated. As for the Mehrotra campaign, which approached the press only on behalf of a poetic and critical practice and not ethnicity or identity, and which fell on neither side of the dichotomy, its fate, despite its impact, was to be not properly noticed and remembered. Perhaps it’s integral to literary activism that it not be properly remembered or noticed, but experienced, uncovered, excavated, and read?
I should mention, before I conclude by reflecting on our adventure, that there was an attempt to push Mehrotra’s candidacy into a postcolonial rubric, and then also to claim that he threatened to split the valuable ‘postcolonial’ vote. That his candidacy was deliberately distanced from such a positioning – echoing Mehrotra’s own description of the Indian multilingual poem as something that possesses no reliable signs of identity – should be something we consider when we account for what the aims of literary activism are. The official Oxford dispensation didn’t know what to make of Mehrotra, as he didn’t come with mainstream markers of literary pedigree; nor was he a hero of the new peripheries; nor did he embody market style. His behaviour as a candidate was impeccable, but the nature of his candidacy was on more than one level resistant. If resistance, or difficulty, enlarges our notion of literature, then the inner circle was, in turn, resistant to such an enlargement. After Walcott’s withdrawal, it instructed its members and students – despite the fact that many of them were increasingly aware and appreciative of Mehrotra’s merits – to abstain from voting: otherwise, there was every chance that Mehrotra would have won.
Our intention – the pronoun includes Peter D. McDonald, myself, and Mehrotra, who had graciously accepted our proposal in the first place – was, I venture, never to win. This doesn’t mean that the campaign pursued a romantic courtship of failure; not at all. Rather, our marshalling of people and resources was worldly and political but being liberated from the thought of victory meant our activities could take on dimensions that would otherwise have been proscribed to it; it allowed Mehrotra to plot and devise his lectures in the way we had plotted the campaign, as a deliberate long shot that should succeed. To the literary pages of the Hindu Mehrotra proclaimed that he would ‘broaden the scope’ of what had been a ‘Eurocentric’ (an unusual wordchoice for Mehrotra) job, and that he wasn’t losing sleep over the imminent results. As it happens, Mehrotra and I had a long-distance phone conversation not long before the voting, and he said to me that he’d had a sleepless night at the not-wholly-improbable prospect of winning. It would have been a disaster – for him. In his way, Mehrotra was miming the elusiveness and difficulty of the literary as Padel had the methods of the market. This threw a kind of light, for me, on the event.
1. David Wallace-Well, ‘How Benjamin Kunkel Went from Novelist to Marxist Public Intellectual,’ Vulture.com, https://www.vulture.com/2014/03/benjamin-kunkel-marxist-novel-utopia-or-bust.html
2. Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,’ in Virginia Woolf, Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 32.
Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. He conceptualised the ‘literary activism’ symposia, and is the editor of this website.
This essay was originally presented at the inaugural symposium in Calcutta in December 2014. It was collected with other papers in a volume called Literary Activism: A Symposium, edited by Amit Chaudhuri and published in 2017 by Oxford University Press and Boiler House Press.