The Alphonso is the king of all mangoes. And, the mango is the king of all fruits. This is what Rafi’s mother had always told him each year when mango season came around. Yet, Rafi could count, on both hands, the number of mangoes he had ever eaten in his nineteen years. And none at all since she had died three years ago.
She had said, “Is this your old stuff that nobody wants?”
He had looked up sharply, shaking his head, “No, no, just arrived. Today only.”
He had unfolded and pleated the gossamer-like creation, and fanned it out expansively in front of them. A pink georgette sari with hand-embroidered zardozi motifs all over and hand-sewn, gold-encrusted nakshi embroidery at the borders. The blouse: a contrasting blue velvet piece with dense embroidery and woven gold tassels. And the petticoat: a matching unstitched butter crepe.
Fingers grabbing for the rich fabrics, they had mouthed “oohs” and “aahs” rather satisfyingly.
“Sunset pink, Ma’am. Unique piece,” he had slipped into the sales patter he had heard so many times, “Look at the intricate patterns and exquisite finish.” And, somewhat shyly, “Will suit you well, Ma’am,” which had brought an amused look from the man and a distracted half-smile from the woman.
Eleven Eleven Journal is a literature and arts magazine published (in print) biannually through the MFA Writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
I wrote this story as a subversive response to certain critiques and how-tos on South Asian writing. In particular, what had begun to annoy me was the repetitive finger-wagging about how including cultural markers like mangoes or saris or monsoons or spices is an attempt to exoticize your stories for wider audiences. Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen: here’s Jeet Thayil saying, “I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons. The problem with those books about India which paint Indian society in soft focuses [is that] I find it very difficult to recognize the country I know in those books.” [For more thoughts on this, please see the footnotes.]
He’s not entirely wrong, of course. Many Indian or Indian-origin writers put all of those things in their stories to appeal to particular kinds of readers.
Exhibit B is this Granta piece by four well-known Pakistani writers — Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Kamila Shamsie — on how to write about Pakistan, beginning with how to reference mangoes, particularly. Almost everything can be applied to India too.
But, see, these things — mangoes, saris, monsoons, spices, etc. — are very much a part of India and Indian life. So I decided I would not only put them all in a story but I would make them major plot points. That inner rebel simply could not resist taking on the challenge of writing a story with all of these and, yet, keeping it real.
About the story:
The summer of 2014 is a heady time in India as a new political era is underway, where even a former tea-seller could be elected the country’s Prime Minister. 19-year-old slum-dwelling Rafi, who came to Mumbai as a child with his single mother, is one of the countless rural migrants the teeming city continues to take in daily. He works in a sari shop and can barely afford the delicious mangoes he longs for.
The ripening season of Rafi’s youth has emboldened his ideals of transcending age-old class and caste hierarchies. Allowing his poetic sense of beauty and aesthetics to blur those hierarchical lines, he speaks up when he isn’t expected or required to.
Then, he foregoes an entire meal to buy and eat a mango instead, and it takes him into an ecstasy of memories mixed up with dream-fantasies. On the following day, his entire sense-perception of the world and his place in it is altered, driving him to take a bold new step. The bittersweet fruit of wisdom he gains, however, is that, invariably, the only people who can break the rules are those who made them up in the first place.
Before the larger literary debates on cultural appropriation and pandering, there were smaller, less popular ones that did not attract as much attention. These tiny sparks shone bright for an instant here or there, but never quite managed to light a fire. Within South Asian literary circles, these existed as follows: ‘fetishizing for foreigners‘ or ‘The 17 Elements of a (Bad) South Asian Novel‘ or ‘Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences‘ and a lot more such.
The upshot of all of these is simply: do not write as if for an audience that is unfamiliar with your cultural markers. In other words, do not “over-explain” or “exoticize” them to pander to people of other cultures. This is a fair point and has been made by many writers of color over the decades. The problem, however, is more complex. What do I do ‘When My Authentic is Your Exotic‘, as Soniah Kamal writes in Literary Hub?
To be fair, there is more nuanced commentary out there too. For example, Amitava Kumar’s ‘The Shiver of the Real: Raising the Stakes for Indian Writing in English‘, to which I commented:
Recently, much has been made of Indian writing, particularly the paucity of regional language translations into English. While this essay isn’t just about that subject, it does need more continued consideration across the literati in both hemispheres.
That said, I am with the author here that we need to consider such translations for readership in India, not just for Western audiences. I, too, am getting a bit tired of reading about the struggles of Indians adapting to and living in the West. Particularly because today’s India is more complex and varied than it has ever been and the millions living there are dealing with their own (I might even say – greater) challenges of surviving in that ever-changing country. The stories of these challenges and how they, in turn, are also reshaping India — both need to be given relevant platforms. Let’s not have the global narrative about India just be the stories of its diaspora. There are many other stories that reveal the muck and the glory of this country; the once-was and the could-have-been and the trying-to-be India. These are the stories I want to read.
And Anjum Hasan’s ‘Code Read: The Way We Write Now‘, which made this key point:
The larger phenomenon is that of India’s English-speaking middle classes struggling to form a reliable self-image, unable to find a vantage from which to view themselves, and ending up confusing their lifestyles with their lives.
As a result, such fiction is often about just that—lifestyle. Supposedly liberal attitudes; stock differences between parents and children; ho-hum stories of career advancement and office life; an obsession with money-making; the challenges of finding the right mate and relationship woes; what people eat and how they dress; gadgets, toys, homes, furniture, cars, vacations—all this is overwhelmingly the stuff of this literature, even as apparently moral dilemmas occupy the characters and move the story along. (It takes a highly aware writer to make revealing fiction out of consumerism. Jonathan Franzen, for instance, goes beyond the naming of things in his novels to create a distinctive idiom out of the elaborate and oppressive material paraphernalia of middle-class life.)
Though, I must confess that I do not entirely agree with her admiration of Franzen’s skill with portraying middle-class life. I find him both over-rated and, when it comes to writing women, “clumsy” is too light an accusation. More on that some other time.