15 Literary Spats That Captivated India

14/09/2015 7:50 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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9th November 1968: Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, West Indian novelist. (Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Literary spats are amazing--it's great fun to watch from the sidelines as two writers go at each other's throats. As sublime putdowns ("Pankaj Mishra... remains a writer of promise"), name calling ("sourpuss, a cheapskate and a blamer") and insults ("the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment") rent the air, the rest of us get to watch, revel in the erudition and cattiness, while occasionally consulting the dictionary.

In the backdrop of the little email exchange between two writers we wrote about this morning, here are some of the blockbuster literary feuds that have kept Indians engrossed. This is limited to Indian writers in English and also includes writers who are not strictly Indian but are of interest to us due to their work. The writers featured in this list include Patrick French, V.S. Naipaul, William Dalrymple, Pankaj Mishra, Ramchandra Guha, Arundhati Roy, Taslima Nasreen and Khushwant Singh, among others.

Here are 15 of the most brutal literary battles between the country’s leading chroniclers and thinkers, which have unfolded since 1999. Among the recurring themes in these exchanges are deep divergences about who should be writing about India, and how do English-language authors portray the country to the West.

Be warned that their gloves really come off in these reviews, rejoinders and debates. And boy, it does get personal. Grab popcorn.

  • 'The Literary Raj': Hartosh Singh Bal asks why William Dalrymple is central to India's literary culture
    PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
    Click on the festival website and the first name that comes up is William Dalrymple: ‘the author of seven acclaimed works of history and travel, including The City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the bestselling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson, and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New Statesman and The Guardian. He published Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India to great acclaim in October 2009, and the book went straight to the top of the Indian bestseller list. He is a director of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival.’ I have been told that Dalrymple is a personable man, and in my own encounters with him I have indeed found him so, but what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book, The City of Djinns, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India? I think the answer lies in the description cited above. This director of an Indian literary festival does not consider it important to mention an Indian prize he may have received or an Indian publication he may have written for. His eyes are trained on the recognition that Britain’s literary world offers (even if there is the hint that commercial success in India has started mattering), and in that recognition lies his strength. If Jaipur matters as a festival, it is because of the writers from Britain it attracts.
    Read Bal's piece in Open Magazine published in January 2011.
  • 'The Piece You Ran Is Blatantly Racist': William Dalrymple responds to Hartosh Singh Bal
    Hartosh Singh Bal Twitter
    The piece you ran this week, and the whole-page cartoon you ran with it, felt to me blatantly racist. I am glad to see that most of the comments posted under the piece seemed to agree that Hartosh’s principal grouse seemed to be the colour of my skin. After all, I am hardly a pampered expat on a three-year expenses-paid stint. I have lived in this country on and off for more than 25 years—most of my adult life since I first came here in 1984—and have done so on the hard-earned royalties of my books. I have now written five books on India which, whatever their many failings, surely represents a serious commitment of time, work and love to this country. I conceived, co-founded and co-direct the DSC Jaipur Lit Fest, which is now the largest in the Eastern half of the globe, and brings fine writers together in 12 of India’s 22 official languages. Thanks to the funding we work hard to raise, it does so entirely for free, for anyone who loves literature, in addition to which we raise money to provide bursaries for those who can’t afford it to attend from across India. To date, I and my co-director Namita Gokhale have been paid little more than expenses for this labour of love, which now takes up about a quarter of our year.
    Read Dalrymple's response in Open Magazine published in January 2011.
  • 'A Curzon Without An Empire': Pankaj Mishra’s crack at Patrick French’s 'India: A Portrait'
    Amazon
    Unfortified by first-hand experience, French often succumbs to the intellectual languor and overworked templates of foreign journalists in India. He prefers to rhapsodise about the making of the Constitution, although the strength of Indian democracy today is found in the many civil society movements, and sections of the press that still retain a degree of public-spiritedness. Likewise, many intrepid and powerless Dalit individuals and organisations today fight for social and economic justice; but for French it is, predictably, Mayawati who embodies low-caste assertiveness. There is something very retro about his conclusion that corruption in India is caused by “poverty and social imbalance”; it reminds you of the small-time bribe-taking babus, netas and thanedars of a relatively innocent, pre-1991 era.
    Read the full review in Outlook Magazine published in January 2011.
  • 'Cameron’s Cuz Is More The Curzon’: Patrick French’s rejoinder to Pankaj Mishra’s review
    On Being/Flickr
    For a reviewer, it is the cheapest shot in the locker to compare any foreigner you disagree with to a British imperialist. For the record, I am the first member of my family to go to the subcontinent. My grandparents came from Ireland—and the Irish did not rule India. Perhaps it is Pankaj, with his high, sanctimonious tone and his migratory bio (he apparently divides his time between Delhi, Shimla and London) who sounds more like the viceroy Lord Curzon. Pankaj has obviously been on a long journey from his self-described origins—in what he calls a “new, very poor and relatively inchoate Asian society”—to his present position at the heart of the British establishment, married to a cousin of the prime minister David Cameron. But he seems oddly resentful of the idea of social mobility for other Indians.
    Read the full rejoinder in Outlook Magazine published in February 2011.
  • Taslima Nasreen accuses Bengali Writer Sunil Gangopadhyay of getting her book 'Dwikhandita' banned
    MYCHELE DANIAU via Getty Images
    I know Sunilda for more than 25 years. His one terrible lie in the media made me react. He expressed his opinion on the ban on Nazrul Islam's (additional director general of police, training) book (Musalmander Koroniyo or (what Muslims Should Do). He said he believes in free speech and that he is against banning any book. It is a lie. He was not against the banning of my book Dwikhandito. Rather he took an initiative to ban the book. If he did not lie, I would not have said anything. He is not for my free speech. He also insisted that I leave West Bengal when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was desperate to throw me out in 2007. He phoned me and asked me to leave. Political parties used me for their own interests. But why should a writer support a ban on another writer's book? Why should a writer ask a fellow writer to leave the state only to please a political party instead of defending freedom of expression? By the by, I shared my painful experience of being sexually molested by Sunilda.
    Read Nasreen's full interview in The Indian Express published in September 2012.
  • Sunil Gangopadhyay hits back at Tasleema Nasreen
    Sunil Gangopadhyay's website
    I am against any kind of censorship. I did not play any role in her book being banned. All I did was advise her against attacking the Muslim religion. There were some sections (in her book) which were extremely derogatory to Prophet Mohammed. As someone who cared for her, I explained to her that these passages were unnecessarily inflammatory and would incite communal violence. There is a time and place for everything. I warned her that India is not yet ready for the kind of freedom of expression she is talking about. In more liberal societies, when there are objections to someone’s point of view, differences of opinions are dealt with rationally. But this is India, where emotions are raw and there is the threat that violent situations can erupt at the slightest provocation. Just before she was shifted out of Calcutta, the situation in Bengal was volatile, with angry mobs baying for her blood. It was dangerous for her. But she did not pay heed to my advice.
    Read Gangopadhyay's response in Outlook Magazine published in September 2012.
  • 'Why Has Naipaul Been Honoured?' Girish Karnad's critique of V.S. Naipaul's stand on Indian Muslims
    SHANDE/FLICKR
    Now again, what he says is predictable, which is that the Muslims destroyed Indian architecture, that everything went to pot. They were the raiders, they were the destroyers, and you have to look at any building to see what happened during the Muslim regime. And here is what he said about the Taj when people argued with him: "The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that I found it painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks about the blood of the people None of us, if we were at the Taj, would think of the extravagance that speaks about the blood of the people! That's why you get a Nobel Prize, you know. Naipaul is a foreigner and can make pronouncements as he wishes. But do they mean to valorise Naipaul's stand that Indian Muslims are raiders and marauders? Are they supporting his continued insistence on Muslim buildings in India being monuments to rape and loot? Or are they by their silence suggesting that these views do not matter?
    Read Karnad's critique in Outlook Magazine published in November 2012.
  • 'Anything To Declare At Immigration': Mihir Sharma takes down Anand Giriharadas' 'India Calling'
    Amazon
    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Indian-American in possession of some years' experience of India must be in want of a book contract. I had hoped, while reviewing India Calling, to not make large and expansive statements about "such books". But it seems I will fail. Partly because essentialising is a very contagious disease, and every page of India Calling is crawling with its icky germs, as also with those other brain-eating bacilli, Generalisation and Extrapolation. Partly because little in this particular book sets it apart from anything else in the genre, other than its quite unashamedly effusive blurbs. And partly because it is so extremely irritating a book that actually focusing on just it for very long hurts my head.
    Read the full review in The Indian Express published in February 2011.
  • 'The Age of Seth': Mihir Sharma smashes Suhel Seth's 'Get to the Top: The Ten Rules for Social Success'
    Amazon
    Suhel Seth believes this is a helpful instruction manual, therefore, on how to be Suhel Seth. For those of us with more modest ambitions, however, it is an indispensable document to the time in which we now live: an age in which India’s apparent entrepreneurial dynamism is being replaced with an economy structured around rent-seeking and the sifarishi sycophancy that it engenders, around the discreet sale and purchase of private information at a scale which would make Rajat Gupta shudder. An age—let us call it the Age of Seth—when a closed, Brahminical notion of public discourse appears to have died, but has actually only disguised itself as a culture that prizes mediocrity, insulated from challenge by the same walls of privilege that have protected it all along.
    Read the full review in Caravan Magazine published in December 2011.
  • 'Watch This Man': Pankaj Mishra smashes Niall Ferguson's 'Civilisation: The West and the Rest'
    Amazon
    To explain the contingent, short-lived factors that gave a few countries in Western Europe their advantage over the rest of the world requires a sustained and complex analysis, not one hell-bent on establishing that the West was, and is, best. At the very least, it needs the question to be correctly put. To ask, as Ferguson does, why the West broke through to capitalist modernity and became the originator of globalisation is to assume that this was inevitable, and that it resulted basically from the wonderfulness of the West, not to mention the hopelessness of the East. Still, Ferguson remains defiantly loyal to his neoimperialist vision, scoffing at those who can still ‘work themselves up into a state of high moral indignation over the misdeeds of the European empires’. ‘Misdeeds there certainly were,’ he admits and, as in Empire, he provides a very selective list that excludes the famines in Bengal, and the extermination of ten million people in the Congo.
    Read the review in London Review of Books published in November 2011.
  • Letters: Ferguson demands an apology from Pankaj Mishra
    Associated Press
    It is not my habit to reply to hostile book reviews, but a personal attack that amounts to libel is another matter. Pankaj Mishra purports to discuss my book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, but in reality his review is a crude attempt at character assassination, which not only mendaciously misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist. I am, I repeat, owed an apology.
    Mishra responds to Ferguson
    Niall Ferguson’s strenuous attempts to distinguish himself from Stoddard – which make him flag his differences with, of all people, George Wallace – are misplaced. Hardly anyone is a racist in the Stoddardian sense today, even if they raise the alarm against Muslim ‘colonisers’ of a ‘senescent’ Europe, or fret about feckless white Americans being outpaced by hard-working Asian-Americans. Ferguson is no racist, in part because he lacks the steady convictions of racialist ideologues like Stoddard. Rather, his writings, heralding an American imperium in 2003, Chimerica in 2006, and the ‘Chinese Century’ in 2011, manifest a wider pathology among intellectuals once identified by Orwell: ‘the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’.
    Ferguson responds to Mishra
    Pankaj Mishra is now in full and ignominious retreat. As my last letter explained, in his review of my book Civilisation, he made a vile allegation of racism against me . In his response he nowhere denies that this was his allegation; nor does he deny that he intended to make it. He now acknowledges that I am no racist. Any decent person would make an unconditional apology and stop there. But Mishra proves incapable of doing the right thing. His mealy-mouthed acknowledgment is qualified by the offensive suggestion that I lack ‘the steady convictions of racialist ideologues’, to whom his original review so outrageously compared me. Mishra’s slippery spin on his original words is that he meant to accuse me only of a ‘wider pathology’ of ‘bow[ing] down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’. Unfortunately for his reputation, this new smear is also demonstrably false.
    Mishra responds to Ferguson
    It is hard, even with Google, to keep up with Ferguson’s many claims and counter-claims. But his announcements of the dawning of the ‘Chinese Century’ and his more recent revised prophecy that India will outpace China, can be found as quickly as the boisterous heralding of the American imperium that he now disavows. As for his views on the innate superiority, indeed indispensability, of Western civilisation, these can be easily ascertained from his published writings and statements. It says something about the political culture of our age that Ferguson has got away with this disgraced worldview for as long as he has. Certainly, it now needs to be scrutinised in places other than the letters page of the LRB.
    Read the exchange between Ferguson and Mishra in the London Review of Books published in 2011.
  • 'Manual For La-Di-Dahlings': Khushwant Singh reviews Shobha De’s 'Spouse: The Truth About Marriage'
    Amazon
    Shobhaa Dé is eminently qualified to write on man-woman relationships and the pitfalls of matrimony. Her latest St Valentine's Day gift to her innumerable admirers is a box of mithai with her motto: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again." Her first try was marrying into the wealthy Kilachand family. The second was a short-term affair with a firangi that did not lead to the altar. She briefly mentions the first but overlooks writing anything about the second. Then she met Dilip Dé. Though no casanova, he was a shipowner, lived in a luxurious flat, had a weekend bungalow in Pune, another on the seaside resort of Alibaug and a couple of chauffeur-driven limousines. He was also divorced and on the lookout for a nice-looking replacement. Shobhaa's dil began to dhak dhak. She tossed her long, jet-black hair covering a part of her fair face with a gesture she has made her trademark (later copied by the likes of Nalini Singh) and said dil tera, ghar mera. So they tied the knot and have lived on cloud nine of matrimonial bliss with their brood of six children—hers, his and theirs.
    Read the full review in Outlook magazine published in February 2005.
  • 'The Beatnik Before Christ' : William Dalrymple critiques Pankaj Mishra’s 'An End To Suffering is The Buddha in the World'
    Amazon
    In a field still dominated by the St Stephen's mafia and the Doon School diaspora, Mishra is an outsider. He was born in Jhansi and grew up in dusty railway colonies around Uttar Pradesh, before taking a degree in the decaying anarchy of Allahabad University. In contrast to the optimistic platitudes of a diaspora writer like, say, Sunil Khilnani—educated abroad and clearly knowing nothing of the grim reality of the boondocks of Bihar—Mishra does not lecture the world about South Asia from the sanitised safety of an East Coast campus. Instead, he writes as a man who really knows, from hard experience, the provincial India he writes about and in which he still lives for most of the year. Like Nirad Chaudhuri, Mishra is a writer of exact and precise descriptive prose who can write with startling clarity about his physical surroundings and the world of sensation. Unfortunately, Mishra also shares Chaudhuri's taste for meandering, earnest and slightly portentous theoretical passages where, with the unwise daring of the autodidact, he attempts to plumb the depths of the Hindu soul, to ask all the big questions about the human condition, and to examine the higher processes at work in world history. It is at these moments that, like Chaudhuri, Mishra occasionally slips over the boundary into straightforward pretentiousness.
    Read the full review in Outlook Magazine published in November 2004.
  • 'The Djinns of Conceit': Ramachandra Guha slams William Dalrymple's review of Pankaj Mishra's book
    Manpreet Romana via Getty Images
    Divide-and-Rule is an old British sport. Once, Winston Churchill warned Indians against following Mahatma Gandhi on the grounds that Gandhi represented the Indian poor less reliably than did Churchill himself. Now comes William Dalrymple, who in his review of Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Outlook, November 8) instructs us on which Indian writers we may trust and which not. He thus dismisses "the St Stephen's mafia and the Doon School diaspora" who presume to "lecture the world about South Asia from the sanitised safety of an East Coast campus”. I wonder if Dalrymple has considered the larger implications of his argument. If artistic merit is merely derivative of social class, then perhaps Satyajit Ray's films should all be junked. And if you are more honest the more modest your beginnings, then Laloo Prasad Yadav must be a more trustworthy politician than (say) Jawaharlal Nehru. It's a bit rich to be lectured on what constitutes good scholarship by one whose own knowledge of this country is so superficial. For Dalrymple is no Verrier Elwin or Jean Dreze, a Western-born writer steeped in the culture, politics of the people he might critically write about. His writings on India are littered with errors.
    Read Guha's piece in Outlook Magazine published in November 2004.
  • 'Sir Vidia Gets It Badly Wrong': William Dalrymple flays V.S. Naipaul
    STF via Getty Images
    These Nehruvian-era textbooks were the work of Left-leaning but nonetheless internationally regarded scholars such as professors Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra and Nurul Hasan—none of whom Sir Vidia appears to think much of. In the same 1993 Times of India interview in which he defended the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Sir Vidia remarked that "Romila Thapar's book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history, which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering, they were subjugating." The new NCERT history textbooks—such as that on Medieval India by an obscure college lecturer named Meenakshi Jain with its picture of the period as one long Muslim-led orgy of mass murder and temple destruction—are no doubt much more to Sir Vidia's taste.
    Read Dalrymple's piece in Outlook Magazine published in March 2004.
  • 'The Arun Shourie of the Left': Ramachandra Guha slams Arundhati Roy
    Associated Press
    The anti-dam essay had its signs of self-absorption too. Its opening scene, of Ms. Roy laughing on the top of a hill, seemed a straight lift from the first lines of that monument to egotism, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. It is tempting to see Arundhati Roy as the Arun Shourie of the left. The super-patriot and the anti-patriot use much the same methods. Both think exclusively in black and white. Both choose to use a 100 words when 10 will do. Both arrogate to themselves the right to hand out moral certificates. Those who criticise Shourie are characterised as anti-national, those who dare take on Roy are made out to be agents of the State. In either case, an excess of emotion and indignation drowns out the facts.
    Read the full piece in The Hindu published in November 2000.
  • Arundhati Roy hits back at Ramachandra Guha’s in an interview with N. Ram
    Ramachandra Guha website
    He's become like a stalker who shows up at my doorstep every other Sunday. Some days he comes alone. Some days he brings his friends and family, they all chant and stamp... It's an angry little cottag e industry that seems to have sprung up around me. Like a bunch of keening god-squadders, they link hands to keep their courage up and egg each other on - Aunt Slushy the novelist who's hated me for years, Uncle Defence Ministry who loves big dams, Little Miss Muffet who thinks I should watch my mouth. Actually, I've grown quite fond of them and I'll miss them when they're gone. It's funny, when I wrote The God of Small Things, I was attacked by the Left - when I wrote The End of Imagination, by the Right. Now I'm accused by Guha and his Ra-Ra club of being - simultaneously - extreme left, extreme right, extreme green, RSS, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and by some devilish sleight of hand, on Guha's side too! Goodness, he's skidding on hi s own tail!
    Read the interview in Frontline Magazine published in January 2001.
  • 'Into The Lion's Den': Paul Theroux rips V.S. Naipaul's 'Half A Life'
    Amazon
    Only someone who knows V S Naipaul's life and work well would have recognised a familiar event that preceded the publication of Half a Life, the slightest book Naipaul has ever written and unquestionably the weirdest. But the fact is that, even though I have suggested that personally Naipaul is a sourpuss, a cheapskate and a blamer, I have the highest regard for his work. He is, like Conrad, a most serious and self-conscious writer; everything he writes is freighted with intention and every word deliberately chosen. Every unsatisfactory bit of the book is deliberate - the odd structure, the implausible situations, the stilted dialogue, the harsh tone, the apparent clichés. You read sentences in this narrative such as "The possibilities were dizzying", or "Perfume counter. Debenhams: the words intoxicated Willie", and you think Naipaul is parodying bad writing, but no, this is his response to so-called fine writing; the prose of someone such as Updike, which he sees as empty, just "golden sentences". Without Naipaul's name on it, Half a Life would be turned down in a flash. With his name on it, of course, its trajectory is certain: great reviews, poor sales, and a literary prize.
    Read the full review in The Guardian published in September 2001.
  • 'The Cult of Authenticity': Vikram Chandra takes down JNU professor Meenakshi Mukherjee who accuses him of selling Indian-ness to the West
    JOHN MACDOUGALL via Getty Images
    A woman in the audience, somebody I didn’t recognize, raised her hand and asked, "Why do the stories in your collection Love and Longing in Bombay have names like ‘Dharma’ and ‘Artha’ and ‘Kama’?" I answered. I talked about wanting to see how these principles--Duty, Gain, Desire--worked their way through ordinary lives. But my interlocutor was not satisfied. "But your stories are so specific, and these titles are so abstract." That’s precisely what I like about the titles, I said, the burnished glow of the Sanskrit, their seeming distance from the gritty landscapes of the stories themselves. "No," she said. That wasn’t it, according to her. "These titles are necessary to signal Indianness in the West," she said. By this time, I was annoyed. I’m afraid I was a little short with her. Absurd, I sputtered, I used these titles because of the energy inherent in them, in the electric charge between the abstraction and the concrete. Later that evening, as we were leaving the British Council, I told my friend Tarun Tejpal about this strange encounter. He laughed, hard, and said, "Do you know who that was?" I shook my head. "That was Meenakshi Mukherjee," he said. "You know, professor at JNU she used to be." "Ah," I said. "Professor. JNU. Of course."
    Read Chandra's piece in the Boston Review published in February 2000.
  • 'Anatomy of An Anti-Novel’: Pankaj Mishra’s review of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Ground Beneath Her Feet’
    Amazon
    Umeed Merchant is a prig, you suddenly realise, and wonder: does Rushdie know this? The worrying answer is: he doesn’t. For, if he did he wouldn't have made Merchant deliver, over 575 closely printed pages, the low-down on what the jacket calls our "shaken mutating times". As it turns out, in Merchant's hands, our times get shaken and mutated beyond recognition. This is primarily because he has an overly excitable mind, prone to crazy-cult-like visions of the world's end; and his outlook, for all his wide experience and learning, is decidedly narrow: for example, our mutating times are represented for him by the celebrity netherworld of drug-and-porn addictions, secret derangements, religious rebirths, suicide and murder (Elton John, Bob Dylan, Versace: they are all here, shaken and mutated). But whereas Midnight's Children and Shame were idiosyncratic private histories of the sub-continent, lefty Forrest Gumps in prose, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a garish collage of tabloid headlines about the lifestyles-as opposed to lives-of the rich and famous. The Ground Beneath her Feet is not so much a novel as a monologue-the culmination of a bad old habit, which has been exalted-through the dictum, 'Go for Broke'-into an artistic program by Rushdie.
    Read the review in Outlook Magazine published in March 1999.

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