With advancement in internet and social media, our consciousness has shifted and expanded to a global level. We feel we are “global citizens” belonging with the world as a whole, and not any particular society.
Many a time, we hear narratives of the world being small, that it is a global village now. But with this comes negative consequences for we often let go our roots. It is akin to what Bob Dylan said, “A complete unknown with no direction home”.
Literature also, inadvertently, reflects this pattern with the case of many writers and novelists. Being affluent global citizens, they have a fascination for other cultures and communities. They find joy in travelling the world absorbing new people and places. But I feel what is central in this, and to be honest, is the feeling that we acquire rationality by befriending and socialising with a westerner. This “belongingness” aspect is true to these “global writers” who love to travel. And who write about experiences in foreign places.
If we look at most well-to-do writers today, they traverse hopping from one country to another. The result is they paint a very superficial and generalised picture of these places. Familiarity is key to comprehending a society and its people.
Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, was perceptive when he described how the African tribe in Congo worshipped the Englishman Kurtz. The idea of something foreign and especially western always beguiles us.
I would like to cite here some examples from books of writers.
Jhumpa Lahiri in her book Interpreter of Maladies described Bengali society in Calcutta as mostly comprising people who lived in penury and strife. This view was not accepted by the educated locals, and was strongly criticised. The fact was that Lahiri spent only her childhood in Calcutta, later for all her life shifting to America.
The travel writer Pico Iyer in his book The Lady And The Monk did not immerse himself well with Japanese society. He typified or rather satirised Japanese people as ones who imitated western manners but who couldn’t pronounce well a word in English. I feel Iyer should have described something subjective and unique about Japanese society by getting to know more its social milieu.
Binoo K. John’s travelogue Under A Cloud about Cherrappunjee was filled with factual errors. I suspect he collected most of the information on the place through word of mouth from locals. And later misquoting them.
Janice Pariat’s Seahorse was also full of flaws. Pariat repetitiously described London streets and sidewalks that it seemed like she couldn’t write other things about London. Lenny’s house in Shillong, with its cramped structure, was hackneyed and clichéd. The gay brothel is not a rare place in London as we see it many a time in movies.
So my point is familiarity can only come from being true to one’s roots. This is how a writer deeply comprehends and absorbs his/her society and culture.
Writers right from childhood are introverted. They feel familiar to a certain social environment. It is when they fascinate with the “other” that this fades away.
The novelist Tim Parks aptly coined the term “global writer”. But he didn’t articulate well negative consequences in being such a writer. For a book or body of work to be memorable, it should have settings and characters which the writer is quite familiar with. This will only make the people and the places in descriptions achieve verisimilitude and fidelity to life.
This article first appeared in Sunday Supplement of The Shillong Times January 21, 2018 (link: http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/01/21/curious-belongingness/ )