Authenticity and the South Asian political novel

Ami_150 Amitava Kumar in The Boston Review

I was anxious about my response to The White Tiger. No, not only for the suspicion about the ressentiment lurking in my breast, but also because I was aware that I might be open to the same charge of being inauthentic. My own novel Home Products, published last year, has as its protagonist a journalist who is writing about the murder of a young woman. The case is based on a well-known murder of a poet who had an illicit relationship with a married politician. Kidnapping and rape and, of course, murder, feature quite frequently in the novel’s pages. By presenting these events through a journalist’s eye, I tried hard to maintain a tone of observational integrity. At some level, realism had become my religion.

Since then, I have wondered whether my choice of the journalist as a protagonist is not itself a symptom of an anxiety about authenticity. Was it the worry of an expatriate Indian, concerned about losing touch with the society he took as his subject? To invest in an aesthetic of observation and reportage was to build banks against the rising tide of that worry. I know now that this worry informs my reading of all novels about India.

For years, in the wake of Rushdie, I imagined magical realism to be the last refuge of the nonresident Indian. If you were dealing in invented details, it hardly mattered when you mixed up names and dates. But now, more than magical realism, it is the painstaking attempt at verisimilitude that clearly betrays the anxiety about authenticity. This condition is more subtle. It has limited fiction’s reach, keeping writers to what they know.