The target for today is this interview with Kiran Nagarkar over at Rediff that a friend sent me a link to. It's a terrible interview, an almost textbook demonstration of why an interviewer needs to be more than a mere doormat for the interviewee to walk all over. The interviewer, someone called Lindsay Pereira, gives us one whole page of unadulterated gush about Nagarkar, and then goes on to do the rest of the interview like a wide-eyed schoolboy desperately looking to impress his favourite author by trying to sound all grown-up and sophisticated. Not once in the entire interview is Nagarkar questioned or put on the defensive - not only is he allowed to ramble, even the reasonable things he tries to say are amplified to the point of being ridiculous. The critics didn't like your new book? Obviously that's because they're shallow wastrels who don't understand your true greatness, isn't it appalling by the way, how the quality of criticism in this country has declined? You don't like Rushdie? Of course, of course, you're the really funny and subversive one. You don't like Beckett either? Ah, but the theatre of the absurd is dead anyway .
Consider just this one question:
You shared a very special relationship with (the late poet) Arun Kolatkar. I still find it hard to believe that his work, like Jejuri, is respected mainly by students of literature alone. Does that bother you -- the fact that his work ought to have had a wider audience, or that his obituary ought to have been on the front page, not page 6?What is Nagarkar supposed to say to this? That no, actually, despite the fact that he was a good friend of mine and one of the greatest poets we've ever had, I totally think he deserved to be buried somewhere in the depths of a paper while the latest Bollywood Starlet cavorted on page 3? Come on. (And isn't it a bit rich for someone from Rediff to be criticising others for shallow journalism? Remember the glass walls?). And what does Nagarkar, handed the opportunity on a platter, come up with? He tells us how Kolatkar was such a great guy. Played the clarinet. Did Buster Keaton impressions. Was totally the life of the party. Everything we wanted to know about Kolatkar, in fact, except why, in Nagarkar's opinion, he was such an important poet and what his poetic contribution might have been. Aaargghh! And does Mr. Pereira question him about this? No. Not ashamed to show his mettle as a literary critic he chimes in with:
"And, at the same time, there are so many ways of looking at it."
What insight! What a stunning perspective on Kolatkar's work. And then, when Nagarkar has blathered on some more, he comes up with:
"So does it bother you that he has been completely marginalised"?
If you're reading the interview, stop at this point, and go back and look at the last three paragraphs of Nagarkar ranting. It should be obvious to even the meanest intelligence that hell, yes, it bothers him. It bothers him so much that that's all he's been saying. If Mr. Pereira were to stop being so infernally starry-eyed and actually listen to the man he (and the rest of us) might actually get something out of this interview.
The point is not just that interviews like this are unfair to the reader because they reveal so much less about the person being interviewed than a good interview could have, it's also that they're unfair to the person being interviewed. The first time I read the interview I came away with a little less respect for Nagarkar than I'd had before. If you haven't figured it out by now, I don't take kindly to people shooting off their mouth about Beckett or Rushdie or Coleridge. But then I went back and re-read the piece and realised that most of the things that Nagarkar was saying weren't that unreasonable. He was being opinionated, true, and I don't necessarily agree with him, but he wasn't being dismissive - he was very clear throughout that this was a matter of preference, not judgement.
Look, I have a lot of admiration for Nagarkar (and god knows I worship Kolatkar), and tepid reviews of his new novel (which I haven't been able to get my hands on yet, but fully intend to read) notwithstanding, I think the perspective he's coming from is quite interesting. So he wants to worship at the altar of Rabelais. Fair enough (though I don't understand why someone who loves Rabelais doesn't get Rushdie). Why does he think that's the appropriate response to the rise of fundamentalism ? What does he see as the key ingredients of the satirical art, and in what ways does he try to bring them into his writing? How is this different from what he was trying to do with his earlier books, and if it isn't, then why does the style seem to have changed so much? Who does he think are the other writers, whether in India or elsewhere in the world who have done or are trying to do something similar? These are all questions I would love to hear asked of Nagarkar - instead of all this silly name dropping about Brecht and alienation.
There's a point in the interview where Nagarkar says that awe is not conducive to criticism. True. And neither is it helpful to interviewing. 
As for this whole thing about criticism today not being what it used to be - where have I heard that one before? Nagarkar should go read Marvell:
"Who best could praise had then the greatest praise,
'Twas more esteemed to give than wear the bays:
Modest ambition studied only then
To honour not herself but worthy men.
These virtues now are banished out of town,
Our Civil Wars have lost the civic crown.
He highest builds, who with most art destroys,
And against others' fame his own employs.
I see the envious caterpillar sit
On the fair blossom of each growing wit.
The air's already tainted with the swarm
Of insects which against you rise in arms:
Word-peckers, paper-rats, book-scorpions,
Of wit corrupted, the unfashioned sons. "
"The herded wolves, bold only to pursue;
The obscene ravens, clamorous o'er the dead;
The vulture's to the conqueror's banner true
Who feed where Desolation first has fed,
And whose wings rain contagion."
"They outtalked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?The point is that every generation of writers believes that the critics who review their work are a bunch of narrow-minded poltroons, not deserving of the name of critics and that the once golden age of criticism is now dead . I'd be willing to bet that the first caveman to paint on a wall ended up braining some other caveman with a rock because this second caveman pissed all over the first caveman's masterpiece. Nagarkar should know better. And interviewers should not let him get away with this.
Better men fared thus before thee;"
One last section of carping (since I'm on a roll here). What the hell did Jhumpa Lahiri's family ever do to her that she can't untie herself from her mother's pallu? Wasn't the Namesake bad enough? Does everything she writes have to involve being Bengali and living in Boston and growing up in the time warp of being Indian in ways that people in India stopped being decades ago? I mean seriously, Lahiri should live a little.
Take this story in the New Yorker. There are some really good bits to the story, the writing's clear and exact, but does it really have to be scaffolded with all this insistent Indian-ness? I loved the way the story ends, but in order to get to that ending I had to yawn my way through page after page of twee-ness about being Bengali and growing up with conservative / immigrant parents, all of which felt like terrible deja vu.
The point is not that Lahiri is a bad writer. On the contrary, the point is that Lahiri is good enough a writer to not need all these immigrant trappings. This is not some 19 year old trying to write a book that will sell and pitching it as being about the South Asian experience in the US. This is a serious writer trying to write serious fiction. I mean, okay, so it's legitimate to use the settings you grew up in as a frame within which to set your fiction. But it needs to enhance your writing, not support it. Anyone who's read any Roth knows that he grew up in a Jewish household living in the New Jersey suburbs. And there are few, if any novels that Roth has written that don't draw on that experience. But they don't insist on it, the way Lahiri does - that's just background - it's there and it informs the action of the novel, but (post-Portnoy) it's not insisted upon, not used to fill in the spaces in the writing. With Lahiri it's like most of the time that's all she's writing about - it almost feels as though it's the plot that's an aside and the background that's the point of the writing. And beyond a point that's just boring.
If Lahiri wants to be a truly impressive writer, it seems to me, she's going to have to snap out of this obsession with her own background and start writing beyond it. I would love to see a story by Lahiri where the protagonist wasn't Indian-American and didn't live in Massachusetts. And I swear, if the next story of hers I read talks about how they used to have all these big parties of all the Indian families and her mother would stand around in her sari cooking fish and the table would be laid hours in advance, I'm putting it down right there.
 Oh, it is, is it? The next time Ms. Pereira decides to kill off an entire genre, she may want to make sure of the corpse before she starts ordering supplies for the wake.
 I can't help thinking of Woody Allen in Manhattan. That bit about how you Nazis don't respond to satire because it's really hard to satirise someone with shiny boots.
 By way of contrast, see Jabberwock's piece on Nagarkar and his new book
 Which is not to say, of course, that critics aren't often empty-headed poltroons. Only that every generation has its mix of good and bad critics. There's no golden age.
Categories: Links, Rant