Writing Across Borders
In the literary world, where publishers and writers are often scrambling for media attention, Indian writers seem to have a death grip on the largest market share. All the way back to Salman Rushdie winning the Booker of Bookers in 1993, there has been a wave of Indian writers whose names are now collated to their respective prizes. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen to Anita Rau Badami.
The Hero’s Walk won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2001 for the Caribbean & Canada Region, the same award that Amitav Ghosh refused for the Eurasia region, reigning over the ubiquitous debate over Indian writers writing in English. In his letter to the administrators of Commonwealth Writers Prize, he writes that “[a]s a literary or cultural grouping however, it seems to me that “the Commonwealth” can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries.” Certainly, the bizarre category of “Canada and Caribbean Region” under which Badami apparently resides underscores the tortured relationship of the colonized and the legacy of the colonizer in this case, the English language. Because the Caribbean and Canada happen to former colonies of the British Empire and reasonably close to each other, writers in both countries compete for the same English prize. This year, Canada seems to have won the competition, yet Badami’s writing constantly strives to cross borders rather than solidify them.
The political undertaking of prize-naming is a risky business altogether as the would-be benevolent master must categorize in a way that suits him and not necessarily the one being categorized. Now, with two writers occupying different geographical regions but both recognized as “Indian,” the meaning of “South Asian” writing in general is simultaneously made much more fluid and much more dangerous. These writers among others cannot write as “South Asians” or about India without encountering controversies over authenticity that push and prod the author to define, albeit reluctantly, a national identity. In this globalized mess of categories, Badami’s response is remarkably clear. She defines herself primarily as a writer and doesn’t feel the compulsion to identify herself with any one community. Perhaps the only way to truly answer the question of identity is by refusing to answer at all, or answering only with the condition that the interrogator be thoroughly comfortable with hyphens.
Justifying Badami’s identity as a writer before anything else is the most serious endeavor, and perhaps the simplest. Her prose is fluid, engrossing, and thoughtful. Her oft-stated interest in memory and the elusiveness of the mind is expressed subtly enough to occupy a space with those writers truly concerned with the immense limitations of humans and the heroism that is therefore possible. She finds her most comfortable footing in navigating through the instability that comes about in the lives of her characters. In particular, Badami’s passion in The Hero’s Walk comes from exploring the effect of a tragedy upon the eccentricities that characterize individuals in relations to families in relation to generations. It’s almost as if the author coyly stands beside her cardhouse creation of a novel waiting for the right moment to blow and reveal all the new patterns that emerge.
The novel opens in the small town of Toturpuram in South India where Sripathi Rao, a middle-aged man with a mediocre job and a disintegrating family, is about to encounter the most extraordinary events in his life: the death of his estranged daughter in Vancouver and the arrival of the orphaned granddaughter who is now his responsibility. Jolted out of his pseudo-important, self-satisfactory writing of daily letters to a newspaper editor anonymously signed “Pro Bono Publico,” Sripathi is forced to come to an understanding about his family’s history as well as his own past, in order to make room in his heart and mind for little Nandana, whose bitterness at her fate silences her.
But Sripathi’s slow transformations into consciousness are not so deliberate. We follow the text through the eyes of a narrator who sounds more like a historian at times, always seeming to point out the character’s blindness to his own problems. Sripathi’s imposed existential crisis opens a window into the lives of his wife, mother, sister, and son, all given complex portraits that reflect both the modernizing movements of India and their contentious relationships to the past. When Sripathi’s daughter Maya dies, young Nandana crosses borders from Canada to India, and enters this circle of adults uprooted by hidden injustices of the past, asking through her silence for each to think about the meaning of their own lives.
The text constantly reminds me of the reasons fiction is such a unique art form. The narrator in this case drifts in and out of perspectives, sometimes providing critical looks at the absurd and destructive habits of certain characters, but always returns to a point of understanding in a way that the characters themselves can never imitate. This allows the reader to see the characters in all their complexity, while simultaneously being made aware that these humans are riddled with personal and limitations imposed by societal that are far stronger than a single individual can possibly imagine. The linear world in which the character Sripathi lives and the shifts in temporality with which we experience the novel allow for a double vision that serves to draw the reader more and more into the text as we search for the most complete re-creation of a world.
Re-creating and crossing borders, Badami invests herself fully into the lives the Rao household and delivers something much more than a prize-winning novel. She presents us with a case for reflection into the varied domestic sphere from which we all emerge.