Continental Drift

What does an increasingly globalized world mean for Indian writers?

Published Winter 2014-15
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We cannot underestimate the alternative philosophies and literatures that globalization has brought to our doorstep. Ideas that were completely alien to traditional Indian thought have reached us through the doors it opened. Every writer can now read — at least in translation — about these ideas, creeds, and concepts — including feminism. These works have begun to influence our modes of creative writing, as well as our language, in the most natural way.

We had previously refused to think about matters that are a routine part of Indian and Tamil life, such as homosexual relationships and sex workers, or completely rejected them in the name of protecting our culture. Contemporary Tamil works that have appeared as a result of globalization now compel us to debate the living conditions of those who have been neglected or rejected.

During the nine-year period when I lived in my tiny, backward village in a state of exile from the outside world, it was only the information carried to me by globalization that helped me widen my perspective. Especially in a village that hid the very word “menstruation” and deemed it a shameful secret, these reading experiences created a language with which I could call attention to the violence perpetrated against women.

It was globalization that familiarized me and other Indian writers with concepts like structuralism, post-modernism, and deconstruction, and the writers who experimented with these concepts in their books, such as Orhan Pamuk, Sartre, Camus, and Foucault.

Countless contemporary writers are proving the truth that knowledge does not belong to individuals. An essay written in some corner of the world is uploaded to the Web, immediately kicking off a worldwide debate. Owing to the globalized relationship between writers and readers, the world is indeed becoming very small.

For me, globalization is a happy development. In my youth, when my beliefs were shaped by God and the rules of society, it was Karl Marx and Marxist philosophy that liberated me. Books like Dostoevsky’s White Nights and Other Stories and The Brothers Karamazov engendered a philosophical quest in me. The fighting spirit that I had imbibed from the great works of Russian literature and the poetry of great writers like Anna Akhmatova gave me the impetus to liberate myself from the demeaning existence that patriarchal society had ordained for women.

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Alexei Tolstoy’s The Ordeal made me experience the tragedy of wars that had been fought long ago as well as those being fought today. The philosophical quest that was instilled in me through works like Camus’s The Stranger and Sartre’s No Exit destroyed some of my illusions about life. The poems of Bertolt Brecht and Anna Akhmatova instilled a combative spirit in me, and Mayakovsky’s words significantly affected my poetic diction.

And Western ideas of feminism came to me through the works of Rosa Luxemburg, reinforcing my own.

How could all this be anything other than the serious impact of globalization on a writer?

Akhil Sharma

I have had a lucky life and been loved by many people: by blacks and whites, by Muslims, Jews, and Hindus. Once when I was having difficulties with my parents, a black woman told me about her brother whom she had not spoken to for many years, always thinking that things between them would eventually get fixed. He died suddenly, she said. Another time, because I feel bad about how little I earn, a friend who makes millions told me that he had started an affair with a woman who knew famous people, largely because he wanted to be near fame. For me, books offer the same responses to my deepest fears that close friends do.

Whether I am reading about Russians in the 1800s or a man hunting androids, books show me that I am not the only one who feels alone, who has feelings of uselessness, who has trouble controlling his emotions.

I believe that we are all the same, and that we have always been the same, and that we will always be the same. Because of this, the idea of globalization has always struck me as being like the sweet silly things that young people say to make their generation different from the generations that have come before.

I consume culture from around the world. In China a woman’s long fingers are described as scallions and in India they are described as flutes. But what does this matter compared to the desire that the writer has to celebrate the woman, or his love for the woman, and also indirectly himself by using attention-getting language?

“I believe that we are all the same, and that we have always been the same, and that we will always be the same.”

I am not saying that I am unaffected by the fact that I consume culture from around the world. What I learn from works of other cultures, though, are either attitudes — Mo Yan’s cheerful satire against the state — or techniques. Tolstoy, for example, creates the effect of a godlike point of view by describing a character from the detached third person in one paragraph, switching to an internal point of view in the second paragraph, and switching to an external one in the third. The rapidity of this shuffle of perspectives discombobulates the reader. Attitudes are not original the way that technique is. Mo Yan is extraordinary, but he is not as delightful as Tolstoy.

The primary effect of globalization, aside from practical systems such as global supply chains, is to take information out of context and thus give our fears more justification. While before we were only afraid of the things that we brushed up against on the streets or maybe saw on TV, now with the Internet almost hooked directly into us, we feel that ISIS is two blocks away, and that any day now somebody on our street will have Ebola.

I am an example of globalization. I immigrated to America when I was eight, and I publish in French and Italian and Spanish. To me, though, the value of my work is not what it reveals about me, but what it reveals about you.

Read more essays online: http://www.magazine.columbia.edu/india
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