The Waffle of the Toffs – A Sociocultural Critique

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M. Prabha. The Waffle of the Toffs: A Sociocultural Critique of Indian Writing in English. New Delhi. Oxford University Press. 2000. xiv + 271 pages. Rs250/$19.95. ISBN 81-204-1359-8.

Calling her book “an example of socio-literary criticism,” M. Prabha asserts in The Waffle of the Toffs that most of the “marginalized writers” or writers from the fringes of society in India have not been given their due despite their immense qualitative literary output because a handful of academics and writers with elitist backgrounds (university dons, Oxbridge gentry, bureaucrats) have been monopolizing the scene. Her book is a significant document, a revision of socio-literary inequities in Indian English writing.

In chapter 1, Prabha seeks to interpret nineteenth-century Indian writing in English (IWE) with a sense of the present, which seems to her as flaunting “westernised airs” and an “elitist mode.” In chapter 2 she stresses the fact that IWE in the 1920s and 1930s was shaped by political events centered on the freedom movement. She particularly mentions the good works produced by regional writers such as Sharat Chandra, Khandekar, and Premchand and their Indian English counterparts K. S. Venkataramani, Krishnaswamy Nagarajan, Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, and Raja Rao, who all had humble beginnings and no elite connections. She praises Anand, Narayan, and Rao for being inspired by the social conditions prevailing around them; they do not sing of the West, and unlike Dom Moraes of G. V. Desani or Nirad C. Chaudhury, they evince a distinctly Indian sensibility.

By comparing desi-trained writers with their Oxbridge or St. Stephen’s-educated counterparts, Prabha tries to demonstrate that “the sociocultural milieu a writer comes from is almost inversely related to his quality of writing. That is, the more affluent a writer, the less significant his writing.” In chapter 3 she refers to various ancient, Bhakti, and Sufi poets and to several recent Dalit (Untouchable) writers, noting that they all come from the lowliest of homes and yet make meaningful literature. I appreciate her positive comments about the excellence of Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Bhisham Sahani, Mahasveta Devi, Ram Jivan, et alia vis-a-vis their poor economic background, iconoclastic and progressive views, concern for sociopolitical issues, and commitment to literature in their mother tongues, yet I wish she had sounded less ideologically motivated in her critical estimations of so many individual writers.

In chapter 4 the critic examines scores of major European, British, and American authors to reinforce her thesis that qualitative literary output from poets and novelists of lowly origin has been immense. The focus of her argument in chapter 5 shifts to the “essential extrinsic factors” that have contributed to and decided a writer or artist’s claim to “greatness.” She is very serious: “So bad is the situation in my country that simply talking in generalities will not do. One can hardly make an impartial appraisal of any litterateur or artist today without a biographical approach.” She mentions the biographical details of a Shovna Narayan and a Sonal Mansingh to drive home the fact that state honor or corporate patronage in India comes through contacts; there is no cultural or literary space for persons who lack such connections. She also alleges a deep-rooted corruption in bodies like the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Sahitya Akademi, various art galleries, and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and suggests that the politician-bureaucrat-artist nexus needs to be broken, that individual and private organizations need to be allowed to manage the promotion of culture and arts. Maybe she is right. There is some weight in her assertion that “the governing elite is the cultural elite.”

In chapter 6 Prabha reflects on the rise of contemporary women novelists, offering pointed critiques of e.g. Kamala Markandaya (an expatriate, married to an Englishman and settled in London), Santha Rama Rau (daughter of a UN official and married to an American), Nayantara Sahgal (daughter of Vijayalakshmi Pandit and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru), and Anita Desai (born to a German mother and a Bengali father, educated in Miranda House, and married to a prosperous Gujarati industrialist); the latter two “show a more colonized mind than many other IWE novelists.” Prabha also points out the elite backgrounds of such contemporary women novelists as Gita Mehta, Bharati Mukherjee, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, Gita Hariharan, and Arundhati Roy, claiming that genuine creativity and originality are largely absent in these authors.

Turning to male novelists in chapter 7, Prabha finds many of them “blue-blooded, anglicized, Doon School-St. Stephen’s-Oxbridge educated, pro-market, over-confident, bordering on arrogance, self-centered, metro-type, globally inclined” and unable to educate or regenerate their readers. Among her specific targets are Khushwant Singh, Shashi Tharoor (a UN official), Vijay Singh (based in Paris), Dom Moraes (UN connections), Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Anil Chandra, and many others, mostly civil servants. She wonders whether these writers are not “silencing authentic voices by usurping the cultural space of the nation themselves.”

In chapter 8 Prabha divides the poets of the second half of the twentieth century into two groups: the Metro set, which includes Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra, Shiv K. Kumar, R. Parthasarathy, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Adil Jussawalla, Agha Shahid Ali, and Eunice de Souza; and the Mofussil set, which includes a substantial number of teacher-versifiers and others “ignored by the publishers, the media, the critics and the readers.” Her sympathies lie with the latter group, and she charges that the Metro poets’ claim to literary merit and fame rests more on connections than on talent. She even questions the right of expat teacher-poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander, and Sujata Bhatt to be called Indian English poets, since they are textually severed from India, do not live in India, and have become NRIs. (She considers A. K. Ramanujan an exception, as he left India to teach Tamil and to recreate Dravidian and Sanskrit classics.)

The Waffle of the Toffs is a well-argued, racy read. It is provocative, and written with a subversive intent. M. Prabha’s harsh, taunting, aggressive pen forces one to rethink the discipline of Indian writing in English vis-a-vis the socioculrural background of its makers. Her book is a major event of 2000, a step forward to undo the “conspiracy of silence” that has muffled all fresh voices. I recommend it as a must read for every Indian English poet, writer, reviewer, student, and, most important, for every teacher of Indian writing in English.


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