Thursday, January 20, 2011

On Authenticity

[Posted on Facebook Sunday, 02 November 2008 at 21:52]

The Hindu's Literary Review Section today carried a shortened version of Amitava Kumar's article in the Boston Review on Adiga's (Aravind, not the Kannada poet Gopalakrishna Adiga) "The White Tiger". Amitava Kumar, who confesses to the religion of realism, is exercised by a lack of authenticity in Adiga's novel . Not having read it --- which I won't until the hype about the book dies down --- I cannot state my verdict on this matter. Some of Amitava Kumar's problems with Adiga's novel arise from finding something, or rather several things, at variance with one's "lived experience" (horrid phrase). Something that the consciousness of continuity deems counterfeit. Es klinkt nicht.

How many of us can easily accept Wendy O'Flaherty's dating of the Ramayana after the Mahabharata and both after the Buddha? And why, while I sympathize and identify with Martha Nussbaum's positions, do I find her descriptions of the contemporary Indian politics to be not quite right? However, we may not always have Popperian grounds for ruling something inauthentic: Memory, lived experience and consciousness can be fickle, unreliable and devious, and much of what we perceive to be the truth may be coloured by our emotions, or how we would like the truth to be.

Apart from circumscribing the ambit of the writer, the quest for authenticity can be treacherous. Painstaking attempts at verisimilitude may betray not only an anxiety about authenticity but also the author. In "The Namesake", Jhumpa Lahiri has Gogol's mother remembering boarding a Jumbo Jet in Calcutta circa 1968-69, though the Jumbos (747's) were commercially introduced only in 1970. What tastes authentic to Dionysus may not seem right to Apollo's palate.

Some years ago, I was with my father at the funeral of Kanu Kesavan, a woman of formidable capability whose dry, matter-of-fact humour perfectly complemented the sheer exhuberance and flamboyance of her husband, the legendary B. S. Kesavan. Her sons, Sudhakar and Mukul, had arranged for a priest from an Iyengar sect to conduct the rites in accordance with the tradition that they felt Kesavan's family would have observed. The vadyar (priest) went about the rituals in a business-like manner, with curt instructions to the sons punctuating a staccato intonation of the Vedic hymns: place a hand here, pour a drop of ghee there, ... In the midst of it all, his cell phone rang, the ringtone being a Vedic chant. Without breaking off from the rites, and almost in the same sing-song tone, he informed the caller in Tamil that he was conducting "a function".

During the funerary rites, Mukul, a historian and author, came up to my father to ascertain whether the rituals were being conducted in an authentic way. My father, who had no great regard for rituals, nodded as if in assent. When he recovered what little voice Parkinson's permitted him, he whispered to me, "If Kesavan had been here, he would have pulled this priest up by the scruff of his neck, and boxed his ears for mispronouncing every other word." Now that would have been truly authentic.

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