The International Literary Quarterly

May 2008

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Orwell and I by Zulfikar Ghose  

George Orwell and I were born in the same country. We breathed the same air that had an icy sting in the winter months when it came from the northern mountains and was stiflingly heavy with humidity in the summer when the monsoon blew in from the south. The land native to both of us was India.

India was ruled then by the British, with English the official language. I went to English schools where by the age of twelve or thirteen I was reciting Shakespeare and Byron by heart and writing poems in imitation of the latter.

Orwell was taken to England as a child. My parents took me to England when I was a teenager. Both Orwell and I were British.


Orwell had died two years before I arrived in London in 1952, and it was some years before I read his work. The circumstances of my life, as had his, led me to a literary career and by my twenties I was contributing to the London periodicals and to the B.B.C., as had Orwell before me, and had published my first book. But there the comparison ends between Orwell and myself.

With Orwell, it is assumed that Motihari in north India was merely the accidental location of his birth, that essentially Motihari might as well have been some remote village in England. The accidental location of my birth, Sialkot in pre-partition north India, was in no less remote a place than Motihari. Orwell was in his first year, still a baby, when he was taken to England; I grew up in Sialkot and then in Bombay, and was seventeen when my family migrated to England. But imagine if I had been taken to England as a baby and Orwell when he was seventeen.

It would have made no difference at all to what happened next.

He would still be seen as an important English writer and I would remain where the English placed me soon after I began to publish in London—somewhere just outside their peripheral vision where they occasionally see a blur that sometimes appears to have an interesting definition but remains a blur.

He was, of course, George Orwell, a writer of unquestioned greatness. There were other British writers who were born in India but whose mediocrity does not make my point as dramatically.

The point is not altogether to do with racism or colonialism. In my own experience as a writer, the British have never been racist—though in 1959, as a person recently graduated from a British university, unlike my white friends, I found it impossible to get a job. As a writer, I have had nothing but good relations with editors, literary agents and publishers. What my experience has shown me is more a question of a primitive form of nationalism and an instinctive cultural exclusivity by which people are driven to assert their preference.

I learned early that I was quite mistaken in my assumption that people responded only to the quality of one's work, and mistaken too in thinking that, except of course for the very crucial distinction of their relative literary merit, there could be no difference between Orwell and another writer who wrote in the English language. I had formed the naive notion that people admired Orwell because he wrote an impeccable prose, had a superior imagination and put across his ideas in compelling forms, and therefore it seemed to me to follow that anyone else who, too, showed singular imaginative and intellectual qualities would also be received with a relatively comparable admiration. Was this not the lesson one learned from the study of literature, that it provided one with a context within which to make a rational appraisal of a new writer’s work?  After learning to appreciate the complex aesthetics of, for instance, Virginia Woolf and being inspired to emulate her example, was it presumptuous to believe that one’s work would be evaluated on the same terms as had been hers?

The occasion that revealed to me that I had indeed been presumptuous to think so was a poetry reading which a young English poet and I had been invited to give at a university. The Englishman was not a very good poet; quite forgettable, in fact—which has been his subsequent fate. But the audience, consisting entirely of English students, listened politely to me and with rapturous attention to him, and I realised that they were not listening with a discriminating ear but with one that delighted in hearing familiar native tunes even though they were badly sung. Well, they were discriminating, though they did not possess a sense of discrimination. They were excited by parochial relevance, not by a well expressed thought.

Some years later, I was included in the series called Penguin Modern Poets — three poets were represented in each book in this series. I appeared together with two English poets, Gavin Ewart and B. S. Johnson. The book was reviewed in the Guardian by an English poet. He said fine things about Ewart and spoke well of Johnson. He did not even mention me.

No, it was not racism but that other great imbecility that afflicts humanity, nationalism. The native English reluctance to recognise an alien as using their language with possibly a superior facility than they did themselves extended also to some people of their own race, the Americans. Some of the English poets I knew (two or three of them have become eminent in England since then) dismissed the Americans as irrelevant—which, of course, was a comfortingly superior attitude that masked a simmering resentment that the Americans had produced a new poetry of unmatchable brilliance.

One of them said that Eliot and Pound had been ‘barking up the wrong tree’, meaning that their attempt to ‘make it new’ had been a misguided and foolish endeavour, that real English poetry in the early years of the century had been written by the group known as the Georgian poets. It was this attitude that led to the raising of Philip Larkin, a competent poet with a parochial vision and no intellectual depth, to the status of a national figure, while the one English poet of real worth, who had learned from Pound and the Europeans, Basil Bunting, was consigned to obscurity. Larkin was applauded for suggesting that he knew nothing of foreign poetry. And it was the same nationalistic glee which had placed a coronet on Larkin's head that crowned Robert Graves, one of the old Georgians, as England's great poet when in the early 60s he began to produce quantities of love poems—all very delicate and charming, but all rather thin; there was an euphoric sense of relief that there was a native poet England could be proud of, and both the New Statesman and the Observer printed dozens (literally so) of his poems prominently, the latter once giving the entire front page of its Review section to flaunt this resurrected banner of English poetry with its implicit rejection of American and European influence.

Of all the categories into which literature is divided, the worst is the nationalistic one, especially among writers in the English language, which is the language of many nations. An implied hierarchy has become established among English-language writers: it is assumed that those from the United Kingdom and Ireland and from the U.S.A. are the primary English-language writers, the mainstream, followed by those from the former British colonies, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose population until recently was largely of white British or European origin. Farther down the scale are the English-language writers from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean even though they may have become citizens of the countries in the first two groups or indeed have been born there. Superficially this might appear to be a racial distinction, and to a degree it is, but essentially its roots are in nationalism. To give an example where the alien writer in the English midst is a white European: Joseph Conrad. He was a far greater writer than his contemporary Thomas Hardy; after some early hesitation, the English accepted Conrad; they embraced Hardy.

Consider two writers from India: Raja Rao and the Kenyan-born G. V. Desani. Considered purely from the point of view of language, form and style, their novels are impressive achievements in the English language. Had Desani been an Irishman he would be as well known as Flann O’Brien. Had Rao been an American he would have received idolatrous devotion from teachers and students of literature. Instead, in western countries, one would be lucky to find their names in university courses other than the ones devoted to that hideous bureaucratic invention, Third World Literature, courses that are usually taken by a handful of students from racial minorities or by foreign students pathetically looking for something with which they can identify. Such courses, which purport to provide a balanced view, only perpetuate the essential distortion: they confirm the generally accepted notion that English literature consists of regional blocks that have no connection with one another and are to be seen only as pictures of those regions. Without such nationalistic identification, even this little recognition would be denied Desani and Rao.

But isn’t it sad that such eminent writers as Desani and Rao have to be placed in a nationalistic category before they can be allocated some attention? Such a procedure, flaunting a misguided version of liberalism, is a nearly certain guarantee of the writers remaining neglected. It is like a work of art which the museum curator, finding no niche for it in the permanent galleries, places in the storage room and brings it up on some rare occasion for a temporary exhibition in which it is included not for its beauty but to make some socio-political point.

It has sometimes been my experience—and I've seen this happen to other writers—that journals like the TLS  and the New Statesman will give my book to a reviewer whose name identifies that person as of Indian or Pakistani origin. The person may be, as has happened twice, a perceptive critic, but the message received by the readers of the journal is that the review is there as a sort of gesture to affirmative action and not for any compelling literary reason. Not long ago—unbelievably, as recently as the 1960s—it was the practice of some London papers to bunch together brief reviews of novels written by women and to print the piece at the bottom of the page under the heading, Novels by Women. The reader knew what he need not bother with; similarly, who is going to bother when a Ghose is reviewed by a Chaudhari?

Every society, being composed of human beings who are driven to assert power or superiority over other human beings, whether or not they have any talent in the field of their activity, and often especially when their talent is a mediocre one, be that society a nation or the department of English at a university, establishes a caste system the purpose of which is to eliminate any threat to the power structure by consigning its difficult members into oblivion by branding them untouchable.

But it is too easy to make a list of grievances, give oneself the martyred air of a victim, and accuse another group of discriminatory bias to explain away the neglect of one’s own work and to find a reason for one’s being marginalised as an untouchable.

The fact is that the opposite of the argument that has been advanced so far is also true.

There must be many an English writer who seeing another Indian or Sri Lankan win the Booker Prize must complain that the judges were favouring the former colonial subjects for political reasons and not looking at literary quality. Just as there is no doubt that affirmative action laws have given some jobs to minority candidates not as well qualified as the white applicants, similarly post-colonial guilt is responsible for a number of very inferior writers from the former colonies being accorded reputations and awards which have nothing to do with literary merit.

The very thing that works against us, the former non-white colonial subjects—national origin—is sometimes the reason for our success. I encountered this dilemma almost as soon as I began to publish poems in London, in 1959. Writers from the former British colonies were a new phenomenon. Dom Moraes and I from the Subcontinent, Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, and a few others were among the first poets from the recently independent countries to be published in England. Suddenly a new category was born: Commonwealth literature. Next thing, publishers began to produce anthologies of Commonwealth poetry with their own little nationalistic pigeon holes and I found myself in demand for the simple reason that I was identified as having been born in Pakistan. It had nothing to do with the quality of one's work. Poetry readings, literary festivals, etc., followed: one was in demand because one could be labelled.

Being included under this label gave us more opportunities (for some, the only opportunity) to be published but at the same time such confinement within a category guaranteed the continuation of our status as untouchables. But here’s the dilemma: those of us who have acquired a reputation by being included in anthologies of Commonwealth literature and university courses in ethnic studies have been given opportunities to be published and to be studied which are denied to writers from the ‘mainstream’ who don’t possess the alien characteristics that form our peculiar distinction: in other words, the very thing that creates opportunities for us, and places us in a privileged situation, is the thing we accuse of branding us as untouchable and throwing us into a ghetto. But to the mainstream folks our complaint of being thrown into a ghetto must sound like having one’s cake and whining, while one’s mouth is still full eating a big chunk of it, that it tastes bitter.

While the so-called Commonwealth writers were being increasingly accepted in England from the 1960s, that was also a revolutionary time in the United States where a new attention to civil rights led to the creation of Black Studies programmes at the universities: one more category with its hunger not for quality but for quantities of relevant subject matter. Some of the English writers from the former African and Caribbean colonies were assimilated into Black Studies. But these academic programmes which were created as a liberating act, with the grand aim of breaking down the hegemonic tyranny of the white-European-male dominated tradition, had the effect of creating another ghetto: one was there because one belonged to a narrowly defined group, the colour of one’s skin. It had nothing to do with being a writer in the English language. In other words, that which had opened as an avenue of success was no more than a dead-end street.

But imagine a world in which there are no hierarchical socio-political categories. There would still, of course, be a group of untouchables. Wherever human beings find themselves in a competitive arena their instinct is to seek a reason to exclude others. Race and colonial attitudes are only recent symptoms of a malady that is ancient. Its real name is envy. And envy is so subtle a disease that those worst afflicted by it believe themselves to be wholly immune to it, and are loudest in proclaiming how much they suffer from the narrow prejudices of others. Even the great Tolstoy suffered from it and attacked Shakespeare, possibly because he found no one else greater than himself that he could be envious of; in our own time, Conrad and Nabokov have been attacked by writers who have taken a sanctimonious political and moral stance to mask their incapacity to respond to the formal beauty of a work of art and do not realise that the expression of their public outrage is one of the disguises assumed by envy.

Nationalistic exclusivity and other labelled categories thrive upon a contemptuous rejection of, or total indifference to, aesthetic values. Categories encourage the neglect of the formal quality of a work of art because they demand that judgement be based solely upon some ideological consideration. Orwell said that, ‘what are supposed to be purely aesthetic judgements are always corrupted to some extent by moral or political or religious loyalties.’ Not quite true. I don’t see how my delight in the structure of a Shakespeare sonnet—my amazement at the poet’s organisation of language and my consequent experience of a thought that transcends all socio-political considerations and occurs in my mind only as an experience of beauty—can by said to be corrupted by ‘moral or political or religious loyalties’. Unless, of course, it is argued that the sacredness I attach to aesthetics is a fundamentalist sort of religious loyalty. But even if my reading of a text is thus a corrupted one, I would add that time eliminates the corruption and reveals the work for what it is: if it survives, it is only because its formal beauty evokes the abstract thought which generates in a reader’s mind that literary pleasure which is unrelated to socio-political ideas, if any there are in that text.

There is a part of me—perhaps no more than an abstract shadow—that merges into, and becomes, Orwell in that we both are to a greater or lesser degree part of the literature composed in the English language; then there is the other in me, the human organism obliged to suffer the fate of a political animal whose history and genetic composition make him both privileged, as a token representative of his group, and a victim, as a marginal figure in another people’s culture. And then there are times when I find both these chaps too tiresomely serious and become a third self, one who is amused by the spectacle of human vanity and, laughing at the awful seriousness of scholars embroiled in theoretical speculation, remembers what his friend the novelist A. C.  H. Smith said once: ‘When language Ghose, everything Ghose.’