Facing the Cult of Authenticity

Some years ago, Vikram Chandra – author of Red Earth, Pouring Rain, Love and Longing in Bombay, and the eagerly anticipated (two articles in the NYT — score!) Sacred Games — got into a spat with some members of the Indian academic literati. It began with their questions attacking the contents of his fiction, and clearly was an attempt to claim possession of the Indian literary voice, if you believe such a thing exists in the first place. Chandra’s response was a spirited, often sarcastic attack on the “Cult of Authenticity.” His essay appeared in the Boston Review, and you can read it here. Chandra points out that no one has a right to say who does or doesn’t speak for Indian writing, certainly not the cultural commissars who question his “Indianess.”

I wish I had read Chandra’s piece before coming to India, because India is full of Cults of Authenticity in various fields and fora. Those who have decided for you. Those who have anointed themselves as arbiters of truth in their respective specialities, most of which are so diaphanous as to be laughable. This cult surrounds me in my professional and social life here, and I suspect the lives of other desis who have returned to India to work and play. It’s an unstated (and frequently stated, to be honest) judgment that occurs with nearly everyone I meet. It’s as if someone has asked, “Who’s the expert?” and you’ve raised your hand, only to be asked, “But why would you be the expert?”

Indians are the best of capitalists, and perform so well in the free market, because if you’re Indian, chances are that you’ve been raised competing for access. You know the Cult, and you’ve been groomed to compete with your brown-skinned neighbor for just about everything – access to food, an apartment, personal space, a visa interview, politicians, a social club, a job, a place to walk on the sidewalk, service at a restaurant, water. Groomed to compete for access to all of these things. And in this environment, you’ve learned to see most of your fellow chocolate citizens as your natural competitors instead of your natural allies. I’d suggest that the more personal your contact with your fellow Indian, the greater your competitive jealousy rages inside (compare the relative adoration of Bollywood stars by the masses, who don’t compete with them, to the disproportional amount of infighting that goes on within the Bollywood community itself.)

It follows, then, that Indians succeed so often overseas in places where they are less fettered by the shackles of corruption and non-transparent processes. In places where the Cult holds less sway. Forget all the talk about Indians emigrating for purely economic reasons. The reasons are social as well, to get away from the death-grip of the pecking order that the Cult places on its citizens.

You can respond in one of two ways to this tiresome nonsense. Meekly withdraw, or call the Cult out on the floor. One thing I can say about facing the Cult; it may somehow promote a sense of confidence, though such confidence frequently turns into arrogance here, unfortunately.

Chandra describes facing the Cult in the final few paragraphs of his essay:

I must speak now to my own biradari, my brothers and sisters who are artists. To them, I say: ignore the commissars, whether they come from the left or the right, up or down, India or abroad. Be wary of their praise, because their hospitality is a prison. They will kidnap the cow of your plenty. Be ruthlessly practical, like the bhais of Bombay, those CCTV-using, Glock-firing, Bholenath-worshipping gangsters. Do whatever it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you. And don’t worry about tradition. Whatever you do felicitously will be Indian. It cannot be otherwise…

… but you know your mashooq, and you can feel her power and her grace, how alive she is. She will always elude you, but you must risk everything for her. At the end of each day of work, the only question she will ask you is, did you write well today? And if you can honestly say, yes, I wrote well today, she will come a little closer to you, and you will sense her presence, and as you caress your mashooq, as she ravishes you with pleasure, you will know how absolutely real she is, this shape-shifting phantom. Then she will flee again. This absence is the only true grace you will ever know, or need. Believe in your mashooq, lose yourself in the dream of Her, and you will be Indian, a good artist or an adequate one, local and global, soft as a rose petal, and as hard as thunder, not this, not that, and everything you need to be. You will be free.

This weekend we had the privilege of attending a jazz concert by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. A friend had arrived early to the venue, and had secured seats for us in the front row. As we sat there watching guests arrive, sipping chilled (but never ice-cold) Kingfisher beer, an Indian colleague of mine approached us.

“Oh hello, Fsowalla. How come you all are sitting in the VIP seats?”

The answer to the Cult of Authenticity was simple. Ridiculously easy, in fact.

“Because we’re VIPs.”



  1. In various translations I believe it means “beloved” or “sweetheart”, perhaps in the sense of one whose love is unattainable. In this sense, it also suggest Muse as well.


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