John Oliver has been blamed, among other things, for helping Donald Trump win the 2016 US Presidential race. Rather than dealing with the rise of right-wing populism, liberals like Oliver chose to deride, ridicule and dismiss. Worldwide, liberals are seen as elitists and out of sync with the problems of the common man. In her book Reading India Now: Contemporary Formations in Literature and Popular Culture, Ulka Anjaria approaches the issue through the examples of literature and popular culture produced in India since 2000.
In Anjaria’s formulation, literary writers tend to turn to the past as a subject matter for fiction and critics turn to literature from the past to analyze; the present is often seen in terms of deterioration from the way things once were. So-called serious or “literary” novelists find literary festivals in India to be not so literary. Anjaria has a different take:
Although contemporary literature and popular culture in India might seem complacent, artless, and entirely the product of capitalism, their openness to the world outside allows them to offer significant insight into the experiences and sensibilities of contemporary India… Insofar as critics are accustomed to looking to literature and art as a bulwark against myopism, provincialism, and the market, we end up missing all the complex ways in which writers engage with the present and, often, imagine alternatives to it.
Anjaria starts with fiction—literary or “bestselling”—and moves on to films and TV series but her point is the same: she says she chooses these contemporary texts because she finds them resonating with the masses. The literary or the high brow ones do not reflect the aspirations of the common man. The list of such texts includes bestselling author Chetan Bhagat’s novels; books about Indian cities like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City; Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan’s talk show about social ills prevailing in India, Satyamev Jayate; Bollywood films like Munnabhai MBBS; and documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s films, online media projects and tabloid column. Anjaria finds all of them grounded in the present.
These authors remain ambivalent with regard to the changes India has undergone in the last twenty-five years; they find some of them limiting and some of them enabling. They do not necessarily valorize the past as a refuge from the present but find faults and benefits in both. Their politics is eclectic because they are open to the contested landscapes of the present and the possibility that something new and not entirely known lies just around the bend. This openness allows them to reflect on crucial contemporary questions in a way that the earlier Indian English novel, with its inbuilt mistrust of the present, was never able to.
As an example, Anjaria quotes a character from a Bhagat novel lamenting the fact that India does not encourage talent in sports to show how these authors are “open to the present”.
So far, so good. But Anjaria’s examples and analysis fail to convince. For instance, “sports” is not perhaps not one of the most significant “contested landscapes of the present”, as she calls them.
Those problems of the present chosen by Anjari as samples for analysis in the book are related to the aspirations of middle class. Anjaria introduces Paromita Vohra as “filmmaker, critic, curator, and cultural practitioner”. She writes in Indian newspapers and appears in literary festivals. Her writing is very intellectual. When she talks about consent in panels, it’s in English. Her documentary Morality TV & the Loving Jehad is about the police raiding couples having a private time in the parks in a small city: it hardly deals with the ordinary; Vohra is herself is as much elitist as she is accessible.
The irony is that selecting books and film for discussion is itself elitist act, as are statements like the following:
In its twenty-first century incarnation, self-help might be seen as a democratic discourse that, by helping build character, allows those on the margins of the middle class to imagine their way into a world to which they would otherwise be denied access.
There is some hedging in that “might be seen”. Bhagat’s self-help is a problem, not a solution, definitely not a way of being “open to the present”.
Although Anjari’s call for a different vocabulary to talk about the contemporary texts is a worthy cause, her examples of texts and their close readings fall short of proving her point. Her book does however raise important questions: what are the different, meaningful, productive ways of talking about media that becomes bestselling? And might not a focus on the present be just as fraught? The present is by definition transient.