The Tiger's Daughter
“The whole generation-gap idea’s just an invention of the media and the Yanks. You obviously don’t know the first thing about youth in the true sense. You’ve no conception what it’s like, what it knows, what it can do.” So says Sir Roy Vandervane, nearly fifty-four, symphonic conductor, fashionable randy leftist, and the hero, in a way, of Kingsley Amis’s novel Girl, 20. Meanwhile The Tiger’s Daughter recalls that in India there are left-of-leftists:
“At least there’s still some respect for old age. My son, he has a son of his own now, but he’d never dare smoke in front of him or myself.” “Don’t worry. Soon the left-of-leftists will teach our sons disrespect.”
Bharati Mukherjee’s novel sees young India swallowing America almost as voraciously as young America swallows India: “The deliberately dirty and vituperous young man recited his anatomical verses on the lawn, then demanded some cutlets and sweetmeats for the other ‘Hungry Generation’ poets in his mess.” That tiny literary tag (“No hungry generations tread thee down”—how different the plural is) beautifully catches a complex of things: the literariness of the willed “popular” poet, the assimilation of poets to pop groups, and the deep and proper recalcitrance of true literature when one culture facilely hopes to assimilate another. Keats’s hungry generations are not hungry as India knows hunger.
There was always something dottily engaging about schooling Indians, surrounded by worklessness and fatal quietism, into reciting W. H. Davies’s “Leisure”:
What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
But when Miss Mukherjee encourages us to be amusedly perturbed by someone’s patly quoting this, it is with a chastening sense that the new missionary’s injunction—come alive, you’re in the hippie generation—is quite as inapt and inept. Her American interferer in India, Antonia Whitehead (“What India needed, she exclaimed, was less religious excitement and more birth-control devices”) is an evocation of smugness which manages—and it is very difficult—to be without smugness. In the manner, in fact, of many of the best things in Amis.
The writer who made India live in the Western consciousness, he who knew that “East is East, and West is West,” would not have thought that a liking for Indian bedspreads or even for shaven heads was evidence that what East and West are now doing is anything as simply, truly human as meeting. Tara Cartwright, née Banerjee, has graduated from Vassar and been seven years in the US: “She had burned incense sent from home (You must be careful about choosing brands when it comes to incense, her mother always said), till the hippie neighbors began to take an undue interest in her.”
The literary allusions in The Tiger’s Daughter, often dismayed at the abuses of literacy and of literature, are those of a university teacher of English (Miss Mukherjee teaches at McGill), much as the literary allusions in Girl, 20 are those of a former university teacher of English. (At…
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