Brahmins, banias and Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth has received a phenomenal 1.3 million pounds as an advance for his next book. No longer are authors typically starving idealists.

Today, the successful ones are millionaires armed with tax and investment advisors. Even those claiming to disdain commerce squeeze the maximum out of film rights and other commercial issues when drawing up contracts with publishers. The author, the quintessential brahmin in mind-set if not in caste, has in some ways become the bania. This has changed the nature of literature itself.

Through history, literature portrayed businessmen as villains. Heroes were typically underdogs struggling against money-lenders, industrialists and traders. The bias in literature was not against wealth and power as such. The heroes of many books were kings, generals and aristocrats. The bias in literature was specifically against business. There were, of course, exceptions. In Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Scrooge the villain became Scrooge the hero. Jean Valjean in Les Miserables started as a pauper stealing bread but ended as a rich industrialist.

Yet, in such cases, authors glorified businessmen (like Scrooge) for abandoning commercial behaviour and acting non-commercially. Jean Valjean was heroic not because he created wealth and jobs, but because he adopted the daughter of an employee who was dismissed unfairly. Only rarely, as in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, was a businessman portrayed as a good guy because of what he achieved through business.

Then literature changed dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Some see Ayn Rand as the transformer, but she heralded a new ideology rather than a new trend. The real breakthrough came via authors like Harold Robbins, whose protagonists were often rich womanising businessmen battling business rivals.

Sex and business acquired a new legitimacy in literature, and became a best-selling mix. This was reflected equally in TV serials, the electronic version of pop literature. Business families were protagonists in American TV hits like Dynasty and Dallas. What explains the sea change? The charitable explanation is that the nature of capitalism itself changed, and authors accurately reflected this in books and TV. This is, at best, a partial truth.

Throughout history, till the 19th century, poverty was the natural condition of humans and only a small elite escaped it. Today, we take economic progress for granted. But through history the golden age (be it Ram Rajya or the Roman Empire) was typically in the past, not in the future. Then came the industrial revolution, which for the first time shifted power from the landed aristocracy and church to the commercial classes.

Businessmen raised productivity, created new wealth and jobs, and (in conjunction with new civil rights) transformed once-poor Western societies into the rich ones we see today. This transformation was unparalleled by any emperor or general. Yet literature extolled the virtues of emperors and generals while excoriating businessmen till the late 20th century.

Why? Some will argue that capitalism itself did not yield obvious benefits for a long time. They feel that only in the second half of the 20th century did the benefits of capitalism unambiguously spread to the masses. I am not so sure. Economic historian William Baumol says that living standards in Europe fell after peaking under the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD, and regained that level only in 1850 in Britain and 1870 in Germany and France. But in the century that followed productivity rose 1,600 per cent and real incomes rose 700 per cent. Why did literature take so long to reflect this revolutionary change?

The charitable explanation is that there was a time-lag. The uncharitable explanation is that authors shifted ground only when they themselves became rich. Famous authors in past centuries were never rich.

A few became well-off in their old age, but never in their productive youth. Most lived a hard life until the second half of the 20th century. At that point the book-reading public became large enough for books themselves to become big business. This was followed by films, radio and TV, all providing new ways for authors to earn big bucks. For the first time, authors and scriptwriters began entering the millionaire class.

Naturally, their view of millionaires changed too. Karl Marx would have said that authors moved up to a new class bracket, and began reflecting their new class aspirations. Dear reader, do you go for the charitable or uncharitable explanation? There is some force in both. But consider this. When Indian TV was still a low-paid medium, we had soap operas like Buniyad about the middle class.

Today, with TV becoming big business, we have soaps mainly about rich business families (Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi). Do you believe this has nothing to do with the new-found riches of TV script writers and producers?

What do you think?