15 May 2007

The breakthrough

In the last 30 years or so, the Indian novel has made a major breakthrough in world literature. It has found for itself a suitable position, much admired by international scholars and the international literati.

The breakthrough strategy, though rather late in coming (in my opinion) as the strategy should have been obvious to us much earlier, was simple: write in English. If you wish to find yourself a place in the world of literature dominated by the English language, then write in English. It was a sort of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ strategy, and it worked.

Today, we have recognition from the international community for the Indian novel and the substantial contribution that Indian authors make to world literature. Much of it has a colonial hang-up, of course, but I guess it can’t be avoided. After all, we have been under the British Rule for 300 odd years and have, most likely, been introduced to the novel by the British (see my previous post ‘The Indian Novel’).

Indian authors writing in English came forth with their work, establishing themselves, first, as an important part of the post-colonial South Asian diaspora and, second, in their own right, as creators of world-quality literature. In the past 30 years or so, there have been as many Indian writers of renown writing novels in English and winning international acclaim. They are far too many to be listed here, but a Google search would easily give you an idea of who they may be.

I’ve read many of their works, thoroughly enjoying the style of writing, the content and the significance that Indian novels have in an international forum, many a times cheering for the show of creativity and exuberance of the authors. And yet, that question still prevails in my mind: What is an Indian novel?

I’m sure the answer is not an easy one, considering the fact that the Indian novel’s evolution goes back a century and a half. However, for this post, if we limit our discussion to Indian authors writing in English, then there is an excellent article from the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review which I would encourage you to read. It’s called ‘
The Cult of Authenticity’ and is written by Vikram Chandra, an Indian author writing in English.

Here’s an excerpt from that article to mull over (the article is rather long):

“A friend told me about a meeting of the Delhi University syllabus revision committee, where they were trying to decide on the one Indo-Anglian novel that should be prescribed in the one course on modern Indian literature. My friend suggested Midnight’s Children, and she was shouted down. Salman Rushdie isn’t Indian, the majority of the professors asserted. Amitav Ghosh, however, was found to be sufficiently Indian, and so his Shadow Lines was accepted into the canon. The issue was decided not on the basis of the relative merits of the books, but on the perceived Indianness of the authors, and by implication, the degree of their assimilation by the West.”


Madhuri said...

It's a very interesting thread that you pursue.
I have often myself wondering what is the Indian novel. I have hardly read any books in the vernacular, and the Indian English books that I have read, have mostly been from expats. Though these books are quite colored with Indianness, they still show their mixed breeding.
I wonder why we see many English Indian novels, yet the trend of a native work being translated has not caught up in our country (like Pamuk for instance) I do think English is essential for a wider/global reach, but the absence of much serious vernacular reading/writing is conspicuous.

runawaysun said...

The Indian novel seems to be shrouded in confusion and controversy. No one knows for sure how Indian the Indian novel has to be to prove its Indianness. Or, why no one makes as much fuss about translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s work as they do about Salman Rushdie’s media appearance.

Besides Pamuk from West Asia, a lot of European and Latin American novels have become famous after they were translated into English. Translated works from Indian authors may, therefore, still have a chance. I don’t think I have all the answers, but shall try to post something intelligible in a couple of days.