30 May 2007

How strange

If you have read my previous posts on the contemporary Indian novel, you would have got the feeling that it is one which is necessarily written in English. That, the contemporary Indian novel is not written in one of India’s 22-odd nationally-accepted vernacular languages, and then translated into English. No, it is clearly written and published in the English language. And, most likely, it is published outside India.

Not only that, there is a great chance that it may be, later, translated into European languages like French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or several other languages around the world. But, it is not likely to be translated into any one of India’s vernacular languages. It is likely to remain as a published work for, perhaps, 10% of India’s English language novel reading population.

I have often wondered how strange this is. How strange it is to have a body of work written in English, a language foreign to the greater population of India, represent India as its literature to the wider world. I have wondered how strange it is to have a body of work, supposedly from India, written by authors most of whom don’t even live in India. Or, at least, not anymore.

It’s not that these Indian authors are in exile like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Milan Kundera. These Indian authors have left India and migrated to another country for better opportunities for themselves. Or, a few, like Jhumpa Lahiri or Pico Iyer or the ubiquitous V S Naipaul, have always lived away from India. Their only attribute (or qualificator, as someone once told me) is Indian parentage.

Yet, today, these authors represent my country and me to the world at large. I find this strange. I find this strange when I consider the huge body (perhaps I should call it treasure) of Indian literature, written in India’s own vernacular languages, which is a truer representation of life in India, and yet, which is being overlooked by the literary world.

And so, I ask myself, to what extent does this contemporary Indian novel have the right to represent me and my life in India... and be called Indian literature.


Madhuri said...

I don't know why you come down so heavily on abundance of English in Indian writing - after all, English is prevalent language here and it is a language which now comes almost naturally to all educated Indians. It has unified India in a way which the multitude of vernaculars could not do.(owed of course to the ego clash of regions rather than any paucity in the languages) I hate to point this - but even you, me and other regular bloggers from India are perfectly comfortable blogging in English.
As for Indians living abroad representing us, I don't think they do a bad job of projecting India, but I do agree it is a lopsided view they present of our country and its life. But do we really have a line-up of good Indian authors who talk of the current times and not of the landlord era, independence and poverty which seem like over-wrung topics to me? I would love to read these people.

runawaysun said...

Because (a) Indian writing in English forms only a small portion of Indian literature; (b) the treasury of Indian literature is being ignored by the world at large; (c) a handful of elite writers writing in English is stealing the show from Indian-language writers who are equally talented, if not far more talented than them. Because it’s a misrepresentation of the truth.

Abundance of English in Indian writing? In the last 30 years or so (the period I considered in my posts), many more novels, short stories and poems have been written in Bengali than in English by Indian writers.

Yes, I am comfortable blogging in English. However, I represent the culture and habits of a fraction of India’s population (5% of the Indian population are Internet users).

A line-up of good Indian authors who talk of the current times? Plenty. Too many to name here. You need to explore for yourself. Suggest you start with Mahashweta Devi.

Madhuri said...

5% of Indian population could be internet users, but out of those 5% how many blog/express themselves in Hindi/vernacular? Similarly, not all of Indian population constitute readership. The important thing is that out of those who read regularly, how many are comfortable with English - and though I don't have the number, my guess is its >50%
This apart, one of the reasons why vernacular literature is still dormant is the exposure these books get - how many bookstores run those books, where are they reviewed, who talks about them? Promotion is one major problem. Serious readers like you could talk about these books, make readers interested. (Actually that was the reason I asked you for the names of these writers.) When I go and check landmark/Strands, there are hardly any of these native Indian writers available. And with no recommendations, I can barely do the hunting.

runawaysun said...

A friend, and fellow blogger, passed on the following link to me earlier today:


Makes interesting reading in view of our discussion.

Hope to respond to your comment later.

Madhuri said...

I thank you and your friend for the link - it is a good article.

runawaysun said...

Indian-language literature does not enjoy the privileges that Indian writing in English does abroad. There are many reasons for this.

First, since there are many languages in India, the Indian reading population is divided into small groups. Together, they make an enviable size, but alas, the fact is, readership and publishing in India are both fragmented.

Second, services to writers – such as good translations, encouraging editors, publishers with money and reach – are not easily available. Indian authors do not get a hefty advance of the kind, say, Arundhati Roy picked up. Nor are translators paid well in India.

Third, publishing is an expensive business in India. Hence, print runs are small, paper and binding are inferior to what’s available in the West, with little attention paid to designing book covers – all adding to the unattractiveness of books for readers.

Fourth, until 15 years or so ago, Indian bookstores were small dingy stalls or dark cavernous places where shopkeepers attended to readers’ requests in a kirana-shop style. Sometimes, a very frustrating situation, as it didn’t allow readers to browse at peace.

Fifth, readers in India don’t want to pay money for books. The best of Indian readers are always looking for a cheap buy. India also has a huge pirated book industry. Forcing foreign and Indian publishers and distributors to offer reduced pricing, and cut costs by avoiding promotions.

All in all, a culture that shows very little respect for writers.