22 July 2008

English language, Indian literature

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, was published in 1997, (possibly) to celebrate Indian literature produced during the first 50 years of India’s Independence. This seemed to be true as the collection featured ‘contemporary’ Indian writers – the oldest, I think, was Jawaharlal Nehru – most of whom you would have heard of and, perhaps, read in the last 20 years.

The collection was edited by Salman Rushdie and Elisabeth West, and contained both fiction and non-fiction from 32 Indian authors, some of whom are no longer alive, but all, except one, writing in English. The exception was Saadat Hasan Manto, whose narrative was the only inclusion of a translated work of an Indian vernacular language (in this case, Urdu).

Rushdie, in his enthusiasm no doubt, or perhaps to justify his own inclusion in the collection, had stated that the reason for focusing on Indian writing in English and not including translations of Indian vernacular writing was because (a) Indian writing in English had proven itself to be a force to reckon with globally, and (b) no great work of Indian vernacular writing had appeared during this period.

Like many readers and writers of Indian literature, author Amit Chaudhuri, though included in the Vintage 1947-1997 collection, may have felt that Indian vernacular writing needed greater appreciation and recognition. He, therefore, ended up editing The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature in 2004, putting together a collection of Indian writing which included a fairly even representation of Indian vernacular writing.

Much to the delight of many readers, and going back 150 years into Indian literature, this ‘modern’ collection included 20 (out of 38) writers who wrote in Indian vernacular languages, including Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay. Alas, Amit Chaudhuri, being Bengali, may have favoured Bengali literature a little more than other Indian vernacular literatures.

Whatever be the editor’s bias, a review of this collection in Amazon.com states, “It thus ably represents the excellence and diversity of narrative traditions and literary approaches in a multilingual, multiconfessional country.” [Ali Houissa, Library Journal, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY – reproduced from Amazon.com.]

From this perspective, The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, edited by Amit Chaudhuri, seems to be a perfect marriage of English language and Indian literature. Its success made possible by the use of one language, English. And so, I’m reminded of Pascale Casanova’s words again: some languages carry more weight than others.

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