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.

Image courtesy www.amazon.com

Image courtesy http://www.amazon.com

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 – quoted here 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.

Disappearance of languages and literature

With more and more globalisation and with English language’s dominance the world over, specifically in terms of markets for published literature, would Indian regional-language writers be tempted to adopt English as their language to achieve prominence? I mean, what really is the future of, say, Bengali (my mother tongue) writers and literature twenty years from now?

Image courtesy salc.uchicago.edu

Image courtesy salc.uchicago.edu

After all, if you look around you, you’ll see more and more publishing companies are becoming globalised, and a few large global publishing houses are beginning to dominate the industry. In fact, some publishers are being bought over by entertainment companies and a phenomenal media consolidation is taking place globally.

What does this mean to language, to literature and to writers? As larger publishers – or media houses – start dominating the publishing industry, would some regional and smaller languages and literatures disappear? Would conforming to globalisation through writing, or translations, in one or a few dominating languages be their only hope of survival?

If writers are forced to write, or translate their writing, in another language because (a) they are dominated by another language, and/or (b) another language offers a much wider readership for their writing (than their own), what would it mean to a specific country’s or region’s language and literature? What would it mean to that country’s or that region’s or that people’s culture?


It is reported that Irish author James Joyce had taken exile in France because he didn’t want to fight between choosing English or Gaelic as his language of expression in his motherland. Czech writer Milan Kundera, on the other hand, moved to France for political reasons – when Czechoslovakia came under Russian communist rule – and, later, chose to write in French rather than in his mother tongue Czech.

I find Kundera’s case interesting. Perhaps Kundera wrote in French to save himself the trouble of translating his Czech into French before publishing in France for a ready French audience. Or, perhaps, he wrote in French because the French literary ethos, and the French audience, did not welcome literature in a language other than French.

French literary scholar Pascale Casanova, citing the Man Booker Prize and its many non-British recipients, had stated in an interview with Charles Ruas in 2005 (see my previous post) that, unlike the English who welcome writers from their ‘colonies’, the French are rather arrogant and practically despise writers from their ‘colonies’ (typically countries in West and North Africa, Algeria being an ideal example – besides Canada, of course).

This makes me wonder how closely literature is connected to politics. If we look at history, we find that many writers were forced to write in, as well as translate their works into, another language simply because they were dominated by another culture and its language at that time. To some writers, this can mean another form of exile – an exile in one’s own land. Such influences can be seen in India’s literary and constitutional history.

Paris’ literary superiority

French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova believes there’s no such thing as ‘global literature’. However, in her groundbreaking book The World Republic of Letters, published originally in French in 1999 but which became famous in 2005 when it was published in English by Harvard University Press, Casanova puts forth a model for a literary world system which is indeed intriguing – and rather flattering of Casanova’s own country.

In an interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1 (now available through Clocktower Radio), going back to 2005, Casanova states that, just like the political and economic world before us, there is a parallel literary world. This literary world is dominated by two literary languages: French and English. In fact, this has been so thanks to the history of European language and literature, and specifically since the 19th century when Paris and London were fighting for dominance as the world’s capital.

Image courtesy http://clocktower.org/

Image courtesy http://clocktower.org/

Paris, naturally, won; with the greatest writers from across the world – Edgar Allen Poe, Mark twain, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and many more – flocking to Paris to establish themselves. There was a belief that Paris recognised genius. To be a writer and to be published in Paris was to be canonised.

Paris was the literary capital of the world. It was the place that all great writers visited. It was the place where writers were declared ‘real’ writers. Interestingly, more than the French, Paris was made into this legend by foreign writers like Poe and Faulkner and Joyce. Many writers – such as Edward Gibbons (memoirs), Oscar Wilde (Salomé) and August Strindberg (plays) – even wrote in French just for this recognition.

The ‘Paris’ myth grew and offered prestige to many writers. More and more writers congregated in Paris, further reinforcing Paris’ dominance in world literature. Apart from English which became its greatest rival from across the shores, other languages like Greek, Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian… all bowed down to Paris’ literary superiority.

[Citation: Pascale Casanova interview with Charles Ruas on WPS1, 28 February 2005. Now available through Clocktower Radio.]

The literary world system

In my previous post, I had suggested that, perhaps, there is a large international market for translations of Indian regional-language writing. If such a market really exists, it opens up opportunities not only for Indian-language writers, but also for Indian-language translators. This proposal, of course, makes sense if there really is an international literary space where Indian-language writing translated into English (or other languages) can snugly fit in.

While dwelling on this possibility of an international literary space for Indian-language writing, I came upon William Deresiewicz’ 2005 review of French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova’s book La République mondiale des lettres (The World Republic of Letters). Here’s an excerpt from that review which appeared in The Nation:

Image courtesy la-plume-francophone.over-blog.com

Image courtesy la-plume-francophone.over-blog.com

…it helps to know how the international literary sphere is usually thought about – or rather, not thought about. Academic departments, literary academies, histories and reference works, honors and prizes: The institutions of literary life almost invariably partition the world of literature into discrete, autonomous national traditions – English over here, American over there; Italian in this classroom, Spanish in that; German Romanticism, French Symbolism, the Russian novel. Even the Nobel Prize, our one global literary honor, makes a point of emphasizing the national provenance of its laureates, so that it is understood that it is often a country as much as an author that is being recognized, and that the consecration of, say, a Saramago, shuts the door on all other Portuguese writers for the foreseeable future. As for the books that enter our national literary space from the outside (especially from outside the English-speaking world), do we ever think about why some reach us and not others? Where do translated writers ‘come from’? Are they simply the most celebrated authors in their own countries? (In fact, they often aren’t.) If we think about these questions at all, we probably assume that the writers we become aware of are just better than the ones we don’t. (But ‘better’ according to what criteria, enforced by whom?) In other words, we’ve bought into the myth of an international literary meritocracy, or, in Casanova’s words, “the fable of an enchanted world…where universality reigns through liberty and equality…the notion of literature as something pure, free, and universal.”

[Citation: The literary world system by William Deresiewicz, The Nation, 3 January 2005.]