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How Indian writing became of the people, for the people

Jul 20, 2022

Picture Credit: Om Prakash

In the past 75 years, Indian writers found a new, confident voice, and space for every idea and identity

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” the pioneering sociolinguist Max Weinreich had observed. English is an Indian language, with its dialects and sub-dialects, fromSouth Mumbai twangs to the distinctive Punjabi Pinglish and so on. Also referred to as ‘English in India’ (IndE), its history runs parallel to the history of colonisation in the sub-continent. It is, along with Hindi, an official language, often serving as a bridge language across the richly diverse linguistic landscape.

The renowned Bangla writer Bankimchandra Chatterjee, author of classics like Durgeshnandini and Anandamath, wrote a slim novella, ‘Rajmohan’s Wife’, in 1864. A suspenseful cliffhanger with a classic gothic overlay, it was published in serial form in an English periodical called Indian Field. (I felt especially drawn to this forgotten novel because Rajmohan’s wife was named Matangini, which resonates with the protagonist Matangi in my recent novel, ‘The Blind Matriarch’.)

Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his collection of poetry, ‘Gitanjali’, rendered in English as ‘Song Offerings’. The Promethean genius of the polyglot Michael Madhusudan Dutt had him writing fluently in English and Bangla, and also studying languages such as Latin, Greek, Persian as well as French, German and Italian. Dutt famously introduced blank verse to Bangla. He also leavened the sum of Indian writing with ideas and themes from across the world.

The pioneering Malayalam novel ‘Indulekha’, by O Chandu Menon, was published in 1889. It was translated into English by John Willoughby Francis Dumergue in 1892. Krupabai Satthianadhan’s English novel, ‘Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life’, was serialised between 1887 and 1888 in the ‘Madras Christian College Magazine’. She wrote another novel, ‘Kamala, A Story of Hindu Life’, before her tragic death at the age of 32. The vastly entertaining, prescient feminist novel ‘Sultana’s Dream’, by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, published in 1905, remains a riveting read.

These are just some of the strands in the evolution of Indian literature in English. Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Untouchable’ was published in 1935 to considerable acclaim. We move to Raja Rao’s classic and enduring ‘Kanthapura’ in 1938, and to R K Narayan’s timeless ‘Malgudi Days’ in 1943. Experimentation and the use of local vocabulary mark this phase. The watershed moment when a brilliant Indian sensibility took ownership of the language, imbuing it with its owndistinctive voice and syntax, arrived, to my mind, in 1948, with G V Desani’s apocalyptically original‘All About H. Hatterr’.

Post-Independence, women writers like Kamala Markandaya began making an impact. ‘Nectar in a Sieve’, published in 1954, probed problems of industrialisation. Nayantara Sahgal’s memoir ‘Prison and Chocolate Cake’, published in 1954, was followed by a spate of memorable books – including the recent ‘Encounter with Kiran’. Like Ruskin Bond, who has authored over 100 books since his ‘Room on the Roof’, written when he was 17, won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize in 1957, Nayantara Sahgal too continues to reach out to readers and remain connected to her times. Anita Desai’s distinctive voice was first heard in 1963 through ‘Cry, The Peacock’.

Meanwhile, the multilingual Indian literatures continued to shape intense and thoughtful writing, looking back at history and myth, looking forward to question and understand change. From Hindi to Tamil, Odia to Marathi, a new canon was emerging, encapsulating the idea of ‘Many Languages, One Literature’.

The second watershed in Indian English writing came with Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’. The exuberant 1981 novel took the English language and transformed it. In the years to follow, the writings of Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, and so many others, illuminated the literary firmament.

However, the fault lines between Indian language writing and Indian English writing were building up. While the triumphs of Indian English writing shone brightly in the Western world, Indian writing in what U R Ananthamurthy had dubbed the ‘Bhasha’ languages suffered erasure from the English media, and could only find resonance in the Indian language press. A K Ramanujan, Girish Karnad, U R Ananthamurthy, and so many others, sought to situate themselves in the bilinguality and multilinguality that came so naturally to South Asia, and to seek out a continuity in tradition along with their radical interpretations of the contemporary.

These literary polarities can converge by nurturing bilinguality and translations. With 22 official languages, and more than 19,500 mother tongues and dialects, India exists in a continuous and ongoing state of translation. The last two decades have witnessed a sea change in that translations of Indian writing are finding mainstream publishers, gaining visibility and receiving awards. Indian English and the Indian languages are providing inspiration to each other. Writers like Perumal Murugan, Manoranjan Byapari, S Hareesh and K R Meera are read and appreciated, as the literary roots of culture probe deeper to understand the inspirations and flowering of our narratives.

We have the world’s second largest English speaking population after the US. Access to the English language continues to provide access to opportunity. Yet the asymmetrical graph of the Queen’s English, and the makeshift ladder of Hinglish, have given rise to a new generation of aspirational writers and readers. Hindi publisher Aditi Maheshwari Goyal memorably described them as a generation that “dreams in Hindi, but aspires in English”.

Chetan Bhagat’s simple, effective and evocative storytelling reaches out to this segment, as does so much other popular fiction. These stories, though not literary, impart a sense of self-affirmation to a new generation of urban readers. The wildcard bestsellers of new voices like Savi Sharma also hit a chord.

The array of young and firsttime authors, across English and the Indian languages as well as the Indian diaspora, and their new connectivities, are inspiring. From Abir Mukherjee writing crime fiction out of the UK, to US-based Megha Mazumdar’s ‘The Burning’, there is a new internationalism to Indianorigin voices. Or consider Chuden Kabimo’s ‘Fatsung’, or ‘Song of the Soil’, set in Gangtok and Kalimpong against the backdrop of the Gorkhaland movement, which is published from FinePrint (Kathmandu) and in English by Rachna Books (Gangtok) and Balestier Press (UK).

We are each other’s stories. To quote Margaret Atwood, “A word after a word after a word is power.” The glorious syncretism of our multilingual literature, with languages large and small, loud and quiet, giving voice to thoughts and ideas and identities, is a cause for hope and optimism, reflection and belief.

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