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Be Indian, Write English!

December 27, 2013

For Indian writers settled in the West, writing in English is possibly the only option. And a convenient one too.

By Amitendu Palit

A holistic view would suggest that there’s nothing unusual about Indians writing in English. After all, it is still in English that the largest volume of communication, both oral and written, takes place in India.

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English is the medium for education in most of the better schools in the country. For children of these schools, exposure to Victorian literature occurs as early as the primary level. William Wordsworth and Robert Frost are familiar names for them, whereas Ghalib and Michael Madhusudan Dutta are hardly known.

Tagore is known to the bulk of his countrymen through the English translations of Gitanjali. An occidental milieu of this kind not only provides inspiration for writing in English, but also ensures a receptive following.

But even this conducive environment is not enough for explaining the contemporary trends in Indo-Anglican writing. In the recent past, there has been a veritable explosion of Indian writing in English.

This is, of course, not to suggest that there was nothing of the sort before. Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Khushwant Singh, the professed iconoclast Nirad C. Chowdury, Nayantara Sehgal, Anita Desai, Sasthibrata and several others come easily to mind.

But what is seen of late is something different. Almost every second month, a new writer, backed by a renowned publishing house and international media support, seems to be surfacing with unfailing regularity. None of these writers have stood the test of time. Yet, generous critical acclaim appears to accompany all the new appearances.

Writing in English has undeniable advantages. The most obvious is access to global readership. The bulk of the new Indo-Anglican writers are either settled outside India or have firm links with the West. All aspiring authors would want their works to be read by as many as possible. That way, the language of Queen Victoria, still commands the largest attention.

For Indian writers settled in the West, writing in English is possibly the only option. And a convenient one too. Writers from India, writing in vernacular, would find it difficult to shift to English despite the temptation of larger readership. Ambidexterity between languages is easier suggested than achieved.

Bestsellers by Indian Writers Settled in the West

But even if Indians settled in the West take to writing in English in a big way, does it ensure automatic recognition? The new genre of Indo-Anglican writing banks a lot on native nostalgia, relating to childhood and adolescent memories. Invariably, these memories are always lived upon as outsiders. The bulk of the characters are spun in the web of the distant, hazy past. Particular locales and cities figure in the writings significantly, like Kolkata.

Another striking characteristic of the new writings is their obsession for detail. This ranges from minute description of the way ‘dal’ (lentil) is prepared and consumed to the number of folds accommodable within the borders of cotton saris worn by housewives in India.

The outsider’s accounts of cultures and societies born out of colonial habits are strongly appealing to the international audience. For global publishers, prospects of profit from such products are highly encouraging.

The phenomenon is an offshoot of the larger global tendency to commodify all objects and concepts that are even remotely linkable to niche markets. The commercial acceptance of Indo-Anglican writing has placed heavy premium on its brand identity.

Unfortunately, the growing monotony in the new genre of Indo-Anglican writing threatens to erode its initial charm in the near future. It is important for the emerging writers to introduce greater variety. That can only happen if the writers take to writing as insiders.

The characterisation of the maverick ‘Alu’ in The Circle of Reason (Amitav Ghosh) is a typical example. Of course, this was many years back. But the instinct shouldn’t be difficult to recapture. If Arundhati Roy can do so successfully in her maiden endeavour, so can others.

On the flip side, it is indeed wonderful that writers of Indian origin are displaying their competence in a language that is after all ‘foreign’. Notwithstanding certain pedestrian efforts, there are very few examples of such linguistic adaptations in either past or contemporary international literature.

The commercial success of Indo-Anglican writing underlines the capability of its contributors. One only hopes the success would draw the attention of the world to the magnificent treasure trove of literature that India houses. Let the local literature of India not get marginalised due to it’s not being in English — Kipling’s country surely deserves much more!

This opinion was first published in Meghdutam’s Newletter ‘Meghdutam Plus’, between 1998 – 2003

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