Thursday, September 02, 2004

Indian Writing

Once ignored by the hoity-toity world of Western publishing, Indian Fiction in English is now seen as the goose that lays golden eggs. What a leapfrogging jump it has been, from R.K Narayan wishing to throw the manuscript of Swamy and Friends into the Thames as he couldn't find any publisher to Hari Kunzru's stratospheric one million pound advance. The lot of the Indian fiction writer today is a respected one.

Indian writing in English is the body of work of writers in
India who write in the English language and whose mother tongue is usually one of the numerous languages of India. It is also associated with the works of members of the Indian diaspora, especially people like Salman Rushdie who were born in India. As a category, this production comes under the broader realm of postcolonial literature- the production from previously colonised countries such as India.

The debate on Indian writing in English is always fresh and worthy of heated arguments- the chief one being the superiority/inferiority of Indian Writing in English as opposed to the literary production in the various languages of India. Key polar concepts that are bandied in this context are superficial/ authentic, imitative/ creative, shallow/deep, critical/uncritical, elitist/parochial and so on.

It is an interesting detail to see how in spite of these difficulties and allegations and accusations the writers of this genre of Indian Writing in English ultimately convey to what extent and to what effect the native sensibility of their background and upbringing to the light through their works in what is speculatively called an alien language.

English is not an Indian language, but it has served so many useful and essential purposes of a developing society and for so long that it has now become a kind of linguistic habit with us and cannot be easily discarded without a proper substitute. And if we have done our business and politics, intellectual homework and social thinking, that is, acquired a sense of social living through English, it is natural that some will turn to it for their creative work. The urge for creative writing in English therefore could be a pure urge and not one of earning easy fame and money from the West. The etiology of Indian creative writing in English is considered to be neither noble nor original and its relevance is still questioned. Some describe it even as an elitist hobby. In a country where literacy is confined to only a chosen few, all literary activity in a standard written or spoken language is bound to appear a little exclusive. But it will be unfair to forget that many of the ideas of the new world – of secular humanism, political self-determination, social justice etc. – came to us through English. It may therefore appear that English came to India as a historical necessity and that it is bound up with our national destiny. Viewed in this perspective, Indian creative writing in English may not appear to be spurious – without any mooring in the country. When a nationalist like Sri Aurobindo wrote his poetry and dramas in English, he might have done so because English was the only language which he knew ell enough for this purpose, but when he thought that the language of future poetry would be English he showed a profound awareness of the historic role that English is likely to play in fostering the emerging idea of one world for humankind.

Raja Rao this very aptly tells us in his preface to Kanthapura that …English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up – like Sanskrit or Persian was before – but not of our emotional make-up. We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us.

Hence it is interesting to see how far the language used by these Indian writers in English has been Indian in their hands, though basically it is still English – how far has there been an Indianness in the language used by them, a ‘literary nationalism’ in style. The study of Indian writing in English reveals that from the beginning there have been two main tendencies – to write always in chaste, standard English of impeccable idiom and rhythm of speech; and to write an Indian English with translated idiom, occasional direct use of Indian words and Indian rhythm of speech in an attempt to capture the tempo of Indian life.

V. Gokak says in this context, that there are two kinds of writers one are Indo-Anglians, who are fond of cosmopolitan living, have plenty of flavour of conversational English in their writings. The lastest fashions in language which they assimilate, and employ in their writing make them more ‘Anglian’ than ‘Indian’. They tend to write about India from the outside rather than the inside. The other kinds are he says the Indo-Anglians who are true to their Indian thought and vision cannot escape the Indian flavour even when they write in English. Their style is in a great measure, conditioned by the learned vocabulary of the subject on which they write, philosophy, sociology, literary criticism and the like. Even when they write fiction, they depend for their effect on picturesque Indian phrases and their equivalents in English. In this second kind of category we find many of the famous Indian fiction writers like Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan who have mastered this way of bringing in the Indian flavour in the language and style used by them in their works. A classic example would be Raja Rao’s Kanthapura where he has used the “dialect” he has spoken about in his foreward to the novel which has proven to be “distinctive and colourful” language as “the Irish or the American”. Indian words that cannot be translated without missing their Indian flavour are found in abundance in the novel. So the novel to some extent brings into it a extent of the Indian sensibility which distinguishes it as being a product of the intellect and the upbringing of a mind of the east even when it very distinctively is written in English which is a language of the west for sure.

When it comes to the question of the poetry written by the Indian’s in English, they definitely have been influenced by their contemporary poets, as well as, to a large extent, the Romantics. The poetry written by the Indians in English hence we find to be very stylistically conventional and perfectly systematic, while they dealt with themes and topics which were essentially very eastern and Indian in their content. These can be seen in the poetry of the likes of Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Toru Dutt. This is what made Toru publish a book titled The Legends and Ballads of Hindustan which were written in ballads and other very conventional styles of poetry while the subject treated is very Indian, for example the legend of Jogadhya Uma told by the pedlar. We also have Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore writing about the more spiritual aspect which essentially is what India and the religions here are known for. Hence in poetry we see that the Indian psyche and sensibility is brought out by the poets when we see the poetry of these poets, where we find them incorporating what is essentially Indian in its basic sense into the content of the poem they have written. Later on, the poets who have come after this initial set have then moved to more specific themes and subjects. So, in that way, poetry written in English can surely not be dismissed as poetry that lacks any show of what is essentially the native Indian sensibility.

The drama written in English by Indian writers has usually dealt with themes dealing with Indian history, myths and legends with the use of metaphors, symbols and other stylistic devices. These dramatists like the novelists and other fiction writers have to use a lot of Indian phrases either directly or their translated equivalents in bringing in the Indian flavour into them. This genre of drama writing in English is not a very popular one in India as compared to prose and poetry. It does give the dramatist chances for improvisations in this genre as the playwright can use more of the colloquialisms and conversational phrases to make it most closest to the language spoken by the common people and hence gets through to them to identify with their sensibilities.

About the nature and effectiveness of using such an English and bringing across the flavour and native sensibility Antony Burgess in 1972 said It is what may be termed Whole Language, in which philosophical terms, the colloquialisms of Calcutta and London, Shakespearean archaism, bazar whinings, quack spiels, references to the Hindu pantheon,, the jargon of Indian litigation, and shrill babu irritability seethe together. It is not pure English; it is like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure.

Therefore we can conclude that this genre of Indian Writing in English ultimately does convey to a certain extent and pretty effectively the native sensibility of their background and upbringing to the light through their works in what is speculatively called an alien language

2 Comments:

At 8:32 AM, Blogger aamikalyan said...

Wow! That's what I said after I was through your analysis. Read Raja Rao sometime back and your frequent references to it is just. Its amazing indeed that such a posting has no comments in so many months!

 
At 8:08 PM, Blogger Sunu said...

hey kalyan thankx :)
nice blogs you got there!

 

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