Nalini Iyer, Bonnie Zare, eds. Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 248 pp. $71.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-420-2519-6.
Reviewed by KumKum Chatterjee (Pennsylvania State University)
Published on H-Asia (July, 2011)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
“Indian” Literatures Today: English and Bhasha Literatures in an Uneasy Relationship
It can be difficult to determine what exactly we mean when we refer to “Indian literature” and “Indian author/s.” Does V. S. Naipaul, the grandson of indentured laborers from India who were taken to Trinidad, count as an “Indian” writer? Or are the many authors who live in India but write in English better qualified for the label than the highly visible group of Indian writers who live outside India and write in English? What about the much larger numbers of writers who live in India and produce a rich and varied literature in many South Asian regional languages? Are their claims to represent truly “Indian” literature stronger than all the others? Given the complexities raised by such questions, the collection of essays edited by Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare presents a timely exploration of the relationship between Indian literature in English versus Indian literature in Bhasha (South Asian regional languages)--a relationship that is controversial and often tense. This volume brings together academics, writers, and publishers in a multi-genre format (academic essay, personal essay, and interviews) to engage in multivocal, nuanced, and thought-provoking debates about literary canons; their “authenticity”; their audiences; and the commercial-financial nexus that undergirds book publication, circulation, and sales.
The dominant theme of this anthology centers on the question of how English works are taken to define the aesthetic and cultural parameters of Indian literature in a global context. Quite fittingly, the now infamous comments made by Salman Rushdie and subsequently by Naipaul about the relative inferiority of South Asian Bhasha literatures vis-à-vis English literature produced by authors deemed to be “Indian” or South Asian are used by the editors as a launching point for the substantive introduction that precedes the individual essays. In the introduction, the editors provide a useful discussion of the global context and the cultural politics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries through which the hegemony of English should be understood. They trace the role of English in colonial education in India in particular; its enthusiastic embrace by the colonial Indian middle class; its active and continuing legacy into the present; and the inevitable class dimension of English literature and education in India, i.e., its link to the urban, affluent Indian middle class who also constitute the “power elite.”
The essays and interviews with personalities associated with the book publishing industry in India--such as Urvashi Butalia, one of the founders of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist press (now renamed Zuban, Delhi); Geeta Dharmarajan and other editors of the Katha Press; and Minnie Krishnan of the Oxford University Press--shed sobering light on the challenges and prospects facing those involved in promoting the publication of works translated from various Indian regional languages into English. As pointed out in the introduction, only about 4 percent of India’s population is fluent in English, but the status of English as the language of global business and other types of communication tilts the balance in favor of Indian authors who write in English since they have access to larger audiences, greater visibility within India as well as outside it, and the availability of publication outlets that are not confined to India.
Section 1 of this anthology contains the largest number of contributions, ranging from academic essays, a personal memoir, and an interview, and the contributors are just as varied. They include Indian academics based in the United States (Nalini Iyer, Lavina Dhingra Shankar, and Josna Rege); a Marathi playwright based in Maharashtra (Mahesh Elkunchwar); a poet who is also one of the founding members of the Writers Workshop and a pioneer in promoting English language works and their publication in India (Pradip Sen); and a diasporic Indian author of considerable renown (Chitra Divakaruni). The essays by Iyer, Dhingra Shankar, and Rege address a number of issues associated with diasporic Indian writing in English--a strand of “Indian” literature that seems to attract the most attention from diasporic Indian literary scholars. Iyer’s essay engages with the criticism targeted at diasporic Indian anglophone writers: that they lack “authenticity” in cultural representation and “pander to western readers’ orientalist desires” (pp. 3-4). Iyer’s position is that this literature needs to be viewed differently from anglophone writing by resident Indian writers because the former engages with the historical and cultural realities of the post-1965 United States and with a variety of literary canons that extend from bhasha literature at one end of the spectrum to American literature at the other. Dhingra Shankar describes what seems to her to be a critically important attribute of success and fame for diasporic Indian anglophone writing: the need for these works to maintain a balance between being “exotic” and not “too foreign,” and to be “easily accessible to audiences outside the ethnic group.” She includes the work of such authors as Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Bharati Mukherjee in her analysis and subsumes many of their literary creations under what she dubs the “Amy Tan phenomenon” (p. 29). Dhingra Shankar, interestingly, contrasts the writing of Divakaruni and Mukherjee, who are immigrants to the United States, to that of Lahiri, a second-generation Indian American, who can claim multiple audiences for her fiction and can straddle the sensitive line of being an “insider” and “not quite an insider” simultaneously vis-à-vis American society. Despite some casual references to Indian anglophone writers who are resident in India, they are not discussed substantively in any of the essays in this collection. This is a costly omission and due attention to it would have gone far to create a truer dialogue in this anthology among diasporic and non-diasporic anglophone Indian writers. It is true that the piece by Elkunchwar allows us the opportunity to hear the voice of a litterateur who writes exclusively in Marathi, but it is the only essay about and by an author who writes exclusively in an Indian regional language.
The main value and intent of this volume is its ability to highlight the fractured and multiple spheres of Indian literature in terms of the large number of regional Indian languages (bhasha) as well as English that are used to produce it. The notion that anglophone Indian writing and bhasha literatures inhabit, more or less, completely separate spheres runs like a thread through this anthology, with a few exceptions here and there. One way out of this literary, linguistic, and cultural gulf seems to lie in “building bridges” via translations (p. xxx). Translations, as the editors remark, have the power to act as connectors between cultures and languages within India and beyond it. The editors, however, are clear-sighted enough to realize that translations, while valuable and necessary, cannot resolve the problems pertaining to the lopsided dominance of English and of metropole-based writers over authors writing in bhasha. The last section of the anthology contains four essays on translations as a scholarly and literary endeavor. These pieces by Anushiya Shivnarayan, S. Shankar, Christi Merrill, and Arnab Chakladar are remarkable in terms of illustrating for laypersons, such as myself, the delicate, challenging, and highly sensitive work of translation/transcreation together with the obvious limitations inherent in such activity.
In conclusion, this is a thoughtful, engaging anthology that makes accessible to an audience of specialists as well as nonspecialists the tensions and dilemmas that inform the relationship between bhasha literatures and anglophone writing by “Indians”--whether resident in India, descendants of immigrants, or those with other backgrounds. While this tension certainly exists, the gulf between the two seems, at a certain level, to be represented (both implicitly and explicitly) as deeper and wider than may actually be the case. To Elkunchwar, English is an “alien language” and “our bhashas are perfectly capable of fulfilling our emotional, spiritual and intellectual needs” (pp. 79, 80). By contrast, Sen and Divakaruni, both of middle-class background and brought up and educated in India, express views that are the polar opposite of Elkunchwar. To them, their education and upbringing made English the most natural language for emotional and creative expression. Perhaps, even more important, is the suggestion made by Divakaruni, for example, of the flow between bhasha/vernacular cultures and literatures of India on the one hand and those Indians who opted to write in English--such as herself--on the other. In my view, it is just as important to acknowledge and identify a literary/cultural space in which some Indians are both comfortable and familiar with bhasha literatures as well as with anglophone literature, no matter in what language they choose to write. Neither is this scenario true only for current times. Some of the best-known literary figures from the formative phase of modern Indian literature--Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, for example, as well as many others--would fit this description. Besides, historically, India was a multilingual society in which many languages--the regional vernaculars and such “prestige” languages as Sanskrit and Persian--held sway, and educated Indians were familiar with at least a few literatures and languages, although their comfort level and proficiency level may well have been uneven from one to the other. This is not to suggest that the divide between the literatures and the lopsided material and commercial opportunities available to Indian authors who write in English in contrast to those who use only bhasha for their literary creations is not relevant or important. My argument is that along with this picture, we also need to accommodate a concurrently existing milieu, both within India as well as outside it, in which “Indians” (however defined) read and enjoy anglophone as well as bhasha literature. Some authors (such as C. S. Lakshmi/Ambai) can and do write in both. Although certainly not comparable to the volume of bhasha literatures produced and read within India, disaporic Indian communities in the United States and elsewhere, particularly, in the past few decades or so, have founded magazines, literary organizations, and other kinds of forums where bhasha literatures in the form of poetry, plays, etc., are fostered and consumed. Thus, the world of bhasha literatures is not exclusively restricted to India either. In this context, let me conclude by saying that I found the essay by Rege in this volume to be particularly meaningful. Rege challenges the presumed East/West paradigm within the debate about English language predominance. Through an exploration of the writings of Lakshmi and Rukhsana Ahmad, she argues that these authors are “complicating and challenging divisions of language, register and genre ... for the benefit of different audiences.... Their multiple placement and grounded cosmopolitanism requires their cultural projects to be studied in a framework that is not exclusively national or transnational” ( p. 54).
. Salman Rushdie, “Damme This Is the Oriental Scene For You!” New Yorker, June 23, 1997, 50-56. Naipaul’s remarks were made as part of the conversations at the At Home in the World Conference, held in New Delhi and Neemranah, Rajasthan, in 2002. The full text of the conversations is available in K. Satchidanandan et al., eds., At Home in the World (New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 2005), esp. 8-14, 123-124, 131-134.
(Pradip Sen), who is
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