Contours of the language polemic

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OTHER TONGUES — Rethinking the Language Debates in India: Edited by Nalini Iyer, Bonnie Zare; Rodopi, Tijnmuiden 7 1046 AK Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

A book like this will interest writers, translators, academics, research scholars and publishers, curious to find out on which side of the polemics the editors have positioned themselves. Happily for us Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare are sworn to offer a “nuanced analysis of the language, audience and canon debate”, provide a “multivocal debate”. What is the debate on? It is about privileging of any language and its creative output over others by intelligently drawing on not only taste and sensibility, traditional hallmarks of literature, but also on market forces, aligning oneself with agencies which shape a direction. This book is about literary production in English as well as in other Indian languages, tracing the contours of the debate between Indian Writing in English (IWE) and Indian Writing in Bhashas (IWB). Orient Blackswan has also recently brought out a book by V. Padma, offering a very good survey and critical analysis of most of the issues raised here.

Binary approach

Other tongues, of course, should remind linguists of Kachru’s path-breaking formation of the binary between “mother tongue” and “other-tongue”. Litterateurs have surely found creative use for this structure. After Edward Said’s cultural glossing of the term “other” as a textualised production of anything, say a people, e.g., orientals, none can read it innocently. However, after Derrida and deconstruction, any “binary” approach to knowledge has become suspect because it seems to be falsifying reality by abstraction. The editors of this collection candidly express their reservations on impaling the poor reader of Indian literature on the binary of English vs. “vernacular”. They strive to open up the interstitial spaces lurking in any identity related activity, e.g. local, parochial, regional, vernacular, cosmopolitan, and global. The interlocutors are conscious of the critical slipperiness that threatens any position. But they do not shift and palliate for that reason. They articulate their convictions, and explain their strategies of negotiations and practices quite firmly. For example, as pioneering publishers of translations of Indian literature Urvashi Butalia, Mini Krishnan and Geetha Dharmarajan reflect a “no-nonsense”, “no-illusion” attitude. They have envisioned a new future for Indian language literatures; faced the challenges financial and institutional, transformed the reading scenario. In short, they have restored the dignity of Indian writers in global sensibility. Writers too, like S.Shankar, are quite open about their act, working in the “threshold” of two sensibilities, two cultures and multiple audiences.


The articles as well as the interviews highlight a few healthy developments in critical discussions in the last five years or so. Writers of Indian origin now keep in mind both home-grown readership as well as their diasporic constituency. They are not obsessed with nativism, but have other points of reference also, for example, the Indo-American writer Meena Alexander thinks of African-American culture and other ethnic readership; so does Chitra Divakaruni or S. Shankar. Rukshana Ahmad, a British-Pakistani and C.S.Lakshmi, a homebred Indian/Tamil writer, are addressing issues which are transnational as well as culture-specific.

For over a decade there has been a sort of “cold war” between Indian English writers and Bhasha writers. This has to do with problem of authenticity of representation – whether English is the medium of such a representation, or whether there is no comparable quality writing in Indian languages. Perhaps we should put an end to this academic debate. The reach of English may be wider. But for Bhasha writers to construe the choice of language as smacking of elitism appears self-defeating. Even among these, there are over projections, panegyrical critical estimates, whereas some profoundly new/serious writing is not caught in the radar. Mahesh Elkunchwar, the lone voice perhaps representing the Bhasha writers in this volume, speaks quite forthrightly about the tension between English and other vernaculars, but he refuses to sink into “victim-rhetoric” and psychology.

Translation has intervened in a critical manner to create a rapprochement between “tongues”, “mother” or “other”. In the last 10 to 15 years it has also generated discursive sites going beyond the literary or linguistic boundaries. Today no translation can simply reproduce one language text into another. It is not “equivalence” or “sharing” that is the ultimate value of the transaction. It is part of the complex process of genuine intellectual, human and even spiritual development. Translation does not succeed or fail; as Mini Krishnan says, it creates a “third language”— which is neither purely linguistic nor literary nor cultural.


Patronage to Indian literature is an exacerbating issue. The Introduction mentions the literary awards. It is surprising that the editors are not aware of K.K Birla Foundation’s various awards since 1993, especially the Saraswati Samman which has brought many authors literary honours after rigorous critical scrutiny. They mention only the Jnanpith and the Sahitya Akademi. The volume offers liberating discussions on the production and reception of literature.



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