Re-presenting 'India'

August 19, 2001 12:00 am | Updated 12:00 am IST

An anthology of modern Indian literatures including the vernaculars, edited by noted novelist Amit Chaudhuri this time, tries to represent the complexity that is modern India. We present two reviews which look at the book from different perspectives. GIRISH KARNAD feels the anthology tilts too much towards Bengali and English and lacks a cohesive organising principle. But, in going against currently prevailing orthodoxies and upsetting established linguistic hierarchies, the collection is a landmark, says LEELA GANDHI.

Squandered opportunity


IN his Introduction to the Vintage Book of Indian Writing ( 1947- 1997), Salman Rushdie declared that the one point he wanted to establish through his anthology was that "the prose writing - both fiction and non-fiction - created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what is being produced in the 16 'official languages' of India, the so-called 'vernacular' languages, during the same time: and indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books". The storm raised by this obviously unsubstantiatable statement hasn't yet settled down. So, although Amit Chaudhuri dissociates himself from "the sanctimonious outrage and self-congratulatory response to the remark in the liberal, middle-class India", and declares, in his Introduction to The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, that "this anthology is not a riposte to any other anthology", Rushdie's contentious presence is very palpable in the background when Chaudhuri asks, "Can it be true that Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful writers who write in English?" Again and again, throughout this anthology, Chaudhuri is at pains to explain how deeply his sympathies lie with the "vernacular" literatures and how his anthology is only an attempt to bring those riches to the attention of the English-reading world.

This raises the question of how faithfully an anthology of this kind can be expected to mirror this rich and complex entity. Even allowing for the fact that, despite its claim to be an anthology of Indian "literature", the volume contains no poetry or drama and focuses entirely on prose, it would be unrealistic to expect every Indian literature to be represented within the confines of a single volume. Omissions are inevitable, but, I fear, one is less than persuaded by the reasons offered by Chaudhuri for his. "This is not a representative anthology," he tells us, "there is nothing, for instance, from Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi and Punjabi....This is so partly because I couldn't find enough translations of quality in these languages from which to make a selection, and partly because there wasn't enough space...."

This book has 632 pages of main text. Of these, 130 are devoted to Bengali, and 300 to English. It is hardly surprising then that there isn't much space left for other languages. And yet Chaudhuri adds, "This slight tipping of the scale towards 'regional' or 'vernacular' writing is not strategic or premeditated, but a numerical fact that has emerged after the completion of the selection". Can cramming six vernacular languages into a third of the book, while the remaining two- thirds is devoted to the two languages with which Chaudhuri is familiar, be described as "tipping of the scale towards" the vernaculars ? Is he being ironic? Naive? Insensitive? Or is he - a suspicion that becomes stronger as one goes along - merely justifying his laziness?

An editor of an anthology such as this is not merely expected to select from what is ready at hand and then yield to the "numerical fact that emerges". Once he has done his groundwork, he is expected to decide how much weightage should be given to the different literatures he is choosing from, and when he has made his final choice, give the reader some idea of the basis on which the weightage was distributed. The extraordinary thing about this anthology, however, is that, apart from a scrappy two- and-a-half page apologia, there is no Introduction explaining why a particular piece was chosen, how the editor relates to the work and, most important of all, how the work chosen fits into the editor's total perception of the state of Indian literature. Instead, we are presented with two reprinted articles, which were originally written for and published in totally different, unrelated contexts.

One of these is about the development of the Indian novel in English! The other is titled "Modernity and the Vernacular", but is devoted entirely to Bengali, bringing home to us once again how for Chaudhuri the only vernacular which merits attention is Bengali . His complacent assumption that the experience of the Bengali renaissance has national relevance ( if not, what is the article doing at the head of this anthology?) does great injustice to literatures such as Urdu, whose confrontation with colonialism was far more violent, far more traumatic. Since he goes back to the 19th Century to trace the origins of modernity in Indian writing, a balanced perspective could only have been achieved by taking into account a non-Bengali classic like Mirza Hadi 'Ruswa' 's Umrao Jan Ada, which fiercely engaged with contemporary history and altered the subsequent development of the Indian novel. (And there are several translations of the book available, including one by Khushwant Singh, called The Courtesan of Lucknow.)

The extracts are generally well chosen, but safe. The English section includes the works of a few young writers, such as Sunetra Gupta, Aamer Hussein, Ashok Banker and Rohit Manchanda, on which Chaudhuri should be commended, for otherwise the choice of extracts is so predictable as to be dull. It is difficult to see what new insight a Western reader interested in Indian literature could possibly gain from being offered such chestnuts as Midnight's Children, The Golden Gate, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, The Serpent and the Rope, or The Engish Teacher. The same scarce space could have been made available to writers from other vernaculars, or to other, lesser-known writers in English, or, if these marquee names were inescapable, to their lesser-known works.

The impression that not much serious thought has gone into the book is further strengthened by the chaotic organisation of the material.The first section, marked "Introduction", is followed by sections titled, "Bengal Renaissance and After", "Hindi", "Urdu", "The South" (in which three South Indian languages are lumped together in a manner reminiscent of the days when anyone South of the Vindhyas was called a "Madrassi") and finally "English". The basis for classification would thus seem to be linguistic, except that wedged in the penultimate position, without any explanation, is the section, "Autobiographies"! It's not as though this rubric enables the editor to reach out to other languages. For, although we are told ,"Some of the most important and creative work in modern Indian writing has been done in the genre of autobiographies", three of the four items included are again from English. Large statements about "Indian writing", followed by a quick reversion to Bengali or English, is a recurrent feature of Chaudhuri's editorial method. If he was sincere about finding good vernacular autobiographies, surely it wouldn't have taken much effort to locate Lakshmibai Tilak's magnificent Marathi autobiography, Smriti Chitre? Lakshmibai was an illiterate Chitpavan Brahmin, whose husband converted to Christianity in the late 19th Century. Her autobiography vividly describes her struggle not only to cross caste and family barriers to join her husband but also to realise her own potential in the new and unfamiliar world opening up in front of her. And we have an excellent translation by Josephine Inkster, called I Follow After, which is still in print after 50 years.

Again, if the appearance of the autobiography as a distinct genre is an index to the emergence of modern self-consciouness, some consideration would have been in order of what is probably the first Indian autobiography, Ardhakathanak, a 17th Century record by a Jain trader called Banarasi Lal. This book too is available in an excellent English translation by Mukund Lath.

Talking of this genre, probably the most significant development in the last half century of Indian literature has been the appearance in Marathi of "dalit" autobiographies, which for the first time in the entire history of Indian writing have given voice to the world of the untouchables. Dalit contribution to contemporary Indian sensibility is so unique that if no satisfactory translations were available, fresh ones should have been commissioned. As for Dalit fiction, A. K. Ramanujan has rendered into English several short stories by the Kannada writer, Devanooru Mahadeva.

Chaudhuri's excuse that "translations of quality" are not available simply won't wash. On the contrary, he doesn't seem to have made the minimal effort to equip himself for the task he has undertaken.

The volume has been beautifully produced. The authority of Picador will no doubt get it a wide distribution. It's a shame then that such an opportunity should have been so thoughtlessly squandered.

(Girish Karnad is a playwright, actor and director who has received many awards for his plays, including the Jnanpith Award in 1998.)

* * *

A major literary event


IN his introduction to the recently published The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, Amit Chaudhuri insists that "this anthology is not a riposte to any other anthology". But riposte it is. The thoughtful, if often provocative, organisation and presentation of modern Indian writing in this volume comes as a timely rejoinder to prevailing literary orthodoxies, held in place by a pantheon of postcolonial critics, commentators, editors and anthologisers. According to Chaudhuri, the current critical consensus on Indian literature is constrained by a series of lamentable "misreadings". Such misreadings are visible in, for example, the privileging of Indian-English writing over its vernacular counterparts; the valorisation of the novel form with its new found respectability (akin, Chaudhuri maintains, to dentistry) over other genres, specifically poetry; and, finally, in the unthinking celebration of postmodern pastiche over the quieter, and possibly more profound, pleasures of realism. This position, readers may recall, stands in stark contrast to the one assumed by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West in their controversial, The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997.

Where Rushdie and West informed their international audience that English "India novels" constituted a "more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 'official languages' of India", Chaudhuri, irascibly, begs to differ. How, he asks, would the "West" react, if , in the event of some unanticipated bibliographic disaster, all of Britain's modern and ancient cultures disappeared from view, leaving the rest of the world to judge English literature on the basis of a few paltry contemporary novels? What if Julian Barnes, Angela Carter and Martin Amis, alone, were entrusted with the literary labour of bringing England out of an apparent age of obscurity? An absurd prospect, but no more so than the situation where, "Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English, who live in England and America and whom one might have met at a party, most of whom have published no more than two novels, some of them only one".

Why, The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature seems to ask, should Europe alone claim the privilege of representing itself as a whole culture? And, even more important, why should the Indian reader/writer collude in the arbitrary fracturing of her complex and confluent literary inheritance? Once, writing in the wake of the barbarisation and ghettoisation of culture perpetrated by Nazism in Europe, the great German philologist Ernst Robert Curtius, extolled, as politically expedient, a composite view of European literature. Faced with the regional, cultural and religious divisiveness of the time, the critic, he believed, was ethically obliged to show the presence of "Homer in Virgil, Virgil in Dante, Plutarch and Seneca in Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Goethe's Gotz von Berlichingen ... the Odyssey in Joyce; Aeschylus, Petronious, Dante ... Spanish mysticism in T. S. Eliot". Albeit on a lesser scale, the anthology under review is driven by similar convictions.

Refusing to indulge the false (and damaging) linguistic hierarchies so apparent in the Rushdie and West anthology, this volume draws our attention, anew, to the symbiotic development of vernacular and English literatures in modern India. If colonial education led directly to the rise of English in this country, it also provoked a concurrent efflorescence within the vernacular languages. So much so, that "many of the greatest and most interesting writers in the vernacular languages were or are students or teachers of English literature". The immediate benefit of this liberating perspective is that it opens up the very culture of Indian secular modernity to a vertiginous variety of voices and views. If the epochal publication of Midnight's Children conferred on modern Indian history, "the air of a fancy dress party ... full of chatter, music, sex, tomfoolery, free drinks and rock and roll", the diverse writers gathered in this collection complicate that vision. For the crisis of modernity also speaks its name, poignantly and eloquently, in Michael Madhusudan Dutt's self-divided cosmopolitanism, in Nirmal Verma's stark European landscapes, in O. V. Vijayan's mystical atheism, and in the Oriya memoirist Fakir Mohan Senapati's struggle against the hegemony of Bengali.

Aspects of this anthology may well alienate some readers. The editorial headnotes are chatty to a fault, and the selections themselves are fairly idiosyncratic. Bengal is predictably pre- eminent, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu literatures are clumped together under a featureless "The South", and there is something puzzling about the omission of Maharashtra from a volume devoted to the representation of Indian secular modernity. So too, one is not always persuaded by Chaudhuri's protestations about the very literary fashions of which he is, in some ways, a direct beneficiary as a new-Indian-writer-in-English. Nonetheless, the clarity of editorial purpose and the elegance of most translations are exemplary, and invite us to welcome The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature as a major literary event.

(Leela gandhi is Co-Editor of Post-Colonial Studies and teaches English at the School of English, La Trope University, Australia.)

The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, edited by Amit Chaudhuri, Picador, 2001, p. xxxiv+ 638.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.