Literary Landscape of Indian Writing in English

Via Deccan Herald

Indian writing in English has begun to resemble grass after a lavish rain. Step into a bookstore and you see a crop of books — eager, full of hope, lovely to look at. Next time you visit the same store, it has been mowed down. But, not to fear. There is a fresh crop of equally energetic and bouncy looking, indistinguishable from each other titles. The problem with grass is that it can’t hold its own for long. Only here and there on the literary landscape do you spot a rare tree or a few hardy shrubs doing their own thing. But mostly titles come and titles go — their shelf life not much longer than that of the glossy magazines on the racks.
Why, of late, are we producing a literature that is so ephemeral? Perhaps, because the soil we stand on is too thin, our roots going in barely a few inches deep. Citizens of an increasingly globalised world, more of us than ever before read and write English as our first language. The connect with the mother tongue has weakened to the extent that while many still speak it fluently, few are equally adept at reading and writing in it. And so, without quite meaning to, we’ve thrown away the keys to our own inheritance — the literature of our forefathers — and are left standing on shallow soil producing a literature which is correspondingly stunted.
Yet, all is not quite lost. A contrary trend and one which has been gaining in strength over the last few years is that of Indian fiction in translation. Earlier, the only works in translation one could hope to find were classics by a Tagore, Premchand or Sarat Chandra, with lacklustre production values, hidden in some obscure bookshelf at the back of the store. A new breed of intrepid translators like Arunava Sinha, Pritham Chakravarthy and Sudarshan Purohit are very rapidly rewriting that old story. Backing them are big names in publishing like Penguin, Hachette and HarperCollins. And new entrants like Blaft which are reinventing the rules about what is of interest in translation. Blaft added much colour and vibrancy to the shelves by its Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction and the translations of Surendra Mohan Pathak’s bestselling crime thrillers The 65 Lakh Heist and Daylight Robbery. Recent titles in stores show that a great range of translated literature is suddenly on offer. There’s Banaphool’s What Really Happened, a collection of hundred short stories, brought out by Penguin, and there are historical fiction titles like Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s By The Tungabhadra (HarperCollins) and N S Madhavan’s Litanies of Dutch Battery (Penguin) while Hachette has plunged into the sports novel genre with Bengali writer Moti Nandy’s Koni: The Story of a Champion and Striker, Stopper Two Novellas.
The translator’s art is a delicate one and his labour even more than that of any other writer, is essentially one of love. A K Ramanujan, in the excellent commentary to his translation of classical Tamil poets, Poems of Love And War, describes the translator as “an artist on oath”, who owes several double allegiances, to his own artistic expression and to the needs of representing another, to the truth of the original text, as well as to the needs of the language and times he is re-creating the work in. “Even one’s own tradition is not one’s birthright,” Ramanujan writes, “it has to be earned, repossessed. One chooses and translates a part of one’s past to make it present to oneself, and maybe to others.”
So, the next time you’re at a bookstore, reclaim some of those roots — the branches can only spread out as wide as the roots go in deep.
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