Do Indians now dream in English?

The Sunday Times of India has published a piece I wrote taking a sideways view of the Salman Rushdie/Jaipur affair. You can read it on the Times of India website here and below.

Do Indians now dream in English?

Sunday Times of India, 5 February 2012

The furore at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year prevented Salman Rushdie from contributing to the festival’s debate on the Englishlanguage in India. Though the debate went ahead, it focused mostly on issues concerning spoken English.
Rushdie would likely have broadened the debate to include the question of using English for Indian creative writing.His 1983 Booker prize for Midnight’s Children caused the chair of the judges to laud “the current adventuring in English language fictions”; a decade and a half later, he wrote that “prose writing – both fiction and non-fiction – 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.”

His view was not unanimously held. A few years later, author Amit Chaudhuri hit back. Can it be true, he asked, that “Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English?”

The debate has a much longer pedigree. In the 1950s, Professor Puroshottama Lal, who championed many new writers, including Vikram Seth, from his Writers Workshop in Calcutta, passionately promoted English as an Indian language. Each book from the Writer’s Workshop carried a declaration that the writers “agree in principle that English has proved its ability, as a language, to play a creative role in Indian literature through original writing and through transcreations.”

Lal met considerable opposition led by Bengali critic Buddhadeva Bose who, in the 1963 Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets and Poetry, dismissed “Indo-Anglian poetry” as “a blind alley lined with curio shops, leading nowhere.”

Lal immediately sent Bose’s quote to more than 100 Indian poets writing in English. It sparked a lively discussion and responses from many prominent future Indian writers. Kamala Das said she just found it easier to write in English than in Malayalam. Others queried whether it was a valid question: “If they can, they will” was A K Ramunajan’s response. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who opened this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, made his point in lower case: “english is as much an Indian language as bengali is chinese.”

Lal’s point was more subtle. Right up to his death in late 2010, he talked of Indian English as a distinctly different language from British English. India is a “mass of inclusiveness,” he would say, with a special skill to “adopt and adapt”. Because Hindu culture finds concepts such as understatement and irony – central to British English – difficult, English has been reinvented in India to express something deeper, a language “of dreams and love, not business and criticism. When we dream and make love in English, then the language comes alive for us Indians.”

The concept of “pastoral sophistication” was at the heart of Lal’s thinking. He argued that India’s sprawling rural inland mass had led to a different basis for society – a pastoral identity that is challenging for outsiders to comprehend. In the years before his death, he saw this as a major challenge for a rapidly urbanising India.

Lal also contrasted the ancient Indian approach to constructive dialogue (often based on unquestioning devotion between teacher and student) with the Western obligation to employ critical analysis, calling it “a fundamental difference in approach – in the West you have a ‘duty of doubt’; in India, we think of a ‘duty of faith’.” This same dialogue fascinates Rushdie, who explores how belief and doubt work together, often for the benefit of both.

Lal argued that English was the only truly pan-Indian language. To make his point, in the 1980s he embarked on his most famous project- a “transcreation” of the 100,000 slokas of Vyasa’s Mahabharata into English. He was close to finishing at the time of his death. Every Sunday morning, he gave readings in the Sansktriti Sagar Library in Calcutta, drawing out the erotic intensity and deep symbolism of the original language and peppering the sessions with literary allusions to Pound and Eliot.

Lal would probably have agreed with one assertion made at Jaipur that English in India has become a factor in class divisions in the country. But he would have had less of a problem with this elitism. His views were summed up in the preface to his book Lessons which he called ‘almost a self-obituary’ – it was written after a near-death experience at the age of 60. “Life’s a messy business for the ignorant,” he wrote. “Since you can’t say, ‘Stop the world, I want to get off ‘, the time to start learning is now.”

As India embarks on the next challenging phase in its intellectual story, few can argue with that.

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Filed under India 2012, Published work

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