RK Narayan, in an essay titled ‘English in India: The Process of Transmutation’, written in 1964, described how the English language was then undergoing a process of Indianisation. Since 1964, Indian literature has seen a quite remarkable rise in both the quality and the output of English writing in India, but no less remarkable has been the rise of its ‘bhasa’ writers.
The death of the great Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy in August confirmed yet again why English should play the ambassadorial role in promoting ‘bhasa’ writers in India and abroad. And we can cast aside our Hindi chauvinism if we come to accept that English is very much a national language in India, eminently qualifying for a role in representing pan-Indian literature. Here one may suggest a remit larger than that of the Sahitya Akademi, a governmental institution that was established to promote Indian literature. Undertaking good translations of the hitherto untranslated, of the old and the new, should begin in right earnest.
Writings in Indian English, on their own, are worth many shelves of a ‘good European library’. But here we are making a case not to argue like Salman Rushdie that the creative corpus produced by Indian writers in English is a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in Indian vernacular languages, but to press for the need for undertaking as mammoth a project as showcasing Indian literature when reading is a lost art. English has been the gateway to understanding at least three of the subcontinent’s most powerful writers — Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali), Saadat Hasan Manto (Urdu) and Premchand (Hindi).
Until very recently, nothing was ever translated directly among Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, and so on despite the communities living cheek by jowl on a crowded continent for centuries. Was it due to the fact that few inhabitants of the subcontinent have ever been monoglot — the tri-language formula in our educational system warrants it — but also and more relevantly that our command has never lived up to the task of plumbing the depths of the varieties of the Indian languages so as to understand their literatures?
So the downside is that a majority of educated Indians are deprived of the vast literary wealth hidden in the works of, say, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu, Odia, Punjabi, and Kannada literature. Translating a ‘bhasa’ writer into all the major Indian languages would be a gargantuan, though laudable, task. And the same old educated Indians have accessed Greek, French and German literature through English translations.
Leaving aside the role of English accounting for the international acclaim of Tagore and, subsequently, the number of Bookers for Indian writers, English in India is yet to take up the assimilative role of integrating Indian literature.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal