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A potpourri of ideas

india Updated: Oct 05, 2014 18:06 IST

When I was a boy I spent summer vacations with my maternal grandparents in a small town near the southern tip of the country. My grandparents lived in a cottage with blinding white walls, a red-tiled roof, and green windows. A jasmine creeper, with tiny flowers, yellow and bright as stars, climbed across the trellised front verandah, shading the interiors of the house, and ensuring it never got too hot, even when temperatures soared outside. On the verandah was an old-fashioned easy chair with extendable arm-rests. I spent most of my days in this chair, eating fat, crisp banana chips, and reading books that my grandfather procured for me. It was the start of a literary journey that has lasted about five decades now.

My grandfather was a bit of a brown sahib, and a strict disciplinarian, and I was genuinely afraid of him - although to my knowledge he only once threatened to thrash me with his walking stick. Tall, gaunt, and with the large nose that seems to run in the family, he would set off every morning in starched white drill trousers, a clean white shirt, cuff links, shoes shined to a mirror finish, and sola topi to the school that he was the headmaster of. He believed in the dictum that little boys were meant only to be seen and not heard, and could only speak when they were spoken to. As he spoke to me only in English, and as I knew no language but Tamil until I was four or thereabouts (after which I spoke a kind of English-Tamil patois for a while until high school) there wasn't a great deal of communication between us, even if I'd had been able to summon up the courage to speak to him. However, my grandfather gave me the gift of literature because every weekend he would bring me a few books from his school library. These tended to be abridged, simplified classics of great Western literature - The Count of Monte Cristo, Lorna Doone, Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, A Tale of Two Cities and so on. I found several of them quite gripping but also often mystifying - the customs and mannerisms of the characters in the books were frequently bizarre. However, I could hardly discuss these oddities with my grandfather, so I would simply swallow the stories whole.

My grandmother, my Ammamma, on the other hand, provided an altogether different diet of fiction. I did not need my grandmother's stories to be interpreted for me as they took place in situations and locations that I was familiar with. They were also extremely gripping, even chilling. As she was a devout Christian, many of her stories had to do with the horrifying fate that lay in store for anyone who strayed too far from the rigid dictates of the faith. Unsuspecting sinners would be set upon by pigs with backward turned hooves, beautiful women with jasmine in their hair (but whose feet didn't touch the ground), horrible old women with giant splayed feet, who would squat on the windowsills of the dying. These were all the forces of Satan. I noticed that the only way to detect the presence of the evil one was to focus on the feet of those whom he had possessed, so I went through a phase of looking at people's feet before I would look them in the face.

Besides these two streams of stories, my parents (especially my father, who worked for a British company, and was an unabashed Anglophile when he was younger) would give me books by Beatrix Potter, and as I grew older, tales of British public school life like Tom Brown's Schooldays. This led me to books like Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' series and the Billy Bunter stories in my school library, from which I graduated to adult fiction from around the world, thanks to an English teacher who managed to instil in some of her students a genuine love of good books. But there was also a fourth stream of fiction that I immersed myself in - Tamil pulp fiction, but also tales from the Hindu myths and epics, which my schoolmates would tell me. This was not an unusual experience for Indian children from my socio-economic background.

In his seminal essay, 'Telling Tales', the great poet, linguist, scholar and translator, AK Ramanujan, writes about the tradition and sources of Indian stories that were available to the average middle class Indian child: 'Even in the most anglicized… families or in large cities like Bombay and Calcutta, oral tales are only a grandmother away, a cousin away, a train ride away, and mostly no further away than the kitchen.' He writes about the European stories that he read in books, the Tamil stories that were narrated by a grandmother, an aunt or a cook, and Kannada stories which he heard in friends' houses. 'As we grew up Sanskrit and English were our father tongue, and Tamil and Kannada our mother tongue. The father-tongues distanced us from our mothers, from our own childhoods, and from our villages and many of our neighbours in the cowherd colony next door. And the mother-tongue united us with them. It now seems quite appropriate that our house had three levels: a downstairs for the Tamil world, an upstairs for the English and the Sanskrit, and a terrace on top that was open to the sky, where our father could show us the stars and tell us their English and Sanskrit names…

'We ran up and down all these levels. Sanskrit, English, and Tamil and Kannada (my two childhood languages, literally my mother tongues, since she too had become bilingual in our childhood) stood for three different interconnected worlds. Sanskrit stood for the Indian past; English for colonial India and the West, which served as a disruptive creative other that both alienated us from and revealed us (in its terms) to ourselves; and the mother tongues, the most comfortable and least conscious of all, for the world of women, playmates, children and servants. Ideas, tales, significant alliances, conflicts, elders, peers were reflected in each of these languages. Each had a literature that was unlike the others. Each was an other to the others, and it became the business of a lifetime for some of us to keep the dialogues and quarrels alive among these three and to make something of them. Our writers, thinkers, and men of action - say Gandhi, Tagore and Bharati - made creative use of these triangulations, these dialogues and quarrels.'

A large number of us can draw upon two or three literary traditions, others may have been schooled in more or less languages, but one of the reasons Indian literature is so diverse and rich is because of the multiple languages and sources in which it is rooted and created. The country has twenty-four national languages (including English and Hindi), and the 2011 census recognised 1,635 'mother tongues'. Of these, thirty were spoken by more than a million native speakers, and at least fifteen had long-standing literary traditions. This polyphonic, incredibly complex environment has given rise to some of mankind's most remarkable storytellers.

To this, must be added the fact that we've had a lot of practice in the art of telling stories. Our earliest stories were told over 2,000 years ago. Although purists might point to, say, the parables in the Brahmanas as possibly the earliest stories we can lay claim to, even if we started with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales, all of which were composed within a century or two of each other, ours is an incredibly old literary tradition, pre-dating practically those of any other civilisation on the planet with the exception of the Egyptians and our neighbours in West Asia (or the Babylonians of ancient times). The first stories in Sanskrit, were followed by tales told in Pali, Tamil, Prakrit, and as we move into the medieval period, Kannada, Telugu, Persian and Urdu.

Some scholars have divided Indian literature into the Great Indian Tradition (pan-Indian and Sanskritic) and the Little Tradition (local literature, folklore and so on) but others reject these classifications. Ramanujan says in his essay, 'Where Mirrors are Windows', that the only way to look at our literary roots and traditions is to see them as 'indissolubly plural and often conflicting but…organized through at least two principles (a) context-sensitivity and (b) reflexibility of various sorts, both of which constantly generate new forms out of old ones'.

This plurality is one of the things that makes the Indian literary tradition unique. Another aspect of our stories that is seen virtually nowhere else in the world is the fact that our oldest stories, dating back a couple of thousand years, are still in circulation, in prose, in verse, in street theatre, and television, the movies and in online forums of storytelling.

As the Indian writing tradition matures and grows in confidence, we will see an ever-decreasing tendency to seek 'approval' from cultural arbiters other than our own peer groups - the dreaded phenomenon known as 'cultural cringe' that so many former colonies are prone to. All this would seem to project a bright future for Indian literature in the 21st century. There are many obstacles that will need to be dealt with - the decline in reading habits, newer forms of entertainment, a lack of resources for writers besides a small group of publishers who are increasingly under siege, and so on - but I'm an optimist when it comes to the power of stories to survive and thrive. Our stories will grow richer, more distinctive, and show us the real India for centuries to come.

As the indian writing tradition matures and grows in confidence, we will see an ever-decreasing tendency to seek 'approval' from cultural arbiters other than our own peer groups.

(David Davidar is a novelist, publisher, editor and anthologist. He has been editing a collection of Indian short stories entitled A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Fiction from the 19th Century to the Present, which will be published in December)