Essay: On the influence of Bhasha literature on Indian English writing
For the Indian English writer, growth as a reader and a writer is often a simultaneous quest for the shape and texture of the Indian vernacular
Why is a novel of growth and education – the bildungsroman – so attractive to aspiring writers? Is it because they offer a model of self-making through language that promises to be a learning experience?
For a young writer in the Anglophone postcolonial world, modernist bildungsromans such as James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as the Young Man and DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers quickly come to embody the longing for a certain model of artistic craft. What is more attractive than a young person trying to make their way into the world, growing, falteringly, on the way, sensitive to the nuances of one’s making, much like the way a dedicated reader of novels thinks about the carving of a self through language? It is the modernist quest for perfect craft, which not only elevates the Romantic notion of the artist into a place of high privilege, but also makes it more real, almost attainable, by sharpening its formal features. The perfect sentence. The sensory cadence of language.
But as the twentieth century rolls on, the place where writerly craft goes to hone itself is the University Creative Writing Program. As a young, aspiring writer from India, that is where I found myself, fresh from an Eng-lit education in India. True to the sound of the ‘workshop’ that shapes its core, the American MFA reveals a hammer-and-tongs dedication to the myriad elements of craft, voice, point-of-view, character, and the rest. But the aspirational, highly self-conscious narrative of modernist self-making that I had picked up, and in a sense, tried to embody, felt frustrated by the crisp minimalism that owed its origins to Raymond Carver and perhaps, Ernest Hemingway. It would take me years to learn to appreciate such writing. Entering graduate school to read and write about literature, I returned to modernist effervescence, my space of comfort and, as I slowly begin to realize, of a kind of indulgence.
The crisis came a few years later, in the form of a novel: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man. by the Kannada novelist, UR Ananthamurthy, translated by the poet and critic, AK Ramanujan. My first impression of the novel was that it was badly written, erratically crafted. I did not enjoy it. Baffled by the book’s classic status, I revisited it, and slowly, for the first time in my life, the ground started to shift beneath the self-making impulse that had brought together my identities as a reader and a writer. It was a jarring awakening. I looked back at the narrow nature of craft I’d taken away from my own personal entanglement with the modernist novel of self-making. I had never felt this stylistic dislocation while reading in Bangla, the language I inherited from my parents. But transported to English syntax – which invariably also seemed to bring a worldview of its own – this Kannada novel from 1965 foregrounded its unwieldiness, drawing attention back to the hidden seams of what I thought was my seamless bildung into the craft of fiction.
Bhasha literature, especially when read in translation, was a revelation. Empathy with human growth and development in fiction had taught me the need to understand the motivation of a character, whether or not you agreed with that motivation. This was a lesson honed by creative writing programs too. What to do, then, with a character like Brij Mohan in the short story Peerun, by the Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Manto? What to make of his strange sexual diffidence and perverted love for “bad luck” that he felt the woman Peerun brought in his life? A character who seemed to resist growth and change, under the deceptive garb of seeking it?
I met Manto’s fiction at a moment when I was just stirring to a kind of questioning of the growth and development impulse, the appeal to tangible motivation, the adherence to principles of structure and sympathy – everything I had personally canonized while living my own growth and aspiration as a reader and writer. But in Manto’s hands, fiction became a narrative of unmaking, of a careless, trivial kind, where the unmaking instinct was no more reliable than the false pretence of making.
How translatable were these uniquely localized idiosyncrasies? My students’ confusion with Brij Mohan’s sexual motives gave me a long pause. Was it even possible to capture these alien values in an English syntax? This was the time when I was dealing with demons of my own. Would the peculiar mistrust of the figure of the actress in certain provincial communities, such as middle class society in Communist-ruled Calcutta in the 1980’s be capturable in such form and syntax? It haunted me while I struggled with my novel The Firebird, the story of a young boy’s destructive obsession with his mother’s life as a stage actress. How would I etch the community of suspicion? Writing the story of a child, it was hard to escape the modernist bildung into a certain kind of craft, no matter how deeply thwarted this bildung was in this novel. How would that craft work with deeply provincial values? Could Stephen Dedalus’s provincialism become mine, without entering the convenient portability of the ‘global novel’?
Growth as a reader and a writer, for me, was a simultaneous quest for the shape and texture of the Indian vernacular literary in our English literatures. I saw Bangla, my own language, cast a darkening shadow on sentences in English fiction that lit up the texture of a new syntax. The twilight communion of cultures shaped the fiction of Sunetra Gupta, who wrote sentences that sounded like the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. She created characters with Tagorean names who had troubled and obsessive relationships with English and American characters seemingly from lost Victorian and Jewish worlds. Slowly, I came to explore the sound and feel of other Indian languages in English writing – the devout irreverence of Marathi in Arun Kolatkar’s poetry and the Marathi-Kannada aesthetic behind the worldview of Shashi Deshpande.
But local stories happen elsewhere too. When The Firebird came out in the US under the title Play House, I was in the Boston area, a fellow at the humanities centre of a college there, working on a new book. Suddenly, the #MeToo movement ripped through the world, taking apart media, entertainment, and academia more than anything else. The chilling story of Harvey Weinstein forced the world to reckon with the way a patriarchal order had long looked at women in performance with the opportunist mix of lust and suspicion. Provincial stories, I realized anew, were peculiarly local versions of human narratives.
Recently, I gave my fiction writing class a story to read, which opens as follows:
“He had lost twenty rupees. After he’d looked everywhere and couldn’t find them, he had his meal and went to sleep. It was afternoon.”
Twenty rupees is the translation of a short story by the Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla. This five-page story, too, charts a bildung – of a young man who loses a twenty-rupee note and eventually finds it three days later. Homegrown, unaware of the world, it is a humble self-making, with small dreams.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include the The Firebird (2015) and The Scent of God (2019).