Indian Literature: What Do Our Words Say About Us?

By Nitum Jain:

When was the last time you read a Hindi novel/book? Discount the ones that were part of your school education and then think harder.

By no means is Hindi Literature synonymous with Indian literature and it will be a gross presumption on my part to think so. India, with her rich languages, can never have one mainstream literature to satiate its populace and a few languages can at the most claim to be frontrunners. She, however, is the nation where Sanskrit literature was nurtured by the likes of Kalidasa and Valmiki, where texts such as the Vedas became the very foundation of the society that India cradles in her lap, and where literature married its close cousin – Art – in seminal texts such as Bharata’s Natya Shastra and the Sanskrit dramas.

This land of Sita and Draupadi saw a constant process of metamorphosis as dynasties came and went, as many different-minded emperors wrote her history and as many Queens and Viceroys held her reins. The literature changed genres; it changed languages. Today India produces literature scattered all over its glorious anatomy, ranging from Urdu to Bengali to English.

We all have grown up with Premchand and Tagore, and have read or at least heard of Chandrakanta at some point in our life. Today we have the likes of Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri and Anita Desai keeping afloat a form of (for the lack of a better term) ‘high’ literature that appeals to the voracious literary appetites while writers for the masses like R. K. Narayan, Ruskin Bond and Chetan Bhagat take care of the rest of the market. We have inspirational writers, we have a huge non-fiction section to appeal to specific tastes and like any other country we have our own appetite for self-help books. India has raked in literary awards; it has made its dent in the Bestseller lists of many a metropolis. So many achievements, such good progress; perhaps now you are wondering where I am going with this article?

I feel what India lacks is an integrated literature. A tolerant literature. A literature that brings up all its genres together and not orphan one for another. An independent literature. An entitled literature.

India’s English literature is on a train that is on a never-ending track to progress, but left on the station are the malnourished regional texts that watch it chug by, waiting for a chance to earn enough to buy the ticket. Bengali, Hindi and Urdu, meanwhile, are struggling in the waiting list. A literature survives its language; and a language without literature is a soul meandering without a body. Without a corporeal form, its existence will soon erode in our memories till no recollection of it is left. Adaptations and translations are a great way to survive a text but they are yet to hit it big in the Indian markets.

A bit of a fantasy buff, sadly the last good book of the genre based in India was several years ago, but notably from a completely westernised (conspicuously referred to as a British writer) Indian figure, Salman Rushdie. Which only makes one curious as we are a country with probably the most defined and complex mythology known to man. Our religions can be enough fodder for thought for a fantasy writer’s mind to last him all of his seven lives. And therein lays the bone of contention. We may have the resources but do we have the power to use them? Can you imagine an Indian version of, say, the Da Vinci Code? Can you imagine someone ‘rediscovering’ faith, albeit fictionally, and an uproar not occurring? Book-burnings, fatwas, court cases, vandalism.

Heck, Rushdie got a fatwa as well.

A writer is a free spirit. I do not deny that outrageousness can seldom be tolerated but to make someone into a seditionist just because they do not conform is even more ridiculous. If the writer’s thoughts are derailed and re-boarded on the diplomatic lane, it makes him/her a liar to his/her own work. For a liberal, secular country, the nibs of its pens are wrapped in cloth to dull their sharpness – I want to see an India free.

I am particularly averse to the thought that we borrowed languages; that we borrowed Urdu from the immediate West and we borrowed English because of our wish to be westernized. Our history is proof that the languages came to us and were gradually absorbed in our culture. What we hold is ours because the literature we produced with it is entirely ours, no matter the origin of its alphabet. I wish to see writers comfortably writing about their lives, their country in any language of their choice and not feeling compelled to morph according to the language. I wish to see a writer writing in English but in his indigenous Indian style. I wish to see an India asserting her identity.

A literature in a particular region, in a particular period is a perfect reflection of the era, its people and their ideologies. The literature we produce today gives the feeling of an insecure, wannabe-western, bigoted, scared, elitist, lost and amnesiac nation which India isn’t. I want to see an India proud.

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[box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author: Nitum Jain is the Associate Editor of Youth Ki Awaaz. To read her other posts, click here.[/box]

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  1. Anuva Kulkarni

    Nice work. Indian fiction could be so popular really, if we only tried.

    Reply