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Why Has It Been A Century And A Year Since An Indian Received A Nobel Prize For Literature?

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By Atharva Pandit:

On 9th of October, Patrick Modiano, the second French writer in six years and the sixteenth since Nobel Prize in Literature was established, was announced as the winner of the prestigious Prize- a prize which marks the fortunate author with a stamp of fame and finance, things which a writer needs the most. The prize strives to promote literature that addresses those issues which stand ignored, or issues that concern with the psychology of a human being; literature which offers a treatise in the creation of the world as it stands- and Modiano did all of that. Within his novels, novellas and short stories, he addresses the question of a war that shattered most of the world and brought to the human race lessons and possibilities. But Modiano- who writes in native French- not just writes about the issues of World War II but also personalizes them, moulds them within the French culture. That’s but natural for a man whose father was a Jew who was saved by the Nazis because of his involvement in black slave trade. It isn’t surprising that memory and shame stand as important emotions in Modiano’s works- everything that he writes has been related to the War, before and after it. While writing those aching stories, however, Modiano also presents to his readers the French culture and how it has been shaped by the after effects of the Second World War.

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While the Nobel Committee, by presenting to Modiano the prize, made a political statement in that they gave away the prize to a writer who addressed the shameful past of anti-Semitism in Europe at a time when it is on a rise again, it also made a statement in favour of translated literature, as it has been doing for the past couple of years, and rightly so. The depth of a culture is known through its language- and the languages can be many. Translation offers to us, the readers, a gateway to the different societies and their pathos carefully composed into words, sentences, paragraphs and pages. And within such writing do we find the true existence of literature. The Nobel Prize provides such literature a boost, and introduces readers to an exciting new writer whose work performs the dual functions of exploring a single culture and yet transcending national boundaries to create a universal literature.

After one such writer was announced as the winner last Thursday, many newspapers and social media websites in India began asking an important question: why hasn’t India received a Nobel Prize for Literature ever since 1913, when Rabindranath Tagore won it? What does India lack? That question can be addressed through Dwight Macdonald’s (an American literary and cultural critic) theory of the “mid-cult”. This theory of his, and the kind of books that pass for literature, is what readers find playing out in India, or the Indian literary scene. And, unfortunate as it is, the novels which deserve no place in the category of “Fiction”, let alone Literature, are being considered as the definitions of the current Indian literary scene. Literature is not a commercial pre-occupation but a study in the understanding of the world and the people who live in it- it doesn’t deserve to its service a low-brow return. Indeed, one reader cannot judge another fellow reader by the choice of his or her book; to each his own, as they say. But it needs to be understood that the reading habits of the masses define not just their individualism, which they do, but also the entire culture they are striving in, by which it can be derived that one can- and does- judge a culture by their reading habits. There are good books and then there are bad books; that is to be agreed upon. Perhaps a few bad books serve as inspirations because, to be honest, they have their own charm. Problem begins when and where a whole reading community is charmed by the bad books at the cost of ignoring the good ones, which is what is happening in India- and it’s a problem because it’s telling of our reading culture, which has been converted from bad to worse. Literature is not commercialization of writing, as is being done in India, and intellectuals are not people who occasionally write a column or two in some leading newspapers- the thinking within the Indian literary culture has ceased, and the Nobel Committee notes that.

The Nobel Committee has been known to award the prize to writers who have been politically active and whose books have been bestselling- but most of those in recent years, with an exception of Alice Munro, have been writers writing in their native languages and being translated and distributed the world over. No such luck with our Indian regional writers- and believe me, we have within our nation many of those geniuses yet to be explored- who are hardly known outside of their states, let alone the nation. This lack of translation can be attributed to the lack of translators and publishers who can publish them. When a translation does appear, it has been done poorly, word-to-word and without understanding the subject at hand or the psyche of the writer behind writing the novel (an exception to that theory is Joseph Koyipally’s wonderful translation of Benyamin’s Goat Days). The lack of translation of writers is coupled with the lack of a writer, or a poet, who can represent the literature of India at a world stage. The recently deceased U.R. Ananthamurthy was one such towering figure, exceptionally well-regarded within the academic circles abroad, but hardly ever read. This was due to the absence of a trade of sorts, between the other countries and ours. Who in India would know of the wonderfully intoxicating tales of Bosnian mythology, as fictionalized by Selvedin Avdic? Or the name of Mikhail Shishkin, whose novels are being translated and read the world over, all the while, being compared to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky? At the same time, who in the United States would have heard of the funny and satirical Sukumar Ray? Or of Ram Ganesh Gadkari, the major figure of Marathi drama and short story?

India, like Europe, has a diversity, a cocktail of different cultures and languages, each having their own literature and writers. The difference being, in Europe, such writers are considered more by the readers, to India’s being completely ignored or shadowed by writers working in English. That’s not to say that English as the medium of writing in India was mediocre- far from it. R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Dom Moraes and Vinod Mehta are only some of the names which have never ceased influencing the literary culture and heritage of India- and that’s not to mention the likes of Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth, writers who have catapulted the Indian culture on the world stage. But their books are not sold like hotcakes (to use an old saying), and most of their works are known to be “intellectual material”, incapable of entertaining.

The solution towards making our very own literary heritage is not just promoting the Indians writing in English- who should be promoted, of course- but also making a way towards the promotion of more translated literature. Apart from lobbying, as Keshava Guha points out in this article, the requirement for a Nobel to be received is a literary culture rooted inside the different cultures and pathos of a nation as distinct and yet as united as India. The unity within the diversity of our culture can be known through the works of Vijay Dan Detha, Akhtar Ul-Iman, Premendra Mitra, P.L. Deshpande, Shivaji Sawant and many, many more yet to be firmly introduced to the English-language readers. It’s sad, not to mention tragic, that regional literature and its writers still remain obscure and their works- many are masterpieces in evoking their own unique culture- bite the dust inside forgotten bookstores and libraries. Quick-reads and novels “giving voice” to the youth of India might be a good read on a train or a bus, but if we sincerely want to create more Tagores and Ananthamurthies, it is vital that we start focusing upon the translation and wide-scale distribution of our regional authors. Only then will the century and a year more of drought end.

You must be to comment.
  1. Saurav Sinha

    Disheartening, but true, Chetan Bhagat is more followed and sold in India than Rushdie/Lahiri/Roy with an obvious excuse of branding latter ‘breed’ to be the subject of intellectuals. What concerns me is the demand due to the acquired taste, and the disillusionment which is growing.

    “What you read is what you become, what you are is what you read.”

    1. Babar

      Chetan Bhagat sells because he writes in simple English, and does not feel the need to use an enhanced vocabulary to show off his literary skills. Even on articles on YKA, an article is not complete without usage of at least a dozen words in every article whose meaning the majority of people would not know – and then we complain about Chetan Bhagat selling. It is a simple formula – you write for the common people, write in simple English.

  2. Prashant Kaushik

    Because Indian students spend their whole life mugging up ‘Vocaby’ words and Grammar rules.

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