Prize talk

Why Indian writers are never in the running for the Nobel

There are many problems – the absence of a national literary culture, to begin with.

Patrick Modiano, a 69-year old novelist little-known outside his native France, has just become the 110th recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is now over a century since Rabindranath Tagore won the prize. As with science Nobels and individual Olympic golds, India has produced exactly one literature laureate*. Since the constraints of genetics or research budgets do not apply to literature, this ought to be a matter of some surprise, but it is unlikely to change anytime soon.

This failure is often attributed to the Swedish Academy’s Eurocentrism: Modiano is the fifteenth European winner in the past 20 years. But in recent decades, the prize has also gone to writers from countries such as Peru, Guatemala, St. Lucia, and twice each to China and South Africa. Those who suspect the Academy of valuing political and geographic as well as aesthetic considerations might conclude that another Indian winner is thus inevitable.

But while the nominees and shortlist (the Academy whittles 220 nominees down to a shortlist of five) are only released after 50 years, the betting odds calculated by bookmakers such as Ladbrokes are generally a good guide to the shortlist – in recent years, the winner has come from among the odds-on favourites. Writers such as Modiano or the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer might have been obscure to an international audience, but they were favoured heavily by punters. The complete absence of Indian names from the odds indicates that no Indian writer has been seriously considered for some time. Moreover, there is little or no evidence that the Swedish Academy weights factors other than literary value in its decisions: choices that were interpreted as political statements – Orhan Pamuk and Harold Pinter – were easily defensible on literary grounds.

National literature

Perhaps the most important factor impeding Indian writers is the absence of a national literary culture and thus of a national literature. Tagore is not only the last Indian Nobel Laureate: he was our last “national” writer, read widely across regions and languages, beloved not only of Bengalis but of Indians. Non-Western Nobel winners tend to come from monolingual countries with unified literary cultures, and thus to be major cultural figures in their societies. In the international sphere, they become national embodiments – Naguib Mahfouz for Egypt, Octavio Paz for Mexico. There are no Indian equivalents. Chetan Bhagat is a culturally influential writer, but of a very different kind.

Many Indian writers are, of course, iconic cultural presences in their states or linguistic regions, as exemplified by the public mourning in Karnataka for U.R. Ananthamurthy – in whom India has lost one of its more plausible Nobel candidates. But their influence remains, as a rule, parochial. This is largely down to the lack of translation between regional languages, and the poor quality of translation into English. It is difficult to expect writers to develop international reputations when they are unknown outside their own states. English translations from regional languages are much more common, but very few translators are accomplished stylists in English. Thus, most translations convey the meaning of the original in a dull and often stodgy prose.

Lost in translation

The Swedish Academy read Indian-language writers in English and thus receive a rather poor representation of these literatures. The few high-quality translations of recent years – of Ashk, Manto, Senapati – are of novels by long-dead authors who are ineligible for the Nobel. In contrast, the high quality of translation from Spanish to English was essential to the globalisation of Latin American literature. The rare Indian-language writer to receive an international audience, Ananthamurthy, had a brilliant translator, A.K. Ramanujan. His successors have not been so fortunate.

What of Indian writers in English? Many have acquired international reputations, and three have won the Man Booker Prize. When Rohinton Mistry won the Neustadt Prize in 2012, Indian headlines said he’d won “the American Nobel”. Most of these internationally famous writers live outside India, and their work has become increasingly historical and removed from contemporary Indian themes (Aravind Adiga is an exception to both rules). This points to another explanation for the Nobel failure. The Academy has a clear preference for writers who chronicle the “national experience”, using literature to interrogate power structures and social change. It may also not consider any of the leading Indian writers in English to be quite Nobel-worthy–  while Adiga and Kiran Desai are too young.

Writers in English with international publishers have access to the institutional support that is essential to winning the prize. Regional-language writers need much better translations and a certain degree of promotion to stand any chance. Unlike the national literary academies of many other countries, the Sahitya Akademi is ineffective in this regard. There is an unfortunate parallel here with India’s attitude to the Foreign Language Film Oscar. It is not enough to nominate the “best” work – the Oscar and Nobel juries have hundreds of films/writers to consider and lobbying is essential. When the director of Liar’s Dice, India’s Oscar entry for next year, announced that she would do no lobbying or marketing and let her film “speak for itself”, she ensured that she would not stand a chance at winning the award.

Why, you might ask, should Indians care why we win international awards such as the Nobel or Oscar? It is not that Indian writers, or any writer, needs a certificate from an insular and secretive jury of Swedish academics. But an Indian Nobel winner, especially a regional-language writer, could have a transformative effect on the reach of Indian literature, both nationally and globally, as well as on the value accorded to literature in Indian society. It could prompt a long-needed increase in translations between Indian languages. In the long run, it would also discredit the unearned snobbery of the English-language literary elite and allow regional-language writers the reach and acclaim they deserve.

*Not counting the three scientists of Indian-origin to win Nobels, none of them being Indian citizens. The same applies to Rushdie and the Booker Prize.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Want to retire at 45? Make your money work for you

Common sense and some discipline are all you need.

Dreaming of writing that book or taking that cruise when you hit your 40s? Well, this dream need not be unrealistic.

All it takes is simple math and the foresight to do some smart financial planning when you are still young. If you start early and get into the discipline of cutting down on unnecessary expenditure, using that money to invest systematically, you can build wealth that sets you free to tick those items off your bucket list sooner than later.

A quick look at how much you spend on indulgences will give you an idea of how much you can save and invest. For example, if you spend, say Rs. 1,000 on movie watching per week, this amount compounded over 10 years means you would have spent around Rs 7,52,000 on just movies! You can try this calculation for yourself. Think of any weekly or monthly expense you regularly make. Now use this calculator to understand how much these expenses will pile up overtime with the current rate of inflation.

Now imagine how this money could have grown at the end of 10 years and overcome the inflation effect if you had instead invested a part of it somewhere!

It is no rocket science

The fact is that financial planning is simpler than we imagine it to be. Some simple common sense and a clear prioritization of life’s goals is all you need:

  1. Set goals and work backwards: Everything starts with what you want. So, what are your goals? Are they short-term (like buying a car), medium-term (buying a house) or long-term (comfortable living post-retirement). Most of us have goals that come under all the three categories. So, our financial plans should reflect that. Buying a house, for example, would mean saving up enough money for up-front payment and ensuring you have a regular source of income for EMI payment for a period of at least 15-20 years. Buying a car on the other hand might just involve having a steady stream of income to pay off the car loan.
  2. Save first, spend later: Many of us make the mistake of putting what is left, after all our expenses have been met, in the savings kitty. But the reverse will have more benefits in the long run. This means, putting aside a little savings, right at the beginning of the month in the investment option that works best for you. You can then use the balance to spend on your expenditures. This discipline ensures that come what may, you remain on track with your saving goals.
  3. Don’t flaunt money, but use it to create more: When you are young and get your first jobit is tempting to spend on a great lifestyle. But as we’ve discussed, even the small indulgences add up to a serious amount of cash over time. Instead, by regulating indulgences now and investing the rest of your money, you can actually become wealthy instead of just seeming to be so.
  4. Set aside emergency funds: When an emergency arises, like sudden hospitalisation or an accident, quick access to money is needed. This means keeping aside some of your money in liquid assets (accessible whenever you want it). It thus makes sense to regularly save a little towards creating this emergency fund in an investment that can be easily liquidated.
  5. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: This is something any investment adviser will tell you, simply because different investment options come with different benefits and risks and suit different investment horizons. By investing in a variety of instruments or options, you can hedge against possible risks and also meet different goals.

How and Why Mutual Funds work

A mutual fund is a professionally managed investment scheme that pools money collected from investors like you and invests this into a diversified portfolio (an optimal mix) of stocks, bonds and other securities.

As an investor, you buy ‘units’, under a mutual fund scheme. The value of these units (Net Asset Value) fluctuates depending on the market value of the mutual fund’s investments. So, the units can be bought or redeemed as per your needs and based on the value.

As mentioned, the fund is managed by professionals who follow the market closely to make calls on where to invest money. This makes these funds a great option for someone who isn’t financially very savvy but is interested in saving up for the future.

So how is a mutual fund going to help to meet your savings goals? Here’s a quick Q&A helps you understand just that:

  1. How do mutual funds meet my investment needs? Mutual Funds come with a variety of schemes that suit different goals depending on whether they are short-term, medium-term or long-term.
  2. Can I withdraw money whenever I want to? There are several mutual funds that offer liquidity – quick and easy access to your money when you want it. For example, there are liquid mutual funds which do not have any lock in period and you can invest your surplus money even for one day. Based on your goals, you can divide your money between funds with longer term or shorter term benefits.
  3. Does it help save on taxes? Investing in certain types of mutual funds also offers you tax benefits. More specifically, investing in Equity Linked Saving Schemes, which are funds that invest in a diverse portfolio of equities, offers you tax deductions up to Rs. 1.5 lakhs under Section 80C of the Income Tax Act.
  4. Don’t I need a lot of money to invest in MFs? No, you can start small. The returns in terms of percentage is the same irrespective of the amount you invest in. Additionally, the Systematic Investment Plan (SIP) allows you to invest a small amount weekly, monthly or quarterly in a mutual fund. So, you get to control the size and frequency of your investment and make sure you save before you spend.
  5. But aren’t MFs risky? Well many things in life are risky! Mutual funds try to mitigate your risk by investing your money across a variety of securities. You can further hedge risk by investing in 2 to 3 mutual offers that offer different growth stories i.e. a blue-chip fund and a mid-cap fund. Also remember in a mutual fund, your money is being managed by professionals who are constantly following the market.
  6. Don’t I have to wait too long to get back my returns? No! Mutual Funds, because of the variety of options they offer, can give you gains in the short or medium term too.

The essence of mutual funds is that your money is not lying idle, but is dynamically invested and working for you. To know more about how investing in mutual funds really works for you, see here.

Disclaimer: Mutual Fund investments are subject to market risks, read all scheme related documents carefully.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Mutual Funds Sahi Hai and not by the Scroll editorial team.