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.

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