Library of India

Indian literature must look beyond English to go global

Fiction, non-fiction and poetry from India is as good as the best in the world. Only, most of it is not in English.

About three years ago, one of the most ambitious literary projects ever of the Government of India was flagged off by the Ministry of Culture. Led by Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival and superbly connected in the literary world, Indian Literature Abroad, as the project was titled, was a play to take the best of Indian literature in translation to the world.

Lists of books were drawn up, translators were asked for pitches, and publishers were co-opted. Unfortunately, being a government-driven initiative, it lost much of its momentum. But it’s an idea whose time has come.

In 1998, Salman Rushdie infamously wrote an obituary for post-Independence non-English Indian literature, asserting: “…the prose writing – both fiction and non-fiction – created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what is being produced in the 16 'official languages' of India, the so-called 'vernacular' languages, during the same time: and indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

Rushdie was probably trying to be provocative, for even he would be hard put to deny the wealth of writing in languages ranging from Hindi to Malayalam, from Bengali to Tamil, from Marathi to Assamese. But for all the treasures on the Indian languages bookshelves, it is still only English language fiction from India that finds a market in foreign countries. From agents to publishers, almost no one looks at any of the growing number of translations into English of fiction from regional Indian languages.

Quality isn't the issue

Someone must be blamed for this, because quality – either of the original works or of the translations – is not the issue here. Over the past decade, and even earlier, there have been a number of very fine translations of top-class classic, modern and contemporary Indian fiction.

Then why do writers of some of the best books in the country not find publishers elsewhere in the world, even as far more mediocre works – there, I've said it! – written in English are not only published abroad but also command handsome advances for their authors? (Although that last aspect might also be a matter of multiplying the advance by 60 or 100, as they case may be, when converting to rupees.)

The answer is simple: English fiction from India enjoys a disproportionate share of voice in western publishing markets, where editorial perspectives on South Asia are dominated by the post-Salman Rushdie, post-Arundhati Roy story. For one thing, almost everyone (fortunately, not quite everyone) is looking for the "Indian" novel – exotica meets confusion meets mumbo-jumbo meets Slumdog Millionaire, or the-dark-underbelly-of-India’s-economic-success.

This is a demand that India’s globally clued-in English language novelist is inherently capable of exploiting. Not surprisingly, the fiction of the other Indias, which is actually much closer to the real Indias – as we know, there are many – is ignored.

Moreover, the big, influential agents, without whom making inroads into the English language markets of the West is well nigh possible, prefer original writing to translations, if only because it provides a better chance to showcase the author, who is an integral part of the marketing collateral for a book today.

Then why the assertion that the time has come for the idea that powered Indian Literature Abroad? Is anyone even interested? Actually, they are. Translated literature has suddenly become something of a rage in both the UK and the US (it was always big in Europe, where readers have truly global tastes and are not insular).

In the UK, the wave is being led by Scandinavian crime fiction, which burst into people’s imaginations after Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy was published. While Larsson was as successful across the Atlantic, literary circles in the US are abuzz right now with the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume autobiography Min Kamp, translated as My Struggle.

The real India story

To ride this wave, what Indian publishers – or someone who wants to bring it all together – must do is to create a Library of India, comprising, say, translations of the 50 best works in Indian languages (fine, we’ll include original works in English too) into a set of books that can truly represent the India story.

So far, attempts to sell publishing rights for translated books have been sporadic, involving individual titles only. With the exception of internationally acclaimed names – such as U.R. Ananthamurthy or Mahasweta Devi, to name two –  few of the other writers in the Indian languages evokes any curiosity on a book-by-book basis.

Scale is strategy. The Library of India can signal India’s literary power in a definitive way. Fifty of the country’s finest works of fiction  comparable to the best of world literature  will make publishers and agents in other countries sit up and take notice. Taking the set to international book fairs, individual publishers and literary events around the world will give translated Indian literature the place it deserves under the global sun. And prove Rushdie wrong. So wrong that I can’t even...

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