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...



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

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.