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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.