‘Indians writing in English cannot come close to Manto, Premchand or Bibhutibhushan'

An argument with Jnanpith winner Bhalchandra Nemade on the limitations and inevitable failure of Indian writing in English.

Earlier this year, the noted Marathi writer Bhalchandra Nemade won the Jnanpith award for the first volume of his long-awaited tetralogy, Hindu – Jagnyachi Samrudhha Adgal.  (This magnum opus comes several decades after his Changdeo Patil tetralogy – Hool, Bidhar, Jareela, and Jool.) Almost immediately after that, a storm of controversy arose over Nemade’s comments on English in general (it was reported that Nemade had asked for English to be removed from school curricula at once – the word “ban” was bandied about). The now infamous “footwear” metaphor was used – English should be treated like shoes – and writers Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul came in for particular attack. Salman Rushdie responded on Twitter the next day:

Grumpy old bastard. Just take your prize and say thank you nicely. I doubt you've even read the work you attack.

Several articles followed in the wake of this spat – and things continued to simmer. Here’s what Nemade had to tell me on the subject. A tall spare man with a generous white moustache and a surprisingly gentle manner for one so hot-blooded, he was supremely interesting – as always.

Shall we talk about the recent controversy about your comments on English in India. And I don’t mean English as a merely functional tool but a literary language.

English is an important language which everybody should know. It is a language which has united us for a long time.  English is the language of our freedom struggle. All these things are acceptable to me. I have been teaching language, linguistics…

You’ve been teaching English literature as well…

Oh yes, I’ve been teaching English literature, linguistics, comparative literature, Marathi – everything. People think that there is no balance in what I am saying but that is not so. All of the above things about English are true. But your mother tongue has to be your first language. Because it is the only way by which you understand reality.

All linguists have come to this conclusion. Every expert believes that the child, especially around the age of 12 or 13, must have a deep exposure to the mother tongue. Because the mother tongue is the only source of knowledge in the universe. That is why your mother tongue should always have priority, any other language should only be in second place – including English.

I don’t want to ban English or totally hate English or anything – but English is encroaching upon the innocence of children. The guardians don’t understand this. They are guided by commerce

What is the metaphor you had used at the time that became so controversial – the footwear metaphor for English? Do you want to elaborate upon this?

It is a metaphor through which you can make these two different things – the different uses of language – meet. You walk through the gutters, the rain, dust and dirt – the world outside. You need different shoes for that purpose. When you enter your house though, you leave them outside. English is like that. You walk through the gutter by way of English, but don’t bring it to your kitchen.

When you are bilingual, each language must be assigned a function. When I go to a station or the airport, if I go to Assam or Bengal, I can’t carry Marathi with me. I will carry those shoes of English. But inside the house, where I don’t need those shoes, it must be Marathi. What is wrong with this?

I understand the metaphor – though I can see why many people might be offended by it. Or misunderstand it.

That is why it was misreported.

But I have a different view here. I don’t know if you would agree. But just as, sometimes, as opposed to an author choosing a form, a form chooses the author, I feel, for a bilingual person, the language in which one will write also selects the writer. Then, in other cases there have been writers who changed language mid-career. Nabokov, for example. His mother tongue was Russian, he wrote in Russian for half his life and then mid-career, he switched to English. There have been studies comparing the subtle changes that came about in the interior world of his writing, as a result of this. But perhaps, however ineluctably, does the artistic process not compel a writer to a particular language, which might even end up being the second language, for their literary work?

See, the writer’s ability is put to all kinds of hardships; there are an infinite variety of circumstances under which writers work. The kind of circumstances under which, say Pasternak worked, or Nabokov worked, or, say, Konrad worked – all bilingual writers – these are quite different from those under which the Indian English writers work.

There are an infinite variety of circumstances under which a writer has to find his form. I agree. The compulsions of the language and the form to be respected. I agree.

But what I am saying is that in India, there is no such compulsion where they should quit their mother tongue and choose a language which is much inferior to their own language. I think Bengali or Marathi is much superior to the kind of English – I am not talking about English of the British Isles – we get here. That kind of English which we call Indian English, is not potent enough for any writer to have that compulsion.

Well, this is where I think writers who write in Indian English might disagree with you, might have their own perspectives. There are of course many shades of experience. It’s peculiar why I started writing in English. Not only is my mother tongue Bengali, I grew up reading a lot of Bengali literature too. My grandmother, my parents – all read Bengali literature. We were steeped in it. I continue to read in both. But when I write in Indian English, I am thinking of reaching, through it, a community of people, young people like myself, who share many of the same concerns – whether of macro concerns like nationhood and globalisation or merely its consequences on the inner worlds, but I cannot reach them only through Bengali. They are Marathis and Tamilians and Manipuris – and I reach them through English. I do see your point, though I don’t agree.  The struggle that I face in transmuting thought into prose – is that I am writing in Indian. It’s not Indian English, it’s Indian. So there is certainly the possibility…

Of Indian English being a first choice for some?

Well, yes.

I have to …

(Long pause, when he thinks deeply, closing his eyes.)

…take objection to this because I don’t believe there is any Indian English community anywhere in India.

That’s true, there isn’t any one community. But imagine the joy of that… What happens to my generation is that, especially post-globalisation, a whole community has emerged from bits of communities of the past, which is trying to articulate a similar shared experience in India. No wonder there has been such a flowering of Indian writing in English published in India for Indians. While I understand there might be certain perceptions about writers living abroad and writing about India in English for a foreign readership or writing to certain pre-conceived frameworks, but there are, today, resident in India, a whole generation of writers working in English, attempting to articulate some of the very same concerns that writers working in the bhashas deal with… And their readers are also very much in India.

I know readers are there. But the kind of activity you are entering into is not just a matter of communication. It’s more than that.

Of course. It’s political.

There are questions of roots, literary cultures. Languages work within a number of contingent factors, including folklore, say, literary history, shared history and geography, flora, fauna, everything. Unfortunately, the kind of medium you have chosen – whatever your compulsions – you may land yourself into a no-man’s land gradually. Because you are using a form which has no folklore, no shared history.

You have so many different kinds of readers and they will be reacting differently. As an activity at a superficial level, it may succeed. You may be a bestselling writer – Rushdie and Naipaul have millions of readers, that is another matter – but the kind of organic literary culture which Manto, Premchand or Bibhutibhushan represent – that you cannot really even come close to. This is my very frank opinion. You may not like it but this is my very considered view. I am convinced of this fact.

But what I think is happening in my case – and I can of course speak only about myself, though in a very minor way – in my case, I have no quarrel with my identity. Identities, in fact. I am constantly drawing from the same pool of experiences – Bengaliness, Indian-ness, brown-ness. I completely understand the problematic relationship between language and content that you suggest – of course there is a certain tension between language and content. But I do not borrow English because I want to be something I am not, because of some complicated reasons of escape or discomfort in my own skin. Not at all. So there must be some potential…

I don’t deny that. But being a very good writer, you will land yourself in a mire of this no-man’s land later on. Because of the kind of readership I pursue – all kinds of people, from the remote areas in the Sahyadris and Satpuras, to Goa – it gives me a very concrete stand on everything in life: rationalism, rituals, everything. All those people, I reach with a kind of mission. That is a gift given to me by my language.

Once I choose this language, it is this language that will guide me to all these corners. But your language of choice will not be able to guide you in this same way. You will be working in a very sparsely populated zone. There you will be wasting your talents. Or, like strayed people who become bestsellers, you might pander to foreign tastes. Without the mother tongue, things get lost. Folk songs, babbling songs, nonsense rhymes – all these make language, construct repertoires. This repertoire you miss. A child needs this.

Devapriya Roy's next book, The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat, is due on May 15. It is co-written with Saurav Jha, and is the story of an eccentric journey across India on a very very tight budget.


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