Literary trends

Are India's English writers getting better at writing in Indian?

New ways of using dialogue and the first person voice are finally making English an Indian language.

At last, a new voice is informing dialogue in Indian writing in English. For the longest time, writers have struggled to make what their characters say sound authentic.

After all, in most – if not all – cases, writing in English about people who actually speak Tamil or Hindi or Marathi or Bengali, as the case might be, is a constant act of translation that, arguably, writers from other parts of the world do not often have to perform. As translators of Indian fiction into English (or other European languages) know only too well, the vocabulary, syntax, rhythm ands register of speech in the Indian languages are far removed from those in English.

The challenge, then, has been to write in English without sounding as though the characters live their lives in English too. To not sound, in other words, like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in his first – and, mercifully, only – English novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, where he had a woman in rural Bengal invoke Jericho.

At the same time, Indian writers in English have long faced the difficulty of expressing experiences that are not central to the language they have chosen to write in. The sheer range of emotions, actions and sensibilities seen in people living on the Indian subcontinent is hard to encapsulate in a language that grew out of a different history as well as geography.

There have been many solutions, ranging from “Babu English” – a mangling of conventional grammar and syntax that has generated laughable qualities rather than authenticity – to Salman Rushdie’s famous “chutnification”, an energetic mingling of local patois with English that was almost the forefather of Hinglish as she is spoke today.

But none of these has made for a satisfying literary experience, neither adding new vigour to the English language – as, say, African, Caribbean, African-American, or Hispanic origin writers have done – nor providing the textual equivalent of the actual rhythms, vocabulary and speech patterns in India. Why, even when the characters in these novels speak English, they are either supremely refined or hopeless parodies.

Naturally, it’s not right to tar all writers with the same brush, but as a journey through the use of English in dialogue in particular reveals, Indian writers in English have had a difficult time.

Rushdie relied on volleys of words, English and Indian expressions jumbled sometimes, to create an all-new literary idiom which, however, did not really have a real-life equivalent.

Within twenty-four hours, in the course of messhall conversations with other CUTIA units, the man-dog had been fully mythologised… “From a really important family, man!” – “The idiot child, they put him in the Army to make a man of him!” – “Had a war accident in ’65, yaar, can’t won’t remember a thing about it!” – “listen, I heard he was the brother of” – “No, man, that’s crazy, she is good, you know, so simple and holy, how would she leave her brother?” – “Anyway he refuses to talk about it.” – “I heard one terrible thing, she hated him, man, that’s why she!” – “No memory, not interested in people, lives like a dog!” – “But the tracking business is true all right! You see that nose on him?” – “Yah, man, he can follow any trail on earth!” – “Through water, baba, across rocks! Such a tracker, you never saw!” – “And he can’t feel a thing! That’s right! Numb, I swear; head-to-foot numb! You touch him, he wouldn’t know – only by smell he knows you’re there!” – “Must be the war wound!” – “But that spittoon, man, who knows? Carries it everywhere like a love-token!” – “I tell you, I’m glad it’s you three; he gives me the creeps, yaar, it’s those blue eyes.” – “You know how they found out about his nose? He just wandered into a minefield, man, I swear, just picked his way through, like he could smell the damn mines!” – “O, no, man, what are you talking, that’s an old story, that was that first dog in the whole CUTIA operation, that Bonzo, man, don’t mix us up!” – “Hey, you Ayooba, you better watch your step, they say VIPs are keeping their eyes on him!” – “Yah, like I told you, Jamila Singer…” – “O, keep your mouth shut, we all heard enough of your fairy-tales!”

— "Midnight’s Children", Salman Rushdie

For both Upamanyu Chatterjee in English, August, and the early Amitav Ghosh in The Shadow Lines, the characters often spoke English in natural course. The outcome was a faithful if sometimes colourless pattern of speech.

Kumar came in at about twelve, in another tight shirt. The bugger needs a bra, thought Agastya. “Hello, Sen,” beamed Kumar. “I called you for dinner once, didn’t I? Very sorry I forgot. But my house is in a mess until my wife returns, what to do."

At lunch Mrs Srivastav said, "Arrey, August, you eat fish like a real Bengali. Look, his plate is so clean."

"A real Bengali," repeated the daughter, and leered at Agastya.

"Looks like your mother’s side couldn’t corrupt you," said Kumar.

— "English, August", Upamanyu Chatterjee

And what’s she like? A voice asked. Sexy?

He reflected on that for a moment and said, no, she wasn’t sexy, not in the ordinary way – she was thickset with broad shoulders, and not very tall. She wasn’t beautiful or even pretty in the usual sense for she had a string face and a square jaw, but she had thick straight hair which came down to her shoulders in a glossy black screen, like a head-dress in an Egyptian frieze, and she had a wonderful, warm smile which lit up her blue eyes and gave her a quality all her own, set her apart.

And what does she do? someone sneered. Is she a wrestler or a hairdresser?

She’s a student, said Tridib. At least a kind of student – she’s studying at the Royal College of Music. She plays the oboe, and one day she’s going to join an orchestra.

— "The Shadow Lines", Amitav Ghosh

Vikram Seth placed his magnum opus in an upper class milieu and had no need to translate the spoken word. But there was an unchanging daintiness and precision in the way his characters spoke, the language driven by social convention rather than by inner passions.

“And Savita will fatten him up,” added Mrs Rupa Mehra. “Why are you trying to annoy me when I am so happy? And Pran and Savita will be happy, you will see. They will be happy,” she continued emphatically. “Thank you, thank you,” she now beamed at those who were coming up to greet her. “It is so wonderful – the boy of my dreams, and such a good family. The Minister Sahib has been very kind to us. And Savita is so happy. Please eat something, please eat: they have made such delicious gulab jamuns, but owing to my diabetes I cannot eat them even after the ceremonies. I am not even allowed gajak, which is so difficult to resist in winter. But please eat, please eat. I must go in to check what is happening: the time that the pandits have given is coming up, and there is no sign of either bride or groom!”

— “A Suitable Boy”, Vikram Seth

Amit Chaudhuri did bring to his dialogue a delicate ear for cadence. But still there was the comfort of ritualised upper middle-class communication, with safe spaces for measured emotions, bound by good manners and breeding.


“Can you recognise me?”

“Are you sure,” said Mohit in his knowledgeable way, “that you have the right number?”

“So you don’t recognise me.”

“Is this a joke?” asked Mohit stiffly.

“I’m Didimoni.”

There was an embarrassed sigh. Then, complainingly, Mohit cried:

“Didimoni, why didn’t you say so to Sameer? This donkey said you were ‘a girl’.”

— "Freedom Song", Amit Chaudhuri

But now, writers are listening to the real words and hardness – softness, too – of actual exchanges in the mother tongues of their characters. And they're translating those into an idiom that uses words freely, that isn't afraid of the rulebook of grammar, and is yet able to create a genuine form of expression, one that's much closer to the ground.

One day, after they had had a vigorous session, Sona asked why Nirmal needed to pump iron every day. He said cockily, caressing her face, “You don’t know, jaanu. I have to look strong. Day and night I am working with chor and goonda. You never know when a fight is going to break out. I need to keep a good body, a muscular body, to keep peace at work where I work.”

— "The Adivasi Will Not Dance", Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Ma! he said, almost shouting. What are you doing to me?

What am I doing to you? I said. I am asking you to try on a suit. A suit, that is all.

I don’t want to wear a suit! he said.

I told him how it was not just any suit, that it was bought from the mall. Still, did he listen?

What are you trying to make me into? he said. I don’t want to wear a suit! I don’t want to do an MBA! I don’t want to work in an office!

I am not trying to make you anything, you foolish boy, I said. I am only asking you to try on a suit that I bought especially for you with such a lot of love.

— "The Private Life of Mrs Sharma", Ratika Kapur

What makes a voice such as Kapur’s or Shekhar’s a little more real, then? It is easy to imagine, reading these, the original sentences being spoken in a local language, as the prostitute and her client do in Shekhar’s story. Or, as Mrs Sharma does in English, having acquired an education in the language in Meerut.

This is very close to how you would expect them to speak. And it is in narrowing the gap between that expectation and the actual text, in enabling the reader to hear something from life, not something from a printed page, that these – and other – writers have finally made English an Indian language.

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