Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Asia writes back

When Kiran Desai won the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Inheritance of Loss it came as no surprise that yet another Indian-born writer had won the Commonwealth’s most prestigious literature award. Previous Indian winners include Ruth Prawal Jhabvala (Heat and Dust, 1975), Salmon Rushdie (Midnight’s Children, 1981) and Suzanna Arundhati Roy (God of Small Things, 1997). No less than three of Anita Desai’s novels have been short-listed for the prize.

Indians have made an enormous and varied contribution to English writing, from the intellectual Rabindranath Tagore – one of only four Asians to win the Nobel Prize for literature – to the hugely popular R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao, whose long careers spanned the 20th century. Nowadays Vikram Seth consistently makes best-seller lists throughout the English-speaking world, while Shobha De’s steamy novels have sold over a million copies. Although some Indian authors achieved fame overseas before becoming known back home, such as Harvard-educated Preeti Singh and Oxford PhD-holder Amitrav Ghosh, many write very much with the domestic market in mind. Chetan Bhagat’s One Night at the Call Center specifically draws Indian readers’ attention to the mixed blessing of English-language skills in a world where educated locals end up doing boring outsourced work for less-educated Americans.

The University of Delhi’s Radha Chakravaty has claimed that the best writing in English comes from regions where English is not the people’s mother tongue. While this ignores the fact that most of the literary class of South Asians were educated primarily in English rather than a local language, it does remind us that many authors there are multilingual: Sudha Murty, a renowned social activist who together with her husband set up India’s largest software company, publishes novels in both English and Kannada.

Literary success should not mask the fact that most Indians have had something of a love-hate relationship with English. Narayan and Raja Rao used the language to create a different image of the empire from that depicted by British writers like Kipling and E.M. Forster. Prominent nationalists such as Gandhi and Nehru condemned English as a foreign imposition while using it expertly themselves. Arundhati Roy was angered on a recent British TV show when it was suggested Indian writers adopted the language freely: in her novel, children are punished for using Malayalam at school. She told radio listeners that even though English was her first language, “The empire has interfered with my deepest thoughts.” In fact the colonial period had instances not only of Indians being forced to learn English against their will, but of others wanting to learn it but being discouraged by the British.