[While talking about Indian writing in English, specifically about What Is Indian Writing and What Kind of India Do We Talk About]— Much of the unease expressed by Mishra, and in a different form by Sharma, and earlier by Sealy and even Mukherjee, comes from questioning the need for the Big India book—at some level, we understand that these books are very rarely written by Indian journalists, and that, even so, the stories they tell, whether simplified or not, are influential. Some of the unease comes from a sense of disenfranchisement: it is telling, for instance, that there seems to be little need for the Big India book in Hindi or Urdu or Marathi. Other than in English, we lack either the curiosity or the need to explain India to ourselves.
[…] Writing from the margins—Dalit writing, the resurgence in Indian poetry in English, writing from the Northeast—is rarely visible; when it is visible, it is exoticised, both here and abroad. And by its nature, Indian writing in English has been largely privileged writing—if not quite the sons of St Stephens College, most contemporary writers in this language come from the relatively enfranchised middle class, and their work reflects the limitations of their backgrounds.
The Census 2001 figures, released late last year, revealed that English had, effectively, become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns or belong to metropolitan areas that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege. English belongs to them now, as much as it once did about two to three decades ago, to the old class of writer-Brahmins.
And as this generation begins to tell and write its stories, it may not need to beguile the souks of the West with its Indiennisme. There are 125 million English speakers, of whom a much higher percentage has made it their first language in the decade since the Census data was collected, a number large enough to make its own marketplace. If that happens, this new generation of writers might finally be able to step away from the debates that have come down across a century-and-a-half of Indian writing in English.
Or perhaps they will find a new set of things to argue about. In the years before the call centre phenomenon spread across India, adding an American accent to Indian English, the first signs of the hunger for English—a language that might offer a passport to better jobs, more money, more status—showed up in the India of the 1980s and the 1990s in the ads for the very popular Rapidex English Speaking Course.
[…] From that period of Indian history, I retained for many years a small memento, picked up in my travels across the Hindi heartland. A flyer from the Prince School and Education Bureau, distributed at a bus stand, it offered the familiar ‘English Tutions’ (“tuition” is often misspelled, and the Indian version sounds more euphonious to my biased ears), and this beguiling promise: “IN THREE WEEKS, LEARN HOW TO READ IN GREMAN. HOW TO READ IN ENGLISH. HOW TO READ IN INDIAN.”
I like the enterprise behind that promise. I think, in many ways, we are all still trying to learn how to read in Indian, even if we don’t always have the right glossaries."
Too tired to write paragraphs, so tumblr have a neato list:
1. Before we go anywhere—here, have another beautiful essay about the Bombay Poets, and if nostalgia over Modern English Poetry doesn’t work for you, read it for the wonderful conversation Anjum Hassan manages to resurrect, for herself and us.
2. Coming to Roy. First off, ALL THE HEARTS AND HUGS for recounting the long history of the Neemrana and the same conversation we seem to be having every time we talk about Indian writing in English.
3. I’ve often wondered too—why don’t we supervise and aim to regulate other conversations about other India(s) happening in All Languages Except English.
4. I don’t know why this is either—are we “okay” with ‘regional’ langauges, or ‘vernacular’ dialects (okay, so isn’t English a regional and a vernacular language by now?) (Is there a time stipulation?) (Another century of being a post-post-colony, perhaps?) (INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW) challenging and holding the notion of the country and the community in scrutiny, or we don’t like that it is done in English because (supposedly), Indian writing in English is international in ways regional writing isn’t?
5. (Okay, so strangely enough, my most recent foray into North America was a surprise in this department) (I met about a dozen people who’d read Mahashveta Devi, Arun Kolatkar and Kiran Nagarkar in Polish, Dutch, Czech, some in English translations etc) (And they’re not any ‘special’ readers either, they like ‘pulp’ fiction, sci-fi and so on). (The surprise came when I’d assumed ‘regional’ *and* ‘Indian’ writing were monopolies in South Asia) (and mostly undergrad libraries) (but back to the point).
6. Like Roy, I do like the premise and crudely put, the statistical evidence that English (rather access to English and its affective worlds) is no longer a preoccupation of a certain caste/class. However, there are different Worlds such Englishes create, and I am not quite sure how those filter in our publishing markets, precisely without demarcating them as “voices from the margins”, without forgetting the processes that ensure their marginality?
7. Yes, yes, we have Navayana (brilliant catalog really), and Zubaan and Stree and Orient Black Swan. We have, again the statistical reality where caste-and-class (and specifically, its democratic upward surge in the 90’s) can no longer be a concern of the people “who are born with that problem”, we’ve come around to be a population that (very reluctantly) agrees that we’re all a part of the Problem. in various different ways.
8. But, sadly such trajectories water down to—1. “Well, now look, ‘those people’ have a veritable presence in society, we have to write about them, because let’s face it, representation sells”, which in turn feeds into the neoliberal rights-as-assets democracy or 2. “Now that ‘those people’ are around, they will publish also. Surely, they will have sympathisers to their ‘sect’ and ‘caste’ etc” which I see the Roy argument going towards, by the end.
9. We won’t talk (yet again), about how ‘Indian’ writing—in English and otherwise—aren’t circles easy to break into (or out of) (interestingly, Nalini Jameela joked at a conference/reading that she finds lit circuits as difficult to break in/out of as circuits of sex work) (and we laughed, because there wasn’t much else to say). And that these ‘markets’, ‘audiences’, ‘writers’, call it whatever you must, have to be created. Just because the “democratic” space exists that does not oppose such presence, doesn’t mean we’re doing much to fix the absence, no?(via
Not so much about writing in English as about speaking it in a(nother) Anglophone country: an American (Caucasian) friend once eavesdropped on a telephonic conversation between family and me (time-zone hassle no.11: having to take/make calls in public spaces), and when I put down the phone, he remarked, “Wow, you didn’t speak a single sentence without an English word in it,” adding later on, “Not as low down on the totem pole eh?” referring to the fact that I was in the States on a full scholarship, which usually goes to ‘economically disadvantaged’ minority students, and implying by further comments that I had somehow subverted the rules to make it through.
I remember trying to figure out how to explain that English is widely used/spoken in many regions in India, that it is part of our parliamentary, legal and business usage, and that it makes sense I would use English in my conversations, formal and informal - it’s just very normal for most Indians. Then I realized that this was not the case for “most” Indians. I grew up and learned in some interesting circumstances, aided by some amounts of luck and merit. And really, if anything else had become lingua franca, none of this would be relevant.
I thanked my stars when another friend (first dude’s twin brother, in fact) interjected with, “That’s pretty neat tho - didn’t you say you are multilingual? Man, I speak only one language, and that ain’t too well, either!”
Of course, I have learnt a lot since those days, and now I just ignore people who tell me I must be “sophisticated” because I can converse in an English patois familiar to them and/or be hip on pop-culture references or random world trivia. There are literally millions of people out there with more knowledge, perspectives and ‘sophistication’ than you know you are missing out on, only because you can’t speak their language(s). And you probably never will. Nothing to stop you from respectful, mindful dissection though.