English Studies #1: English should power our writers

Syed Shoaib | May 27, 2012

English came to India with the British rule, meaning it was the language spoken by the Brits and was largely not understood by the native Indian. That made it a foreign language to us. As English education took root in India mainly for administrative purposes, concomitantly forays into expression in the form of literature also began.

They were hesitant steps, yet left their mark in the poems of Sarojini Naidu and writings of authors like RK Narayan. It was only after Salman Rushdi’s Mid­night’s Children in 1981, which won the Man Booker prize, that Indian writers saw the potential of writing in English.

From 1985 came a host of writings like Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy, The Trotter-Nama by Allen Sealy, The Shadow Lines by Ghosh, English August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chaterjee, culminating with Arundati Roy’s The God of Small Things that also won the Booker.

We may well wonder at the sudden crop of English writers from India that arose after 1985. Post-1950, a class of Indians arose to whom English became the first language in schools and for many it was the only language, in which they spoke, wrote and thought.

Therefore they became intimate with the language, which then enabled them to project their creativity through it. This led to a boom in English writing by Indians both in fiction and serious academic subjects.

It is noteworthy that this class of people are specifically from urban, upper and middle-classes having the same intellectual background; most of the mode­rn authors came from Bom­bay and Delhi more particularly from St Stephen’s College, Delhi.

From the days of RK Nara­yan, Indian writing in English was predominantly published in the West, so it led to the writers writing with western audiences in mind. Indian writing being a very young literature, writers were not able to find the right idiom to express themselves effectively. Hence, a large part of Indian experience is now unrecorded and the tendency to present India as an exotic land is prevalent in these writings.

It is only after the huge success of English books written by Indians of late that the authors realised the vast Indian market for their works. A major part of the audience is in India while the western audience is limited to critical acclaim. Writings of Shobha De and Chethan Bhagat are very popular among the Gen Y, much as the earlier generation was familiar with Mills & Boon, James Hadley Chase and Westerns. Today, the young set has a blank look at the mention of these authors.

The other problem faced by Indian writers is that there was hostility to English as it was considered the language of the colonialists. More importantly Indians felt that they were letting down their mother tongue by giving patronage to English. It was only in 1960s that there was an award instituted for English writing in India.

With English becoming the global language for communication and the ‘computer language’ the unease of adopting the aggressor’s language has been trashed. What has doubly helped is that memories of colonial rule are becoming faint and distant. English has also become the lingua franca in the country, so there is more acceptance of this young tradition of literature, kindling optimism about its future.

Aside the original writing in English, there is also the big unexplored potential of translating works of Indian languages into English. The limited English writers in India, mainly urban India, have captured only a miniscule slice of the great experience that is India.

It is from creative works in regional languages that an in-depth view of the totality of India can be had. This could be a window to India for the rest of the world and we would do well to foster this activity.

The writer works for Postnoon. And for the original post, please visit postnoon.

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About Negotiating Conflict

The Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras is organising its second academic conference in the month of September, 2012 under the overarching theme of ‘Negotiating Conflict’. The two day conference will have a session each on Economics, English Studies and Development Studies offering an array of lectures, panel discussions by the leading thinkers and paper presentations by students. For queries, please mail at: negotiatingconflict2012@gmail.com.
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