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In Other Words

English Spoken Here

How globalization is changing the Indian novel.

In a scene early in Vikram Chandra’s massive 2006 cops-and-robbers novel Sacred Games, the small-time gangster Ganesh Gaitonde sells some stolen gold and feels, for the first time in his life, wealthy and powerful. He goes looking for pleasure on the streets, and a pimp offers him "a high-class cheez." But no sooner is Gaitonde left alone with the prostitute than he begins to feel set up. He has only one way of finding out whether his "cheez" is as high-class as promised. "Speak English," he orders the woman. When she complies, Gaitonde cannot understand the words, but it doesn’t matter. "I knew that they were really English," he thinks to himself. "I felt it in the crack of the consonants."

The prostitute’s utterances in English earn her fee, just as the Indian novelist who chooses to write in English has often been accused, especially by readers and critics at home, of being inauthentic or a sellout, forcing characters with their roots in the words and worldview of some other Indian language to "speak English." The debate, of course, is old, fraught with the historical baggage of India’s British colonial past. In fact, the book now considered the first Indian novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, was written in English in 1864 by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, a young magistrate of the Raj.

But the tension has taken on a new form amid the growing appeal of the "global novel" — a story that is pitched not just to a national but a worldwide audience, and thereby necessarily written in English. As the Indian novel in English, assisted by India’s rising profile in global affairs, finds an audience wherever English is spoken, it often seems to sacrifice the particularities of Indian experience for a watered-down idiom that can speak to readers across the globe.

Often such books are received very differently by those at home and those away. For instance, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), the story of an antihero and a cutthroat new culture that rests upon and often perpetuates the inequities of the old India, won the Man Booker Prize and is now a global hit. Yet within India, the best-selling book did not make the short list for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award, the country’s most prestigious prize for novels in English.

The use of English — which often makes the Indian novelist both writer and translator-generates major problems of language and perspective that can be off-putting for Indian readers. Sacred Games is written in high-flown and lyrical English, but even so, the reader is persuaded that its narrator is an uneducated gangster because Chandra flecks his English with resonant Hindi words that he leaves untranslated. The novel generates, like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children did a generation ago, its own tongue, neither wholly imitative nor entirely invented.

But in the hands of lesser writers, much of the specificity and charge of Indian life is simply lost when rendered in English, becoming paler, weaker, and more simplistic. So what readers around the world frequently find instructive, fresh, and moving about Indian novels available to them in English is often experienced by Indian readers as dull, clichéd, and superficial.


Indeed, globalization has spawned a kind of hackneyed Indian (really, South Asian) novel that, even as it tells a story, acts as a primer on Indian and Pakistani history, politics, and culture, self-consciously offering bits of potted history and contextual explanation that seem absurd coming from characters rooted in a particular world. Such novels typically use history as a crutch, pegging their tales to wars of independence, revolutions, famous assassinations, or other public events. But for all their epic canvas, they are often novelistically banal and unambitious, content for the most part to repeat the familiar gestures of an enervated realism. The result, in books like Manil Suri’s The Age of Shiva (2007) or Ali Sethi’s The Wish Maker (2009), is homogenized, almost cynically calculated works that inhibit the power of the novel to illuminate a particular view of life or moment in history, and that seem, like any other consumer good, to want to stupefy rather than activate the imagination and intelligence of the receiver.

In contrast, some of the best Indian novels of the last two decades, whether in English or in translation, are largely unknown to American readers. A classic example is Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold (1997), which is set in the royal court of the 16th-century Rajput kingdom of Mewar and told in a rich and powerful English that is easily the equal of the best Indian prose writing in English today. Another example is Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Six Acres and a Third, first published more than a hundred years ago but only recently translated into an English worthy of its original Oriya. A riotously satiric village comedy, it is one of the earliest and greatest Indian novels, but it appeared in the United States in 2005 to no reviews and no press.

The response of Indian critics to the so-called global novel has frequently been to invest the fiction of regional (or in Indian parlance "vernacular") Indian languages with the magic tag of "the authentic." But this perspective itself is an instance of simplistic binary thinking. Not all Indian writing in English panders to a Western audience or reduces the gold of Indian life into the base metal of English; nor does all vernacular literature deserve the aesthetic label of authenticity.

India is so multilingual and multicultural that it might be more truthful to think of every Indian novelist, whether writing in English, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, or Gujarati, as a kind of translator. No novelists, whatever language they work in, can be said presumptively to be "authentic," as they sometimes are in the literary-critical wars in India today. Rather, novels earn their authenticity through their attention to specific details of character and situation and through the ingenuity of their problem-solving.

A better measure to judge the Indian novel in English should perhaps be "the specific," which is a less barbed and problematic concept than "the authentic." For it is in the details presented and the others left out, that any novel reveals the quality of its engagement with life and the presumptions it makes about its audience. All too often these days, the slice of Indian literature available to Western readers is at once too specific — excelling in stating the obvious — and not specific enough. The "global novel" has had to make many compromises to ensure its dominion.

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