Thanks for stumbling onto the blog on popular Indian writing that I will be maintaining for the next several months while I am researching and teaching in Vadodara, India. If you’re here, it’s likely that you know me, or perhaps have heard about the guy from the Shippensburg University English Department who is spending his sabbatical semester on a Fulbright Fellowship in South Asia. If I’m doing my job, some of you are current or past students. Whatever the reason, welcome!
What I hope to accomplish in my time in India—and in some way also on this blog—is to develop a clearer understanding of what has become a major cultural phenomenon around these parts: popular writing (mainly fiction) in English, by Indian authors, for an Indian audience. It may seem strange to think of this as new. After all, English is an official language of India, and by extension, India has more English speakers than any other nation in the world. It is common to find newspapers, television programs, movies, and advertising in English. And, of course, the most widely acclaimed pieces of Indian literature over the years have been written and published in English. But this, of course, only tells part of the story. According to some estimates, between only 5–10% of the population is conversant in English. That means that an overwhelming majority of the Indian public does very little in and with English. So what’s going on that has made Indian writing in English such a big deal all of a sudden?
Many gigabytes of commentary have been devoted to the enormous expansion of India’s middle class and of India’s rapid integration into the global economy. And what language does global capitalism speak? You guessed it, English. English is the language of authority, of access, and of opportunity in the global economy. You might say that when it comes to language, India is still reeling from a colonial hangover. Increasingly, education and white collar employment are contingent upon one’s mastery of English. English is given institutional priority and privilege. For those who have it, English is a key element for garnering success. The rise of reading in English reflects the hunger of the Indian middle-class to cultivate their relevance, if not authority, in the global marketplace. As one of the biggest names in Indian popular writing today, Chetan Bhagat (more on him later) noted in a speech at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2009, Indian readers of English reflect a desire to “make it”:
Many people don’t understand that my books are read by government-school kids, for whom English is very much a second language, and who know that they have to learn it if they want to get anywhere in life – beyond a point you can’t be successful if you don’t know English. And my books often provide them with an entry point into that world. They would be scared if they picked up a more literary work and saw complicated sentences in the first paragraph.
Much of what I’ll be exploring in this blog is what “that world” looks like in the texts and to the readers that consume them.
What’s important to note, however, is the flip side of English’s privilege. If you don’t have English, you are kept out. In effect, language enforces a hierarchical distance between those who have it, read it, write it, publish in it and all the rest of India who don’t. One critic from the City University of New York puts it this way:
Those who have little or no access to the language [English] are perhaps the ones who best appreciate its power—they feel it in job interviews, in their children’s schools, in court rooms, in hospitals, in community forums— they know they are powerless and socially marked. English is not merely a signifier of class in India; it is a facilitator of class rule. (Majumdar 7)
One might say that English is rapidly becoming THE language, rather than A language, as its cultural position enforces an immediate social distance from the rest of India, even its literate vernacular sections. English may exalt, but it also confers domination.
The primacy of Indian novels in English (and let’s stick with novels for now) has been the way it’s been for a while. What has been celebrated as the best of Indian writing by those who determine “great literature” (North American and European literary prizes, literary journals, and yes, university syllabi) is in English. The problem that my esteemed scholars in the field have been talking about for a long time, however, is that these novels are not commonly read by the Indian public. Most are written by Indians who no longer live in India (Rushdie, Mistry, Mukherjee, Seth, Chandra, Desai, etc.), and haven’t for some time, and most have little appeal to the Indians who do speak and read and English. In short, they are about India, but are not really for Indians. Their audience tends to be international in scope, highly educated, and fairly well versed in the conventions of high-brow cosmopolitan culture, for a lack of a better term. Not your ordinary English speaker. For the record, I’m not suggesting at all that these brilliant novelists aren’t deserving of the praise they’ve received, nor am I claiming that they aren’t Indian. My point is that up to now, they have pretty much been what counts as Indian literature. And how they have counted as such seems to me to be worth some critical pressure, not just because it’s a good idea to question how we determine value, but because now what counts as Indian literature has been complicated by a huge and relatively recent industry of popular writing.
Bhagat’s earlier comment about the “complicated sentences” gives you an idea about how the new writing is deliberately, if not downright willfully, popular. By this I mean both for the people, but also reflective of the people. And the people, the 5-10% of Indians who speak English, have been gobbling it up. To give you some context, a former mid-level investment banker, Bhagat became the most widely read novelist in Indian history when in 2004 his novel Five Point Someone broke records for selling the most copies in a month. His subsequent 2005 One Night @ the Call Center became the country’s fastest selling book, as an entire print run of 50,000 copies was snapped up in a matter of days. Similarly, Bhagat’s 2008 novel, 2 States, sold a million copies worldwide in ten weeks and his latest effort, One Indian Girl, recently shattered the numbers on Amazon for pre-orders. Keep your eyes peeled for a future entry dedicated just to Bhagat and his cultural impact, but he is far from alone. There are plenty more authors who are working in an ever-widening array of genres. If you stick around, you’ll see what some of these look like.
So, my research and this blog are about a bunch of ideas at once: books, language, literature, class, education, capitalism, nation, culture, and identity, just to name a few. What I’ve written so far is just a teaser. More depth and nuance (I hope) is on its way.
While this blog has many purposes, not the least of which is to help me organize my research, it is mainly to translate my observations and analyses for a reading public (you) that may not know much about India (although many of you know lots, much more than I), or may not know much about academic research or cultural theory (although, y’know….). It’s also a place to brainstorm, so don’t be afraid to pose questions of the curious or challenging kind, or to lob observations my way. I’m game.