Vernacular spectacular

The Song of the Loom - Subarnalata - Cocoon - Yamini - Puppets - Face of the Morning - The Survivor - Night of the Half Moon - Henceforth - Rear Verandah - Second Turn - Outcaste - The Eye of God - Generations - Lamps in the Whirlpool - Pandavapuram - Woodworm - Bharathipura

February 6, 1998

A recent selection of post-independence Indian belles-lettres co-edited by Salman Rushdie was almost entirely limited to "Indo-Anglian" literature - that is, works composed in English, a language spoken by fewer than 5 per cent of Indians and as a second language at that. Rushdie justified the near-exclusion of literature translated from India's "vernacular" languages, such as Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam - ie the mother tongues of virtually all Indians - by dismissing such writing as "provincial", dominated by mystical effusions and lamentations about poverty. This new Macmillan series, Modern Indian Novels in Translation, gives non-Indian readers the opportunity to see how misleading Rushdie's verdict was.

Unfortunately, those readers are unlikely to take up the chance. Western receptivity to non-western literature has been confined to brief enthusiasms in narrow literary circles for Sanskrit, Persian, Chinese and Japanese classics and to short-lived interest at a wider level in one or two modern Asian writers such as Rabindranath Tagore and Yukio Mishima. To be sure, Russian and Latin American fiction and poetry have gained wide and lasting western appreciation, but these literatures belong to what can be described as the European cultural area. The two recent Nobel prize-winners from outside the Euro-American world, Wole Soyinka and Nagib Mahfouz, are little more than names to the western reading public, although Soyinka writes in English and Mahfouz has been translated into western languages.

Against so dismal a background, the current western vogue for Indo-Anglian novels such as Rushdie's may seem like a breakthrough. But as an Indian literary critic, H. Y. Sharada Prasad, observed, the great difference between Indo-Anglian literature and its vernacular counterpart is that Indians' praise of Indo-Anglian works is likely to be along the lines of "How clever!", whereas their response to the best vernacular works is likely to be "How true!" For Indians, Prasad says, vernacular fiction "is so much nearer home".

With some exceptions, such as R. K. Narayan, the chief intention of Indo-Anglian writers seems to be to provide western readers with entertainment based on Indian themes. They set great store by amusing word-play based on the peculiarities of Indian English. Western literary techniques and traditions are often overtly and infelicitously applied, whether they be the magical realism of South American writers or the 19th-century realism of Jane Austen. The main motif is India's bizarreness: the grotesque conjunctions of its primordial customs with advanced western ways. But however exotic the subject, the viewpoint remains firmly western; India is seen from outside and from a position of superiority. The main characters are usually sought within the tiny westernised Indian elite, with whom westerners can readily identify. Even where members of the "native" majority bag more significant roles, their depiction tends to lack interiority. (Rushdie and Vikram Seth even have their characters speak funny sing-song English in contexts where in reality they would clearly speak in their own vernacular language.) That Indo-Anglian fiction should show so little appetite or capacity for serious social and spiritual portrayal of the India of the great non-westernised is surprising only at first sight. To portray the inhabitants of any country without over-simplifying or stereotyping always requires thorough cultural knowledge of the country. With such a vast cultural heritage as India's, and one so forbiddingly different from that of the West, deep knowledge of indigenous languages, literatures and religious and aesthetic ideas, not to mention social realities, is not at all easily acquired. Especially by Indo-Anglian writers, many of whom live outside India and pride themselves on their "westernness": a mind-set underpinned by the stark commercial pressure from western publishers for the main characters in novels about India to be westernised.

To see the kind of impoverishment of the Indian novelist's vision that can sometimes come from the adoption of English and a western audience, compare Outcaste, Matampu Kunjukuttan's historical novel about Kerala, the southwest Indian coastal province, with Arundhati Roy's 1997 Booker prize-winner, The God of Small Things, also set in Kerala. For the child heroes of Roy's English-language novel, India remains largely the physical setting of their lives: the landscape, the climate, the trees, the fruits, the insects. The books we are told they read are English ones: the same books as middle-class children in England. Although the novel's milieu is mostly that of educated Keralites, it gives no sense of Kerala's immensely complicated culture, which played an important role in the evolution of Hindu thought and gave birth to a powerful literary tradition.

Just these things are hypnotically conveyed in Kunjukuttan's stupendously rich text. This portrays the turn-of-the-century crisis in the fantastic tyranny exercised by the Namboodiris, those highest of high-caste Brahmins devoted to Sanskritic erudition and Malayalam poetry, who maintained an extraordinary form of polyandry alongside elaborate religious rituals regulating every moment of their lives, and who were equally expert in the recital of exalted Vedic verses and in sanguinary brutalities. Even in English translation the sonorousness, verve and poetry of Kunjukuttan's prose comes across. Kerala's colours and sounds are riotously evoked. Kunjukuttan's touch is always light, yet every page is richly strewn with intriguing aspects of Hindu philosophy, mythology and the Keralite social structure. The book is a devastating critique of that society, an impressive example of sustained sarcasm; but it is written from within Keralite culture, by an author who was once a lecturer in Sanskrit and has a profound knowledge of Indian tradition.

How sad that such a book, wrought of great knowledge and intelligence, and despite this fine English translation, is doomed to be known only in India, while Roy's book is widely accepted in the West as the novel that shows the world the wonders of Kerala. This is like comparing an elephant with an ant. Roy's imaginative territory is merely a suburb of contemporary western literature; Kunjukuttan and other vernacular writers, while keenly alert to western ideas and techniques, show us a different imaginative universe.

As an instrument for analysing and portraying social suffering in India, where the extent of poverty makes such suffering as central a subject as Stalinist repression in Soviet Russia, Indo-Anglian fiction is insignificant. For a fictional character's tragedy to resonate in our minds, we need a strong sense of his moral world, the culture that has formed him. Where the Indian masses are concerned, this is the forte of vernacular authors beginning with Tagore in the last century. They not only have much greater willingness to examine India's agonising social problems, but the power to depict the individual and collective travails arising from rigid customs, caste tyranny, economic exploitation, the oppression of women and superstition, in such a way as to haunt the reader and transmit pain to him. The non-English-speaking, inarticulate bit players and bystanders of Indo-Anglian fiction, so often caricatured and observed from outside, frequently nameless, are given their voice by vernacular writers. Precisely because their stories grow out of Indian life as it is, rather than from simplifications of it for foreign readers, the prominent vernacular authors function as authoritative witnesses in the debate in India about social evils, in a way that makes Indo-Anglian writing, for all its occasional sophistication and glamorous English literary prizes, seem trivial indeed.

The translated works in this new series, taken as a whole, show how reckless were Rushdie's aspersions on Indian vernacular fiction. Apart from Kunjukuttan's outstanding Malayalam novel, Kanji Patel's Rear Verandah, a Gujarati story about a peasant's growth to manhood, and N. P. Mohammed's The Eye of God, a horrific Malayalam tale of sorcery, greed and bloodshed in rural Kerala, are impressive in their ability to convey a great deal in a short space. The deft deployment of pungent details of farming life in Patel's novel bears comparison with Mikhail Sholokhov's evocations of Cossack life. The Tamil novel Generations by Neela Padmanabhan is a book of powerful images, a harrowing account of an ill-treated bride and her brother's attempt to avenge her, with convincing characterisation and vivid depiction of a village's social and physical atmosphere.

Gurdial Singh's Night of the Half Moon, translated from Punjabi and set in rural Punjab, tells of a fundamentally well-meaning man provoked to commit murder by rumour-mongers. Though effective in conjuring up its social milieu, with fine passages about matters such as ploughing and irrigation, Singh does not make his hero's actions wholly plausible. Puppets, G. V. Krishna Rao's story of rural Andhra Pradesh, translated from Telugu, also about the destructive effect of rumours, is likewise strong in describing a society but weak in its attribution of human motives. While Abdul Bismillah's The Song of the Loom, a solid social-realist Hindi novel about the Muslim sari weavers of Varanasi (Benares), provides a wealth of fascinating information about the community as it is today, sustaining the fineries of the rich with penurious, tuberculosis-inducing toil.

There are three novels whose main characters are educated young men alienated from society, both traditional and modern. Bhalchandra Nemade's Cocoon, translated from Marathi, gives the cynical reflections on society and relationships of a liberal arts student from a rural landlord family. Its style is agile, unpompous and modernist, though its world-weary references to religion and literature may not seem credible to western readers as coming from a youth. In Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Woodworm, a translation from Bengali, about an engineer who becomes a tramp after throwing up his job, there seem, on the surface, to be strong affinities with Dostoevsky's and Camus's stories of young men dangerously isolated morally from society. But whereas for Dostoevsky, established society is the repository of moral sanity, for Mukhopadhyay it must be renounced to achieve moral salvation - a thoroughly Indian view. And while Camus's Mersault rejects all notions of eternal good and evil as meaningless in an absurd universe, the quest of Mukhopadhyay's hero is to abandon a corrupt society and return to just such truths.

The third novel, Harindra Dave's Henceforth, translated from Gujarati, concerns a young man's stay in a seaside village where he discusses the deceptiveness of life and appearances with other sojourners. The discussion does not get anywhere; the novel is a dud.

The Tamil feminist novel Yamini, by Chudamani Raghavan, is marred by melodrama. Yamini, a young woman, is married against her will. Her husband is a good man and she has a beautiful girl baby; but she drowns herself in a well all the same. Just when her daughter is about to marry a man of her own choice, Yamini's father, remorseful about the drowned woman, takes a suicide leap into the well. A reader would have to be very soft-hearted not to laugh.

Subarnalata, the well-known Bengali feminist novel by Ashapurna Debi, presented here in a drastically abridged version, is moving in its sincerity but artless in its plot. Its characters are too stereotyped: the eager, generous, inquiring wife is crushed by the demands of her tyrannical mother-in-law and her indifferent/brutal husband that she efface herself in supposedly true Hindu style. But there is much valuable detail about social attitudes among the Bengali middle class. In Rajam Krishnan's Lamps in the Whirlpool, translated from Tamil, the heroine is a housewife enslaved by Brahminical orthodoxy in a Tamil household in today's Delhi. Hinduism features in these feminist works as the chief villain in the oppression of woman. Yet it is a fact that in nearly all economically backward countries, women are severely oppressed by men.

The male writer Sethu's Pandavapuram, translated from Malayalam, is also concerned with women's cruelly unequal relations with men, but it is a far more poetic treatment. A woman abandoned by her husband creates an imaginary town, Pandavapuram, where she will live a life in which she has the upper hand over men. The real and the unreal are brilliantly manipulated to illumine the problems of male-female relationships, specifically in the Nayar community.

M. T. Vasudevan Nair's Second Turn, also translated from Malayalam, is based on the central story of the great Hindu epic, The Mahabharata. The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is seen from the viewpoint of one of the Pandava brothers, Bhima. Vasudevan Nair is deeply learned, and his style is fluent; the world of the Hindu epics is often vividly pictured. However, he concentrates on the blood and thunder of warfare; little of the wisdom of The Mahabharata is seen here.

Bharatipura, by the distinguished Kannada novelist U. R. Ananta Murthy, is typical of his work in the intensity of its preoccupation with Hindu philosophy. A young Brahmin who has imbibed left-wing ideas during his college education in England finds himself choked by the all-pervasive pall of traditional religion in his home town. He tries to mobilise politically members of the lower castes oppressed by this traditional order, but finds that no revolutionary upheaval is possible because religion's mental grip is too strong. Ideas tend to overshadow exploration of human individuality in this novel, which is nonetheless rewarding.

In Face of the Morning, translated from Oriya, Ganeshwar Mishra provides richly coloured scenes of life in a village near the great temple city of Puri, seen through the eyes of a child. With its many sharply described characters and its tone of rapturous recollection, this delightful work reminds one of the novels of childhood of Aksakov and Tolstoy, and also of Tagore's reminiscences of his early years.

Finally, to keep one of the best of these novels till last, Gopinath Mohanty's The Survivor, also translated from Oriya, is a gem of social satire about how a petty clerk, whose only notable talent is for sycophancy, becomes a widely respected small-town magnate. It is as sardonically observed, as cunningly plotted and as hilarious as V. S. Naipaul's comic novels about Trinidad, The Suffrage of Elvira and The Mystic Masseur. With his spare prose and zestful, hard-edged satirical style, Mohanty recalls the work of Evelyn Waugh.

Indian vernacular writing has never been more than modestly remunerative; thanks to its overseas popularity, Indo-Anglian writing, at least in the case of a few authors, is now very profitable. Many talented writers of the emerging generation will opt to write in English, which could weaken the quality of vernacular literatures, making them seem still less worth cultivating. On the other hand, these literatures tackle vital themes that Indo-Anglian literature has failed to address seriously. India's effective literacy rate is probably a good deal less than 50 per cent, and the masses can only become literate in the vernaculars. If the literacy and incomes of the vast majority rise, large new readerships could be created for vernacular literature. It will be absolutely fascinating to see the outcome of this cultural competition.

Radhakrishnan Nayar, who speaks three Indian languages apart from English, is a writer on international affairs.

The Song of the Loom

Author - Abdul Bismillah
ISBN - 0 333 92318 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £6.99
Pages - 251
Translator - Rashmi Govind

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