Rushdie's omission

August 15, 1997

ALEXANDER Evans (THES, July 18) fails to address the crucial point of my review (THES, June ). This concerned Salman Rushdie's claim that Indian literature in English since 1947 is superior to writing in Indian vernaculars of the same period, on which grounds he virtually excluded the latter from his anthology of Indian writing since 1947. Yet Rushdie, as I pointed out in considerable detail, overlooked Indian vernacular literature decidedly more impressive than much of the "Indo-Anglian" stuff which he picked for his collection. I named Indian writers working in Malayalam, Bengali and Kannada and fiction by them, greatly admired in India, which Rushdie unjustifiably ignored.

Evans's letter reproves me for being "depressingly political" but is oblivious of all these specifically literary matters, apart from one feeble reference to Rushdie's collection being "mixed".

Evans seriously distorts my argument by representing me as opposed to English writing on India per se. His claim that I "attack" English is an absurd overreaction. I should be able to question whether writing on India in that language can adequately convey Indian sensibilities without incurring Evans's reckless charge of "cultural chauvinism" - especially when I have cited the strong doubts about English's capacity in that function of Nirad Chaudhuri, the foremost Indian writer in English. Chaudhuri obviously does not mean to say English writing on India is worthless; in his English works, despite the language/sensibility barrier, he brilliantly transmits a good deal of the Indian outlook. But the basic problem remains. Evans's suggestion that this difficulty is much reduced by the fact that English as used in India has inevitably acquired some local flavour implies a cheap view of India's cultural heritage.

A much larger effort than hitherto needs to be devoted by major western publishers to producing good, well-publicised translations from Indian vernacular languages into western languages. No doubt Evans would welcome such translations, but few are likely to appear while Indo-Anglian writing hogs the limelight in the West and is promoted here, and too easily accepted as the only important contemporary literature by Indian writers. That is the feature of the recent western publicity for Indo-Anglian writing which gives me unease, not, as Evans thinks, "the politics of envy".

Evans praises English's role as India's effective ruling language. He gives the impression that readiness to accept this hegemony is simply a test of an Indian's practical sense and cultural tolerance. Yet Mahatma Gandhi himself and countless other Indians who could never be described as xenophobic, as well as a veteran British observer of Indian affairs like Mark Tully, have stressed that India cannot get a government responsive to the vast majority's needs while the higher status and most divisive levels of administration and education are essentially conducted in a language only few citizens understand.

Nevertheless, I grant Evans's letter full marks for its gift of unintentionally amusing those with knowledge of India. Notice the innocence with which he recommends English as superior to Hindi as a language in which "Kashmiris can speak to Gujaratis". In fact Gujarati, Kashmiri and Hindi are sister languages of the Indo-Aryan group, incomparably closer to each other than any of them are to English.

Radhakrishnan Nayar

Writer on international affairs Southall, Middlesex

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