Sunday, November 27, 2005

Clad in glittering clothes, begging bowl in hand

THE INDIAN EXPRESS Sunday, November 20, 2005
India lost two literary luminaries in short succession recently. Punjabi poetess Amrita Pritam effortlessly traversed the road from romanticism to spiritualism in her 86 years. Nirmal Verma, a pioneer of modernism in Hindi literature, probed the angst of urban India in transition. His courageous voice frequently protested against attacks on freedom, both at home and abroad. In countries that value their native heritage of literature, the demise of writers of such eminence would have received comprehensive coverage in TV and print media. In India, predictably, Raja Bhaiyya received more media space than the two Jnanpith laureates.
I was particularly disappointed at the indifferent coverage in the English press. When it comes to covering literature and literary events in Indian languages, the English media display a mix of apathy and cultivated ignorance that borders on snobbishness. If you are a wealthy and well-educated Indian whose reading habits are confined to English, chances are that you haven’t heard of D Jayakanthan, the great Tamil writer who won the Jnanpith award last year. Or of Narayan Surve, the ailing Marathi poet whose book Mazhe Vidyapeeth (‘‘My University’’, describing how he was ‘‘educated’’ by life in the working-class street) sensitised an entire generation to the exploitation of the downtrodden in the same way that Maxim Gorky’s earlier autobiographical work of the same title has done in country after country.
Or of late Dr Shivram Karanth, the multifaceted genius of Karnataka, the intrinsic quality and versatility of whose work is unmatched by several Nobel laureates. Or of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, author of the immortal lines ‘‘khoob ladi mardani voh to Jhansiwali Rani thi’’, whose birth centenary last year almost went uncelebrated. Why? Because these, and other great names in Indian literature, rarely figure in the English media. These days glossy newspapers and magazines outdo each other in promoting celebrity journalism, and frequently package several overrated Indian writers in English as Page 3 celebrities. However, they don’t devote even a decent corner for Indian literature.
With their warped priorities, they are doing a great disservice to the nation. Why? Because literature plumbs the soul of a nation and holds a mirror to its people’s individual and collective personality, warts and all. All good literature is local in origin, though national and global in its concerns and appeal. Of course, literature that rises from good to great, as in the case of Tagore, provides a cosmic experience to the reader. Every single Indian language has produced writers and poets who have an honoured place in the good-to-great spectrum. Unfortunately, many of them are not known or read, even within India, beyond the language in which they wrote. International recognition and readership for them, though fully deserved, is far less.
Of course, the neglect of Indian languages, and the unstoppable dominance of English, is not limited to literature. It can also be seen in education, administration, judiciary, and commerce. The decline and slow decay of our native languages is one of the most worrisome socio-cultural phenomena in contemporary India. It has created a new class divide in our society — those who speak English vs. those who don’t, with the former displaying an all too visible superiority complex. Travel across rural and small-town India, and you’ll encounter persons who know only a smattering of English but rank themselves ‘‘higher’’ than a good writer in Assamee or Oriya who cannot speak English. It is this sad scenario that prompted Kusumagraj, a Jnanpith laureate Marathi poet, to bemoan in a different context: ‘‘Indian languages, through very rich in themselves, are in a pitiable condition today.
They are like a person clad in glittering clothes but standing with a begging bowl before English-speaking power-centres.’’ We must change this situation. What’s needed is an all-round awareness about what India stands to lose by not taking necessary steps for the regeneration of Indian languages. Specifically, we should popularise good literature in Indian languages through an extensive scaling-up of quality translation — from one language into another, and from an Indian language into English — and their low-cost publication with governmental support. The words of Vishwas Patil, a renowned Marathi novelist, are pertinent here.
‘‘Regional literature in India is much superior to Indian English writing. We only lack good translators.’’ Let’s not forget that Gorky, Goethe and Marquez did not write in English. They reached us through good translations. I remember here a proposal that U R Ananthmurthy, a Jnanpith award-winning Kannada writer, and Ashok Vajpeyi, noted literary critic in Hindi, had submitted to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for setting up a National Board for Translation of Indian Literature. Atalji, himself a sensitive poet with true respect of litterateurs in every language, was keen on its establishment. But the idea got lost in the labyrinth of the HRD and Culture Ministries. Dr Manmohan Singh should revive it.

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