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Literary Arts in India


English writing in India is only a little over a hundred years old. It has been shaped by the cross-currents of history, cultures, mythology and modernism. Traders, travellers, dreamers and aggressors came, quietly and peacefully, or with violence and destruction. From the 10th century onwards, the foreign presence imprinted itself strongly on Indian society. Along with our ancient religions, scriptures and mythology it imbued our Art with a tapestry and sheen which is sometimes referrred to as exotic.

India as a nation came into being only after the British colonisation of the subcontinent. Until then we were a cluster of disparate kingdoms and territories, each with its history of servitude and oppression, or benevolence and fair governance and many shades inbetween. We exist in a fury of languages and dialects, traditions, crafts and religious beliefs that manage to live within elbow-touching distance of others. Few English writers, like Kipling, could get into the underbelly of this exoticism and discover the infuriating puzzle it is today. The Indian writers can only try to improve upon this.

The general population was, and is, mainly Hindu, but minorities carved spaces and identities of their own: Thus we have Muslims, Christians, Jains, Budhists, Parsis, Jews, not to forget the tribals or Adivasis who were the indigent population of this region and who have struggled to retain their ancient customs of beliefs that predate the organised religions.

Our cultural moorings have been buffeted by the Chinese, Mongol, Arab, European and Islamic influences. For centuries, there was very little inter-mingling of castes, religions and communities, there seemed little need to do so. But over the years, cultural confluences brought about inter-community and inter-religious marriages. The exchange of cultural customs is always exciting at every level and particularly in the Arts. Creative forces are released in unexpected directions and we get new and daring forms of expression and thought. Some of the credit – and the discredit – of blurring the borders between various identities rests with the British empire and the introduction of their language. The language brought western belief systems, it brought the western scientific knowledge, allopathic medicine, western art and literature.

The popularity of English, the spread of education and economic prosperity has brought speedy changes. Indians were able to get a western education; their horizons widened and they were hungry for more. Translation of great texts in every field began to happen and we were flooded with intellectual stimulation. This brought about many social changes for the betterment of society (abolition of sati, widow remarriage, a well-regulated and fair legal system, schools and colleges, universities to name a few).

We inherited, too, the legacy of many languages. Middle-class Indians grow up with their mother-tongue. At school, we learn the regional language (Kannada, in my case). Most of us also learn Hindi which is our national language, and English. If college education or career happen in another part of the country, there will be one more language or two to learn. We learn to speak and think in many languages, but our reading and writing skills may not be as varied. I speak five languages but can read and write in only three.

I don’t know if being multi-lingual in this sense is of any value to the writer. For me, I believe it is. Indian writing in English and in other languages is influenced by our past, and it is constantly changed by what lies before us. One of the best things to have happened in the last twenty years is a steady improvement in the translations rendered from Indian language writing into English and other western languages. The other is the subaltern writings of women, Dalits and the LGBT communities which have flourished across all languages and cultures, thus strengthening their identities and enriching literature.

The writing scene in India is rich and diverse, but there is cause for concern. With economic progress and consumerism, we have also seen a political reorientation that is closely linked to the subtle and not-so-subtle trend of the homogenisation of religious beliefs and customs. Among the majority Hindus for instance there is an eagerness to follow the utterly facetious, filmified version of religion as seen in television and films. This being a superficial change, it has not helped create harmony, instead, each community and region senses a threat to its own identity and tries to overcome its fears by exhibiting its distinctiveness while being intolerant of others doing the same. There is fear-of-the-other and burgeoning intolerance. Works of art are banned and books withdrawn for purportedly “hurting people’s sentiments”. How ironic this is in a country where we casually hurt sentiments of the underprivileged every day by ignoring their sense of dignity.

These are anxious moments for India. One hopes that writers will be able to hold their own, and fight their way towards the one thing that is vital to creativity. Freedom to speak one’s mind. They have in turn the potential to stifle all forms of creativity. If the trend continues, the loss to the nation and the world will be devastating.

This essay was written in preparation for the Silk Routes Symposium, held in the Maldives, March 2014.