Language Essay: Mumbai

 To be born into the hubbub of an Indian city, is to be born into a world of multiple cultures and at least two other languages. We boast a staggering number of gods and goddesses and hundreds of thousands of texts that depict their greatness. Given any urban street in India, you are bound to find the humming of prayers or a song in the distance mixing delicately with the honking of auto rickshaws and the rumbling of the rails, and the roadside book dealer wailing out the names of the latest hits from a crop of up and coming writers. Each one, more or less boils down to what is the core of the Indian literary culture – a healthy mix of superstition, philosophy and fiction.

I, for instance, was born into the ‘modern Hindu family’, armed with the mystic greatness of the Mahabharata and the bold beauty that Rushdie presents. However, somewhere between them, daadi’s stories and Tinkle comics, the post-Independence authors then kidnapped me, and took me to their own worlds. The intricately woven words of Nissim Ezekiel, the genius of Dom Moraes and the vast linguistic wingspan of A.K Ramanujan drew a picture of the urban Indian – the multicultural creature that could speak of politics at a roadside tea stall and dine at a five-star, and not have a second thought about the leaps in classes he made doing so. The dusty streets, the missing meadow and the beggar on the street – they all made sense to them. A bunch of the crop also spoke about the lives of Jews and their foreign cultures in their writings.

Later, to me were introduced the ancient poet-philosophers. The nomads roaming around from court to court, village to village, talking about life – talking about existence and essentially saying, ‘Sab moh maya hai’ – everything around me is an illusion. Adi Shankaracharya, and the beauties of the Ashtavakra seemed to only hit me as maturity cropped, but hit me nevertheless.

When all of this comes raining down on the ‘viewless wings of poesy’, the urban, refined Indian poetry tradition is born – poets and writers that pay a second glance to the details of triviality, satirise and still never fail to drift into the abstract or be enchanted by the beauty of nature or speculate upon the meaning of life.

 However, and surely for the right reasons, a lot of the burden of our acclaim in literature seems to lie on the shoulders of ancient texts, and a view of India as a land of mystic philosophers and snake charmers. They exist, but they don’t dominate the vast spectrum of colours we throw on our pieces of literature. We do have the Mahabharata, but we also have Satanic Verses, and Amish Tripathi leading the way for modern mythological fiction writers. There are the enchanting words that fell off Sarojini Naidu and Rabindranath Tagore, but also the international touch and the subtle genius of GS Sharat Chandra.

I wish to watch these – the modern Indian literary works – how tradition has been carried on in our writings over time and transformed into the modern mass it is now. To watch the program hit a refresh button in the ‘Indian Literature’ folder, and see the files of a large amount of authors that now speak of contemporary issues and weave the linen of fiction much differently than is imagined by most. To watch not just the mainstream that manage to travel the borders and win awards and acclaim, but also the stories carried on by word of mouth by the numerous gurus and gypsies, and pieces that escape from the noisy city shores, as poetry. Our literary tradition boasts of a history and a present, and is spread across more than twenty indigenous cultures.

There are voices rising in the air at the moment, and there were voices rising even before we had a script. We have stories to tell and poems to recite which have been carried on for over a hundred years. These – in words, stories or verses are the defining pulp of Indian literature. It gets modified to accommodate the added bulk of time, but keeps rolling on like tumbleweed, increasing in size and magnitude.