Bhalchandra Nemade, the Marathi writer who won the Jnanpith award—India’s leading literary honour, which is yet to go to an Indian writing in English— dismissed V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie asauthors who “pander to the West” in that “killer language”, English. Rushdie, a diasporic Indian writer who has won the Booker, a major international prize never given to anyone who does not write in English, tweeted back calling Nemade a “grumpy old bastard” and doubting that the Marathi author had read him or Naipaul.
And thus, tra-la-la, returned to the megalit screen the old Indo-global thriller about Authenticity, Creativity, Language and, above all, bang-boom-bang, Indianness!
This loud thriller has been returning to us every few years, but it seldom goes beyond a trailer, because its storyline always gets lost in verbiage and histrionics. As far back as 2000, when I published Babu Fictions, I discovered that I was speaking to two mutually deaf tribes. As Babu Fictions was the first major study by an Indian English writer that looked sceptically at the privileging of English literature, I was soon bracketed with the ‘bhasha’ crowd—that is, those Indian writers who, like Nemade, write in other Indian languages and often express reservations about Indians, like rich Rushdie or poor me, writing in English. This despite the fact that Babu Fictions was not a dismissal of English, which is an Indian language today; instead, it examined the role and class history of English in India and the tensions of writing creatively in English.
It seems simplistic to dismiss diasporic or Indian writers who employ English as pandering to the West. What does one mean by the West? Is readership expectation in the US, the UK, France, Denmark and Poland the same? Doesn’t this blanket use of ‘West’ echo, unconsciously, the kind of dubious ideology, on the Islamic or Hindutva fringe, which gestures towards a monolithic ‘West’ for very particular, and usually reactionary, purposes? Even if we think only of the discursive assumptions that accrue in any language, including English, we have to acknowledge that there are differences between English readers too. While some English readers might think of India as, say, a land of gurus, other readers connect to other narratives about India, and sometimes to very informed ones. Moreover, while one can argue that Rushdie and Naipaul approach India in ways that are, inevitably, influenced by their ‘chosen’ language (English), does that necessarily deny the validity of their creative endeavour?
After all, the language we choose to write in (or that chooses us) imposes a set of possibilities, tensions and problems—and the creativity of the author is revealed in the way she negotiates the relationship of her language with the realities of her narrative and world. One can see that Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie invented strikingly different and creative solutions to the problem of narrating in English a people who do not speak English most of the time.
Moreover, while this problem might be particularly pronounced in the case of English in India, does it fail to exist in other Indian languages? How does a Marathi writer narrate an Urdu speaker or a Kashmiri or a Bengali? Or, how do we narrate the dialects of Hindustani, most of them definitive in terms of class and region, in literary Hindi or Urdu? The status of a writer in Marathi or Hindi depends, partly, on the creativity she brings to this endeavour—this is true of Rushdie in English too, as it was of Mark Twain. If Rushdie is to be critiqued, it cannot be for his choice of English but for the ways in which he negotiates its problems and possibilities.
Not all the ‘best writers’ have written in their ‘mother tongue’, partly because, as a 19th century sociologist remarked, languages are dialects with an army. Mostly our ‘mother tongues’ are dialects, not (literary) languages.
Naipaul is another kettle of fish. In his fiction, he has written in English about Anglophone characters—in this sense, he is closer to Nemade than to Rushdie (or me). This does not solve the problem for him either: having the possibility of borrowing from dialects does not do away with the creative necessity of constructing literary voice and the intellectual necessity of negotiating with ‘realities’.
Yes, Nemade might have made a valid point if he had claimed, with evidence, that Indian English writers fail to engage creatively or intellectually with English or India. Unfortunately, he did not. And, yes, Rushdie has a point when he suggests that Nemade probably did not read him. But how many bhasha writers did Rushdie read when, as editor of the Vintage Book of Indian Writing, he dismissed bhasha literatures in favour of Indian English writing?