A Suitable Text for a Vegetarian Audience: Questions of Authenticity and the Politics of Translation
At the Sahitya Akademi
In 2000, Kiran Nagarkar’s novel Cuckold won India’s top literary prize for best original work in English, yet the accolade seemed to alienate him further from his most prized readership in his home state of Maharashtra.1 The novels and plays that had initially established Nagarkar as an acclaimed author were written originally in the Marathi language. He went on to write more Marathi plays, but then made the “mistake” of writing two novels in English, Ravan and Eddie (1995) and Cuckold (1997). How might we characterize the competing loyalties and claims to authenticity in India’s contemporary multilingual literary field? This essay argues that postcolonial English has come to have less to do with the relationship between colonizer and colonized and much more to do with internal language politics and competing nationalisms.
In February 2001, I listened as the winners of the 2000 awards each addressed a packed lecture hall at the Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters), an institution set up by the government of India in 1954 and now housed in a multistory concrete building in the heart of bureaucratic New Delhi. Besides Cuckold, twenty-one other literary works (one for each officially recognized Indian language) were given the Sahitya Akademi Award that year.2 In his address, Nagarkar focused his remarks on why the Marathi literary establishment saw his switch from writing in Marathi to writing in English as a kind of betrayal. When his first English novel, Ravan and Eddie, was published, he explained how
the publisher sent thirty-six review copies to various Marathi newspapers and journals. Not a single review of the book has appeared in the four and a half years that have gone by. No author interviews, etc. were published, even though the interviews were undertaken. . . . It slowly became clear to me that I must have committed an unmentionable crime, a crime that was beyond forgiveness and beyond the imagination of men and women, though I had no idea what it was, and why I was being punished for it. I had broken a covenant with my people. . . . for if you don’t acknowledge an author’s work, it ceases to exist.3
Nagarkar’s tone was dramatic and somewhat self-righteous. He was clearly unnerved by what had happened or, more accurately, by what had not. He then explained that the “covenant” he had “broken” was an implicit agreement between author and audience: if you are a celebrated Maharashtrian writer, you should be writing in Marathi. Nagarkar went on to describe an exchange he had had with “a top editor and doyen of Marathi publishing,” who had initially congratulated him on his recent award for Cuckold. But then, Nagarkar told us, the editor added that he had “a grievance”: “Why don’t you write in Marathi any longer?”
Nagarkar gave the audience at the Akademi a sense of the kind of disciplining an author must endure by critics, readers, and editors, while he also addressed his apparent “crime” of having written in English. He confronted the question, and seeming incongruity, of his own linguistic and regional identity head-on by explaining how writing in English was a “natural” turn of events for him. He said, “Barring the first four years in a Marathi school, my entire education was in English. My parents were Westernized liberals, and conversation at home was mostly in English. Marathi is then my mother tongue because I was born in a Marathi family, but for better or worse English is my second mother tongue.”4
Nagarkar’s predicament, and his forefronting of it at the Akademi, is a fairly straightforward example of the way literary writing in English is seen not only as being less authentic than vernacular, or bhasha literature,5 but also, more specifically, as a betrayal of a particular linguistic community by one of its own. Writing in two languages raises important questions of readership, audience, and community that ultimately destabilize singular notions of identity and cultural authenticity.6 Despite his national acclaim, for instance, Nagarkar is not willing to forgo his regionally based Marathi mother-tongue readers, critics, and editors. At some level they, too, are the locus of his identity as a writer. And yet, from the purview of most bhasha literary communities, to write in English is to reject willingly (and perhaps willfully) part of one’s Indianness. There is a linguistic but also an ideological divide between English and all of the other Indian languages. In the balance are various interpretations and permutations of Indian “culture.” By saying that “for better or for worse” English is his “second mother tongue,” Nagarkar is asserting that it is not a matter of choice to write in English, but is part of his Indian identity.7 Nevertheless, Nagarkar’s story typifies the kinds of resentments bhasha writers and literary communities have against literary English in an Indian context.8
The Politics of Literary Geography
In 1956, India’s Official Languages Act organized states along linguistic lines, despite the fact that nearly every state has sizable linguistic minorities. So, for instance, although Marathi is the mother tongue of nearly three-quarters of Maharastrians, about 8 percent count Hindi as their mother tongue, and a little less than 8 percent Urdu. Literature is nevertheless largely mapped along those same state borders to the extent that bhasha literatures are often referred to in English as being “regional literatures.” It should also be noted that most of these “regional” literatures serve reading populations larger than those of most European nations.9 Hence, both the size and dimension of a vernacular literary culture become obscured by the idea of the regional. This obfuscation becomes especially apparent when the term and idea of regional literature itself is continually juxtaposed with the “global” literature written by Indians in English.10 English is not tied to one region but is the “second mother tongue,” to use Nagarkar’s phrase, of the urban elite. In the face of globalized English literary production, and the prominence of Indian English writing, the regional has to some extent become a diminutive.11 Being confined to a limited geographic space has in many respects come to restrict the stature of bhasha literary texts when placed side by side with Indian English ones, as they increasingly and inevitably are.
As the nation’s premiere literary institution, the Akademi is in a curious position to correct this misapprehension of the regional by providing a forum for the critical celebration of each bhasha literature and, at the same time, forging what I would call a “literary nationality” across the regional landscape. Literary nationality at once highlights cultural distinctions between literary traditions and yet often employs regional specificities and particularities in the name of the national. National recognition is something conferred by the Akademi, an institution mandated and funded by the Indian government, although run independently of it. In addition to its behind-closed-doors work of translating, publishing, and conference organizing, it is one of the few public venues in the city where one may witness the interactions of authors, translators, literary critics, and others from all over India, and often the world, as they discuss and debate issues of language, culture, and literary production. The Akademi is often the site where disputes break out, new theories are proclaimed, and a mix of literary gossip and rumor is revealed. As I document in this essay, it is a space where struggles over cultural authenticity are staged, where linguistic choices are defended, promoted, and derided, where the regional trumps the national and yet is continually subjected to it.
In the story of Nagarkar’s “betrayal” of his Marathi literary community (and, from his perspective, their betrayal of him), literary language is cast as a barometer of cultural authenticity on the public stage of the Akademi. In this case, authenticity has to do with the social and economic privileges of the literary Indian English writer, who is assumed to be pandering to a global rather than to a regional audience and who is considered to be “less Indian” for doing so.12 These privileges, at their core, point to questions of social responsibility and obligation. And this kind of literary culpability is nearly always linked to upper-middle-class urban privilege, “Westernization” by Nagarkar’s reckoning, and, more broadly, to the perception that English represents a globalized, consumerist culture that hypes its products. It must be noted that each Indian English novel is supported by a marketing apparatus that is simply nonexistent for most bhasha novels. Multinational publishing houses with offices in Delhi, such as Penguin, Harper Collins, and, most recently, Random House, have budgets that vastly outstrip any bhasha literary publishing house, even if more books are actually sold to Indians by those bhasha houses.13
The tension, then, is not only between individual writers and their communities, but also in the positioning of one literary apparatus vis-à-vis another in regional, national, and global spheres. These spheres, as this essay will reveal, have distinct sets of authenticity markers that continually intersect. What emerges in this complex of language ideologies, literary production, and overlapping geographies are judgments made by writers, critics, translators, and others as they take part in various forms of literary production and consumption. In the process, accelerated by the greater prominence of Indian English literature since the early 1980s, the terms of literary debate have become less about traditional hermeneutics and more about the relationships individuals have to language and their obligations to different language communities.
Another aspect to keep in mind in light of Nagarkar’s own sense of betrayal by the Marathi literary critics (for not reviewing his English-language novel in their Marathi journals) is that, in the reverse case, it is rare that an Englishlanguage journal in India would carry the review of a Marathi novel. It is often only when a bhasha novel has been translated into English that it gets noticed, but even then, it may not. So Nagarkar’s sense of indignity over being ignored should be seen in this context. If he had not already been part of the Marathi literary scene, he most likely would not have expected his English novels to be reviewed in Marathi journals. Nevertheless, his story shows how a literary establishment closes ranks to discipline authors by refusing to acknowledge their books with reviews. Nagarkar, in turn, uses a national forum on writing, outside the geographical space of Marathi, to justify and perhaps reclaim his regional stature. But it is the loss of regional stature that matters to him.
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This essay benefited greatly from comments by Elizabeth Povinelli, Dilip Gaonkar, Claudio Lomnitz, and the Public Culture editorial committee. Earlier versions were presented as talks in the anthropology departments at Columbia University and Yale University, and at the annual South Asia conference at the University of Wisconsin– Madison. I am grateful for the valuable feedback I received in these forums. Special thanks go to Falu Bakrania, Lawrence Cohen, Vasudha Dalmia, Veena Das, Paul Frymer, Ilana Feldman, Rachel Heiman, Mandana Limbert, Scott Morrison, and Miriam Ticktin for their critical engagements with my argument along the way.
- The Sahitya Akademi considers any work published in the preceding five years for its annual awards; hence, Cuckold (New Delhi: Harper Collins India, 1997) was still eligible to win in 2000.
- The other awards were given for a literary work (a novel or collection of poems, short stories, or essays) in each of the following languages: Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telegu, and Urdu.
- Kiran Nagarkar, presentation at Writers’ Meet, Annual Festival of Letters, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, February 21, 2001.
- Nagarkar, presentation at Writers’ Meet.
- The terms regional language or bhasha (which literally means tongue and is the Hindi word for language) are most commonly used to set the vernacular Indian languages apart from English. In common parlance, Indians often refer to the vernacular Indian languages simply as “the languages.”
- As Ngu˜gı˜ wa’Thiongo recounts in his classic set of essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1986), these questions hinge on the power differentials of language communities in a postcolonial context.
- It is on this point where Nagarkar’s reasoning for writing in English diverges, to some extent, from the kinds of critiques of linguistic imperialism that Ngu˜gı˜ has written about, and it is at this juncture, I will argue, that thinking about language politics in India must go beyond the frame of the postcolonial.
- I use “literary” English in this case, since bhasha writers do not necessarily have anything against English per se. They are often fluent in that language, too, and many bhasha writers are college professors of English.
- For example, there are close to 80 million Hindi speakers in the state of Bihar alone, and 60 million Marathi speakers in the state of Maharashtra.
- This has not always been the case. When there were fewer Indians writing in English, e.g., in the 1920s and 1930s, these writers (e.g., Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali) were considered to be writing against the grain. This circumstance was partly because they were not taken as seriously by the English literary establishment based in England. The change in the relationship between English and bhasha literatures and literary communities in India is partly due to the shift in how Indian English writing has been received and published abroad.
- This conceit is typified in Salman Rushdie’s remarks in the New Yorker magazine (“Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You!” New Yorker, June 23 and 30, 1997, 54), where he denigrated Indian “vernacular literatures” as suffering from “parochialism” in comparison to Indian English literature, which, in his opinion, was more successful at carrying on a conversation with the world. Though Rushdie writes that he does not want to pit English against the vernaculars, the essay nevertheless leaves that impression. What annoyed many critics and readers was that Rushdie admitted to not having read any vernacular literatures in the original and conceded that first-rate translations were few and far between, yet still made his pronouncements.
- Meenakshi Mukerjee has long analyzed the question of authenticity in relation to Indian English writing. See her collection of essays, The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), where, among other things, she bemoans the cultural authenticity of Indian English writers, their motivations for writing, and the texts that they produce.
- The fact that the bulk of Indian English novels are marketed and sold to readerships outside of India magnifies the questions of authenticity around using the English language to write Indian literature. For example, Mukerjee writes that much Indian English writing exhibits an “anxiety of Indianness,” a state that she posits as Indian English writers’ interminable desire to “explain India” (to a non-Indian audience) as a subject in their fictions. In the process, she argues that a “homogenization of culture” occurs in their texts, whereby “Indianness” may become a mere metaphor, and “India less a place than a topos, a set of imaginative references” (The Perishable Empire, 180 – 81).