Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Translated as Lost?

A week ago, I put up the guest post Lost in Translation. Krithiga (Ms.K), the author of that subject matter had a few reasons why she did not consider Indian Writing worthy of being read. I am going to try and work my way through some of her reasons here.

She said that Indian Writing confines itself to a narrow frame of reference, namely the immigrant experience (written largely for the emigrant population from Lady India, I guess, so that it would validate their choices. Yes, yes, you are okay). Firstly, there is the problem of the label Indian Writing. For purposes of convenience, to facilitate my reading choices, I always interpret this label as writing of an Indian. Because if the label Indian Writing were considered as anything less inclusive, it becomes awfully confusing. And the way it is presently bandied about in conversation (and I care to mention that these are the common conversations between people who like to read, not to be assumed as literary conversations, given that literary is an equally contentious descriptor), Indian Writing acquires the narrow meaning of works in English written by an Indian, living abroad at least some part of the year! Therefore the perception that the frame of reference is narrow. Also to blame, in part, are the displays in Indian bookstores where the prominent titles under the Indian Writing category consist of 300-paged books all similarly clothed in the fabric of the exotic. Sometimes, at such sights, there is a strong instinct to disown spices and run away from snake charmers. But, of course, there is more to Indian Writing than all that. Surely, it is the least you can expect from a country that understood civilization much before most of the world.

K also said that the structure and flow of the writing is at fault. At least, it is not as smooth as that of a native English writer. Isn't that but natural? Isn't that also an advantage? If a language were used in the same way by everyone (theoretically), then its possibilities of opening up vistas of the mind would be confined to the way such new ideas are shaped into the cultured form of the native writer. However, when a writer uses a foreign language, the narrative offers itself up to be shaped by a culture and a language that have met in the lush ground of the writer's experiences and observations. The result is bound to be unexpected. Indeed the unexpected would eventually become the object of populist copying and lo, a genre would have worked its way out from the ether. Then it will be time for K and I and others like us to scream in horror at the deluge and run.

So K, I am tempted to offer names and say this is what is good Indian Writing. But, reading choices don't work that way. You are K and I am the letter that follows - close enough, yet not quite. And my good will differ from your good. I shall point you to two books, both anthologies, both on India centred writing: History of Indian Literature in English and The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature . I think that they offer a good sample of this country's literature. Take your pick. Maybe then, ambivalent will be an adjective you will agree to.


Sunil said...

It is interesting to see how we rush to defend something when we have to first agree if it actually depicts what it claims to be rather than if it depicts truly?

Now, as I have identified, books written by Indians or Indian writers (take your pick)
Does not reflect the the true identity of a communal life style, by which I do not mean the story isn’t true or doesn’t reflect any life style endemic at all. It (contemporary Indian literature) simply does not the bring forth a cogent representation of a natural lifestyle. And my mourning is, this leads unintentional benign false representation for outsiders. The classical parallel would be bollywood, although the nature and dynamics are totally different.

Let me illustrate with an example:
Having idli for breakfast is an identical with that of aTamil identity. And like it or not, that becomes facet of being a Tamil Indian. How many books in contemporary Indian literature actually depict the mentioned or such, in their narration? The answer would be almost nil to minimal.
This is no way means that a salman Rushdie writing about lives of the upper middle class Bombay suburban life isn’t true to himself or his skill.
Contrast this against the sea by Banville where the story covers a summer holiday or an evening tea, which are quintessential rituals in the European (Irish) life.
And we are not even started the debate on the quality of narration.

The main problem as I see it, is for an Indian to write in English about India, he has to forego, by cultural setting, a certain core identity of Indianess which he for no fault of his, is unable to inculcate into his perception. Now this is sad because real India, for whatever it means, remains unrepresented.

Now how exactly a tool could be identified to solve such an issue is the question? This as I see , can happen either by the identity being represented by a concrete whole than fragmented now , by say a capitalistic blanket. That is highly unlikely. Or for a truly gifted writer to be able to articulate the mass sensibilities of an Indian life in English without compromise on the quality. The last we had , although not exactly a would be AK Ramanujan. The obscurity of whose name both in the Indian and world literary circles (save for a few) is the standing symbol of the whole entrammelled mess of a problem.

Echo/Lavanya said...

Sunil, your first lines are accurate. And that is the whole issue. We, as in everyone who has an opinion on Indian Writing, have to first agree on a) What is it that each one defines as Indian Writing and b) What is it that is claimed to be Indian Writing (in the popular sense).

Of course, both Krithiga and you refer to the Indian writing in English. My intention was to state that I don't agree that Indian Writing is just the English writing, though that is how common references use the term. Now, do the popular Indian works in English offer an unintentional benign false representation for outsiders? My answer would also be yes.

Let us take your Idli example for instance: I am reminded of Ambai's story 'Gifts', originally in Tamil, but I read it in translation. A major part of that story is a revealing conversation between two women in the kitchen of an orthodox home in Tamilnadu. As they talk over dosai, much is shown through their words. I think the translation must have been true to the original because the text was devoid of any jarring embellishments. To me, such works exist in the vernacular, and they are probably very good at capturing the essence of the lifestyle.

Quality of narration: Yes, a vast area on its own. I will not grudge the Indian writers in English their flavour. In fact I like the way some of them write. But they all border dangerously close to painting India very lush and such opulence of words is not usually to my taste.

This as I see, can happen either by the identity being represented by a concrete whole than fragmented now , by say a capitalistic blanket. That is highly unlikely. Or for a truly gifted writer to be able to articulate the mass sensibilities of an Indian life in English without compromise on the quality
representation as a concrete whole...hmm, very very unlikely. And I would be delighted if you can show me a Banvillean Indian writer, who, to my knowledge, does not exist at the moment.

So, yes, in summary, I don't disagree a great deal with your point of view. But I do wish we stopped using Indian Writing to talk about the Indian works in English.

Sunil said...

I do have things to say, also realising that there exists no end to the things to be said, I still want to say it , to debate with my own self. I will return , but leaving you with soem thoughts we happened to discuss a while back.


Yuva said...

ofcourse, all world has exceptions.. in general you are correct but i dont see any surprise or problem with that.

because indian writers are minorities(educated).. and their lifestyle is completely different then common-average-india . so to expect indian writer for common man language is not very fare. dont you think?

by the ways- you & I are also sooo much away from common india. its very easy to comment and see things about 300million middle-class childrens of globlized india..but rest 800million makes real india, make elections,so policy, politics, etc..

india writer, indian works, common india all are relative term..it cuts anyways..


PS: on a separate note..that link helps for my collections.. trying to put together history of india in all subjects/area since my crazy retirement plan: 1) teacher 2)setup museum x-)

India..lost ancient civilization