Does Indian literature owe its global success to the Raj?
As close to 50,000 people prepare to celebrate India’s bulging roster of nationally and internationally renowned authors and poets at the seventh annual Jaipur Literary Festival, a public spat between its British organiser and an Indian magazine over allegations of perpetuating “a Raj that still lingers” threatens to ignite a decades-old debate over the role of colonial English in the country’s literary success.
As Delhi-based William Dalrymple and his fellow organiser stress the festival’s intent to showcase works from India’s array of states and dialects to thousands of book lovers, an article in India’s Open magazine this month claimed the festival matters “because of the writers from Britain it attracts”.
India’s literary elite has long wrestled with its complicated post-colonial legacy, sharpened by the huge international success of Indian writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Kiran Desai, who have put the former British colony on the literary map, but live, sell more books and win more awards in the UK or the U.S.
In the past five years, two Indians — Desai and Chennai-born Aravind Adiga — have won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. While the prize has been attacked by some for its arguably colonial legacy of rewarding writers in English from the British Commonwealth, Desai and Adiga saw their international profile soar, replicating the global success of former winners Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.
The article, titled “The Literary Raj” argues that the festival reaffirms the inferiority complex among Indian writers who crave international and specifically British recognition, suggesting that through his western-centric festival, Dalrymple has become “the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India”.
“The festival then works not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment,” wrote Hartosh Singh Bal, an Indian novelist himself, in the January edition of the magazine.
“Getting that literary establishment to take note of India requires making use of a certain romantic association that stretches back to the Raj.”
Dalrymple, who has spent the majority of his life in India since 1984 and has written a series of celebrated novels on Indian history, hit back with a letter suggesting that Bal’s piece was “blatantly racist”.
“The idea that this joyously multi-vocal festival, which has fought hard to promote Dalit, bhasha and minority literature, represents some sort of colonial hangover is both ignorant and extremely offensive,” Dalrymple wrote.
Since his letter was posted on the Open website, Dalrymple has reportedly retracted his allegation of racism, and has offered to buy Bal a drink at the festival. In response, Bal said that he would happily buy his own.
It seems that even in the context of a bar tab, this complex and delicate debate looks set to run and run.