Does Indian literature owe its global success to the Raj?

January 18, 2011

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.

Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan (R) talks with Neville Tuli, founder and chairman of Osian's - Connoisseurs of Art Pvt Ltd, at the annual Jaipur literary festival, one of India's biggest, January 23, 2009. REUTERS/Abhishek Madhukar (INDIA)

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.

2 comments

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Bai’s comments are not only fed by an obvious inferiority complex, but also demonstrate a lack of understanding of the wider reach of the English language. That certainly applies to them in the Indian Diaspora for whom English is not even their native language (neither that Hindi or any other Indian dialect is) but still can connect with the homeland via its literature written in English. Isn’t Indian literature best celebrated through its reach beyond the borders of India?

So isn’t the Raj being used to promote Indian literature for the greater goal?

Posted by rezaketwaru | Report as abusive

My initial impression of Bal’s first piece was that Hartosh Singh Bal has a major chip on his shoulder and/or is a publicity-seeker.

My opinion, after his rebuttal, did not change.

As has been pointed pointed out by numerous commenters and Dalrymple himself, the nature of audiences, sessions and speakers at JLF destroys Bal’s claims. Pre-JLF, Indians complained that no-one was taking notice. Now, Bal has found a new grouse.

In terms of approval, I think there is a larger phenomenon at work here. When it comes to politics and diplomacy, successive Indian Governments always sought the approval of the US in the post-Cold War 1990s period. Registering complaints against what they perceived as ‘transgressions’ by Pakistan occurred regularly. This probably happened because the US was seen as the world superpower at the time.

Similarly, Indians have traditionally grown up on a diet of British literature, reading about well-established British literary awards. It is natural to think of Britain as a leading literary power.

Apropos ‘celebrity’ writers getting more attention than ‘great writers [from Europe]‘, doesn’t the celebrity culture pervade all aspects of public life? Who does Bal think would get more media attention during red carpet movie award/music events?

As for any ongoing need for British approval, more and more Indians in the middle-class see the US as their choice for higher education, etc. American television and cultural influences, American slang, trends are all more prevalent in India today. Gone are the days of domination of English public-school and Oxbridge-educated grandees in the Indian political and diplomatic circles. It therefore baffles me how Bal finds this particular kind of cultural cringe to be very strong in India….. And his tone in his first piece is shockingly offensive (as with most such offensive pieces, a result of his ignorance).

To me, Bal’s pieces suggest his refusal/inability to accept Dalrymple as an Indian writer. And refusal to accept that a British-born writer could head a major Indian literary festival without it having imperial-colonial implications.

Posted by 0BOTP0 | Report as abusive