I wonder from where to start my talk. Forty minutes seem a short time, even forty hours wouldn’t suffice as far as my subject matter is concerned. I am here to talk about Indian literature, that too only the present day situation of it. I will try my best to stick to the allotted time. But just to give you a feel of how vast a space this really is: the total number of mother tongues in India is 1652, of which 33 are spoken by a million or more people. And almost all the languages have rich literary heritages. To this, add our inherent complex socio-cultural diversities, multiple identities regarding class, caste, sub-caste, religion, sub-religion, gender, political interests and standpoints, and even if those identities are lately threatened by our latest common enemy globalization and the standardized pro-USA monoculture preached by it, still all you get is Indian literature is unbelievably intriguing and intricate.
As I start talking to you, I wonder inside, who I am actually? You think I am an Indian. Well, my passport says I am. But, as a writer, who consciously or subconsciously always searches for her/his identity and tries to talk about things that s/he can relate to, I also carry that baggage of multiple identities with me. Being an ‘Indian’ writer, what else can I do? Let me see, I am a woman, a Bengali, an upper-caste Hindu by birth but not a practicing one, middle-class, moderately educated, non-communal, leftist but not partisan … and don’t know what more. I am more or less instinctively conscious about these various selves of mine while writing, but not about my gross ‘Indian’ self, which overtly comes into play only at times like when our national (men’s, obviously) cricket team wins a match. That’s actually the time when reality takes a break on us. Even during war-time, we intellectuals are rarely seen and heard singing Indian patriotic songs, rather, being compulsive participants in the multiparty political scenario that we are in as Indian citizens, we engage in analyzing and accusing each other. What else can we do? If a central federal government tries to impose the idea that the common people should forget about all their sufferings in their separate multiple identities as Dalits, women, poor peasants, landless farmers, jobless labourers, refugees, victims of communal/domestic violence and human trafficking and so on, and should only regard themselves as Indian patriotic warriors, then that government is nothing but a petty drug peddler. So when Raj Kumar ND, a Tamil Dalit poet writes: ‘Does ‘we’ mean us? / Or does it mean that / You are different / And I am different / We are different / And you are different? / Everybody is of a different race. / Everybody has different gods.’ these questions resonate within our Indian skulls.
Though, to be honest, I personally detest any of these literary categorizations as they tend to marginalise our real and true literature outside the much published and publicised mainstream. For the sake of describing the whole situation in a nutshell, I have no other option but to break this paper in different sub-headings, and talk about some of our multiple identities as Indian writers one by one.
This is our latest literary phenomenon. When the Aryans, or the Indo-Aryan speaking group of people, invaded India round about 4000 years back, they displaced the indigenous people of this land to make it their own. They introduced Varnashrama, an ancient socio-economic caste system in India, which is still very much in practice in modern India with all its malicious malignancy. Apart from this caste system, which was necessarily for their own people, the non-Aryans who were indigenous to this land were simply treated as outcasts, and as ‘untouchables.’ Dalits (literally meaning ‘downtrodden’ or ‘crushed’) are those non-Aryan ‘untouchables’ who were made to serve their Aryan lords like slaves, made to live in unimaginable hells, and forced to suffer the cruellest forms of social injustice and atrocities through millennia after millennia. Still very much the victims of downright socio-economic oppression, they are the ones who are ‘enlisted’ in our constitution as ‘scheduled castes (SC)’; and are entitled to enjoy reservations in education and jobs. But the fact remains that, even today, 4 millennia after the production of Rigveda, the earliest Veda, and arguably the first-ever specimen of spoken literature created by mankind, 85-90% of them are still below literacy level. And the more astonishing fact still looms that, in spite of this reality, they are forging forward in the Indian literary scene with their own voices. The Vedic Aryans composed Rigveda when they were not familiar with alphabets. Similarly, today’s Dalits are coming up with loads of quality writing notwithstanding the fact that many of them haven’t even seen an alphabet in their whole lives. Isn’t this a journey worth describing!
Here, I would also like to make a quick mention of Gadar, the famous revolutionary Dalit poet-balladeer from Andhra Pradesh, who has successfully brought poetry close to the common mass’s heart as an integral part of their ceaseless class struggle, mainly by singing his lines rather than writing or publishing them. One of his famous songs goes like this: ‘Having been scorched again and again / Turned into an atom bomb / Having become an atom bomb, / We detonate to reform society in exploitation / We will build another world that would / Treat humans as the humans.’ This, I suppose, can be sited as an exciting comparison, as well as an excellent contrast, to what has been a rich heritage of our oral literature through ages. In the Vedic era, Aryans used to sing religious hymns. Though that practice is still very much prevalent among today’s Indian Hindu upper castes, nowadays one can also hear the oppressed common people of India sing their own revolutionary poems in political meetings as a mode of protest.
Going back to the point of Dalit literature, it all started in Maharashtra with Namdeo Dhasal, the great modern Indian poet who happens to be a Dalit, publishing his first collection of poetry, Golpitha, in 1972. He is also the founder leader of the Dalit Panthers movement of India, which was truly a literary militant political movement, which suffered an early loss of momentum, much like the Black Panthers of the USA, from whom the Dalit Panthers of India drew immediate inspiration. Yet the flood of Marathi Dalit literature that broke free with Dhasal kept flowing. Initially poetry made up the largest portion of Dalit literature, quite like the overwhelming quantity and quality of Black poetry, but gradually autobiographies, novels and short stories started catching up. This literary movement has lately and inevitably spread outside Marathi, to the Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Hindi languages, while Kannada had its own version, namely the Dalit-Bandaya movement, starting from the late sixties/early seventies. All this writing is unfailingly characterized by uninhibited, many a time raw and crude, and above all the truest first-hand accounts of horrible lives these writers are forced to live, as well as outright expressions of anguish and anger towards racist upper-caste hegemony. They opened up an all-new literary and linguistic horizon with such a wham that it at once threatened the sanitary sanctity of so-called middle class sense of delicate literary decency. When Dhasal wrote: ‘Hunger if we cannot mate you / Cannot impregnate you / Our tribe will have to kill itself / Hunger we have all the aces / Why talk of the songs of the half-sexed jacks?’ The whole country (with its self-proclaimed stale Aryan self) was shocked as if it had been suddenly stripped naked in the middle of a market place. Later when a newer Dalit young poet Kateri SM wrote in Tamil: ‘Every menses of mine / That is expelled out / Opposing your embryo / Is greater than your philosophies’, the same society, now itself seemingly more a market than a society, however, tried to sport an appraising, even patronizing apparel. Though these days we might have a false impression that situation is slowly changing with more and more Dalit youths getting the full scope of education, but reality tells a more horrible story: ‘The first Dalit graduate from a village in the Madurai district walked home at the end of the term, passing through the upper-caste area of his village wearing shoes and trousers. Perceiving this to be a challenge to their authority, Backward Caste youths set upon him and beat him to death.’ (Hugo Gorringe / Untouchable Citizens). Mind you, the offenders here are not the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, but the ‘lower’ caste ones, who enjoy a marginally better social status but no other social privileges than the Dalits. So the Dalits were traditionally illiterate, unaware, and suppressed; while nowadays they are more educated, conscious and oppressed. Neerav Patel, a Gujarati Dalit poet who co-initiated Gujarati Dalit literature with publication of the Dalit Panthers’ Kalo Suraj (The Black Sun) says : It Would Have Been Better If I Were Illiterate ‘While studying science,/ Watching Newton’s apple fall, / The first thought that I had / Was to eat it. / While learning the lesson of social life / Watching the glass houses on Harijan Ashram Road / The first thought that I had / Was to throw a stone. / While controlling thirst / Watching the water pot at the outskirt of the village / The first thought that I had / Was to raise one leg like a dog and piss in it. / The fox went to a city, / Accidentally fell in the dyer’s tank / Became colourful and hence gay, / Went to jungle and showed off posing as a king / Rather than making stories from such points, with multiple meanings / The last thought that I had / Was to remain illiterate. / Rather than studying and suffer awareness of / Insult, hate and atrocities, / And encourage the inactivity, / It would have been better / If I were illiterate, / I would strike a blow with aadi* on the head of the unjust / Or gulping mahudi** I could have swallowed the insults.’ There have been debates even amongst the Dalit intellectuals regarding whether and how Dalit’s struggle for liberation can be and should be related to class struggle. Some think that the very idea of gaining power with the identity of caste itself (‘lower’ or ‘upper’) further strengthens the caste system itself. For example, Dalit poet-balladeer Gadar is a firm believer in class struggle. On the other hand, U. Sambasivarao, a noted Telugu activist/writer would question: ‘Those that hack my throat haunting us / Are certainly my tormentors / They keep professing us to / Join the class war / As all the labourers are of one class / They give up Dalitism of uprisings / We may be poor devoid of food / But we are rich by caste.’
Dalit poems being such a passionate outlet of strong expression, it’s a pity that Indian publishers are not very willing to publish poetry collections by Dalit poets. Rather, they are eager to publish autobiographies instead, where Dalit writers write about his/her suffering. That is quite acceptable, even pitiable as long as it gratifies an upper caste urban reader’s desire of being liberal and noble and obviously sellable in a globalized market. But Dalit poetry, where they let go of their anger and directly accuse the upper caste atrocities, is avoided carefully. Another Gujarati Dalit fictionist, Chandu Maheriya, who migrated from his ancestral village to a big city, started a short story with theses lines: ‘Since I came to live in Gandhinagar I have only two kinds of dreams, either of police or of toilets.’ Then he goes on to describe the latrines of Dalit slums with broken pits, broken footrests and broken doors, full of stink, which is just a way of life for Dalits in India, and as the Dalit women could use such an open toilet only during night-time, Maheryia observes: ‘Most women would sit with the doors open and their sisters-in-law or friends would stand guard holding the door; and would chatter standing there. I wondered why every day at night youth would frequent the area. I came to know the secret after quite some time. To meet one’s love or betrothed, one was not required to go to a restaurant or a garden. If at night one stood near the toilets, he could see all women. The toilets of the slum were their love garden.’
Thus we can see, being a woman means you are further marginalized, pushed to an even more compromised position. Let us listen to Meena Kandasamy, a very young Dalit poet-activist who writes in English, and extensively translates her fellow Dalit poets from regional language, (and has also translated Talisman: Extreme Emotions of Dalit Liberation, a collection of essays and speeches by Thol Thirumaavalavan, the leading Dalit intellectual and MLA of the Liberation Panthers of Tamil Nadu, on caste atrocities and casteism, political authoritarianism and anti-democratic behavior of elected governments, on gender issues; globalization; on Tamil ethnic issues and Hindutva, always from the point of view of ordinary people). She says: ‘Your society always makes / The spoon-feeding-the-man / The pot-and-pan banging, / The-sweeping-the-floor / The masochist slave / And other submissive women / As goddesses. / And my kind, or my mother’s kind — / The ones that fight, rebel and hit at you / The ones who wouldn’t mind / A swear word or two / Are she-demons.’ Now let us talk about those she-demons, us, the women writers in India.
*aadi: The stick with which dead animals are carried.
**mahudi : An indiginous alcoholic drink.
Gone are the days when women, struggled to have their voices heard. Skipped are those paragraphs where in their timeless classics our celebrated male authors put on their female protagonists’ lips sentences like these: ‘What can I understand, what can I say, I am just a woman.’ Today, the world cannot deny that women can speak, but we also are and should be smart enough to understand that those days are not really gone, they have just changed their outfit.
Let’s start from a little earlier. In the early Vedic era, Aryan women were ‘allowed’ by the patriarchal society to pursue their educational and literary careers. During that period many Indian women emerged as noted intellectuals. After that, things started worsening for Indian women, and not only with their education but also their very existence. In nearly all aspects of life remained doomed in dark for a painstakingly long period of time. We shall step back from this subject as a whole since we are supposed to talk literature. So let me just say that Indian women again emerged free in the Indian literary scene only as late as the previous century. They did it with their own distinctly unique visions and voices about their own inner and outer worlds. Gradually they got rid of the taboos, which they were made to think of as sacred traditions and tore apart the veils, which covered their eyes as vague family and social values. They started talking independently and freely about their collective as well as personal experiences of life … about pain and passion, desire and despair, strength and struggle, anger and anguish, trauma and triumph, and in doing so, didn’t seek or care for any patriarchal guidance or approval whatsoever.
The Indian traditional patriarchal society got hit right in its face when women started telling their own stories, much like what its caste-conscious racist self suffered when the Dalits spoke up. Women writers and poets started challenging traditional mainstream Indian values that were necessarily patriarchal, using various literary manoeuvres like reconstruction of mythologies from a revolutionary humanist/feminist point of view; honest, bold and uninhibited expressions of feminine sexuality including lesbianism, and sometimes shockingly shameless exhibition of their tortured and wounded body, soul and mind. Its tremendous collective thrust caught the society absolutely off-guard. After initial unsuccessful resistance, this patriarchal society learned to come to terms with it in its own way—it decided to label all this writing as ‘literature of, by and for women’, and thus assign a place to it outside the ‘mainstream’ male literary domain, with a very clear suggestion of decidedly inferior literary quality. It was kind of ‘acceptable’ to them if those women could let go of their petty emotions with the help of those funny female fantasies, and go on writing trash about their humdrum household lives. It was kind of a rule that, should women write at all, they should stick to the domestic domain (and that too with an implied instruction that private linens should not be washed in public!), while it’s the men who are entitled to handle the public part of life. So, when women started writing about the ‘outer’ world as well—on mainstream subjects like political and socio-economic issues around the country and the globe, about humanity as a whole and crimes against it—like their male counterparts, they came up with another ridiculous label like ‘women writing like men’! This is precisely what they use to describe writings of Mahasweta Devi, who has dedicated her life and literature for the cause of Kheriya Shabars, a tribe generally ill-treated by common people. On the other hand, Kannada poet Mamta Sagar is belittled by male critics, declaring that she does not know ‘how to write like a woman,’ because her writing contains no sounds of bangles and anklets!
Things didn’t look anymore ridiculous for women writers though when they discovered themselves in yet another trap laid by patriarchal society, which has lately reinvented itself as today’s consumer society. While being open and outspoken about her own sexuality means liberation for a modern woman, it also makes her a new commodity in consumers’ eyes. For a woman, not shying away from talking about her own personal experiences and feelings makes her strong, but at the same time also immensely vulnerable to the point of being sellable. This is the tragic dilemma woman writers are facing in today’s India. After expressing how they have suffered, they are feeling the same slimy pseudo-patronizing hands of the patriarchal lords (a.k.a. the modern day all powerful male editors, publishers and critics) on their backs to push them ever so definitely into the open market where a girl telling her own story sells far better than a man talking about her.
Hence, when Kavita Mahajan, a young Marathi woman poet writes ‘From the very first / All the relationships between you and me / Are covered with condoms’ she becomes instantly hailed for all the wrong reasons by an audience, many of them do not even care to recognize how promising and powerful a poet she really is, whereas another young and talented Hindi woman poet Sangeeta Gundecha, who writes: ‘Ah, this soft darkness of this evening pain / Frida Kahlo, I want to die / But I don’t know how to / The same thing that kills me / Keeps me alive’ gets nothing but a deaf ear. Although the fact is, this emotional sisterhood between the worlds of Frida Kahlo and a young Indian poet should have been celebrated as the true essence of cultural globalisation, yet this silly gross and destructive apparent globalisation, whose only motto is to sensationalise the stories to make it sellable, is more about not really getting the point made by Mahajan. All it stands for now is nothing but merchandising of everything including our society, economy, culture and literature under the guidance of plain capitalist imperialism. And in Indian literary field, one of the worst victims of that is Women’s literature. Women, who have always been treated by patriarchy as commodities, are now being sold in a smarter package, more colourful and attractive, complete with a manufacturer’s seal, and an expiry date.
And this in turn leads to another serious problem: seeing this ‘patronized’ sellable boldness as a shortcut way to getting the coveted recognition by the market, of late many talentless young writers, both male and female, are flooding the Indian literary field with gimmicky garbage, on its way washing away and drowning many meaningful works of true literature. It seems the world turns deaf when women don’t talk sex; they just lose interest. Even when they start talking sex in their own way, as a mature and complex self-exploration, as a true revelation of their soul, which is not always easy even for the earnest readers to understand, and never possible to be taken as an enjoyable entertainment, they give a damn. Who wants to know how you really live, how you grow, they just want to see you strip. Rukmini Bhaya Nair, a poet-linguist says: ‘A woman is a thing apart. / She is bracketed off, a / Comma, semicolon, at most / A lower case letter, lost / In the literate circus. / She is just a striptease / Artist, but when she speaks / Her poems bite, ferocious.’ Thus, this globalised market, which is controlled by none other than patriarchal feudal lords, wants to see women, and sell women only as sex dolls without intelligence, without imagination, or any other normal humane faculties for that matter. As if they have nothing more to their identity other than their sexuality. It’s true that sexuality is a strong component of our feminine selves, it’s a power. But don’t we have other things to do, to think, to talk about! They try to stop us from a continuous and inevitable emotional, spiritual and intellectual journey that goes beyond the boundary they have permitted for us. They don’t want us to grow up, they want us to be Barbie Dolls. When we mature, they throw us away just as expired edibles. Or the she-demons, the women intellectuals, who fiercely try to protect all other women from the grip of patriarchy. Sanjukta Bandyopadhyay, a powerful Bengali poet writes : ‘Then how shall I tell you the fairy-tales / If I cannot make you understand where we head next / We will pierce thorns and men in our feet, our chests / It’s us who will be she-demons, step-mothers, we will build up a witch-secrecy.’ This market still loves fairy tales, doesn’t it, where the goody goody beautiful princesses, desired by kings and princes, are rescued from the custody of those witches, who preach against submission. Gujarati poet activist Saroop Dhruv writes: ‘I breathe in the flaming air, my friends, / I strike the flint on stone. / Spiced, flavoured thoughts of a thousand years / Are my stuffing; I am a corpse, my friends, / A mummy; I laugh with a rattling laugh. / I’ve inherited only teeth and claws; / I bark in a borrowed tongue, my friends, / I bark in a borrowed tongue…’. Yes, our tongues may be borrowed, since our own have been severed by patriarchal society, but the words remain ours, true like drops of blood oozing from that cut wound.
When I talk about severed tongue or a bitten one, I mean censorship, both imposed from the outside and within. Nowadays Indian women writers may find it a little easier to get their works published, but the real censorship starts from there. Serious works of women writers are never recognized, appreciated or duly assessed as per their male counterparts. Young Malayalam poet Anitha Thampi observes: ‘This inclusion (of women writers) stops at the point of getting published. And there starts several implicit forms of exclusion from the common platform of writers in the literary world. This is most evident in evaluation and assessments and critical studies on the literary contribution of woman writers. The general pattern of literary criticisms never includes women in the main body of their discussions. Women are always herded together into a few sentences invariably in the penultimate paragraph. … In today’s world, inclusions are defined, specified and very solid, while the exclusions remain deceptively shapeless, fluid, unspecified and almost invisible, which make it difficult to realize and resist.’ So, women are now mentioned, even greeted, as ‘also ran’s.’ And the most talented one is at the most ‘best among girls’. But isn’t it painful that, for most Indian woman writers, the first censorship comes from the mothers, who want to make sure that their daughters grow up as socially acceptable good girls and thereafter good wives, which is nothing but an illusion nurtured by patriarchy, the very system against which women writers are crusading. ‘Mother, don’t, please don’t / Don’t cut off the sunlight / With your sari spread across the sky / Blanching life’s green leaves’ pleads S. Usha, another Malayalam poet. Oryia poet Mamatamayee Choudhury writes: ‘Her vigilant mother keeps count / Of her money and menstruations, / Of signs on her cheeks and / Of her myriad thoughts, expressions.’ And after marriage, a woman’s own family comes in the way even harder. Marathi poet Kavita Mahajan sums it up wonderfully yet with so much bitter pain : ‘After writing this one / And before publishing it / I was thinking / What would my dad think of this / And / What would be my husband’s reaction ?/ I am only happy / That I haven’t given birth / To a son !’.
So, in a way, both Dalit literature and women’s literature in India share many common features in terms of its outspokenness, thriving under oppression and marginalization, and relentless struggle to achieve an egalitarian society. But when these two identities clash inside a writer, what happens then? Let us listen to Pradnya Lokhande, a Marathi Dalit woman writer, who speaks of how a Dalit writer finds it difficult to expose patriarchal attitudes within Dalit society and the movement. Praised and encouraged when they speak about caste and class oppression, they are accused of disloyalty and betrayal when they speak about the patriarchy that operates within the community. ‘If your sari catches fire, can you take it off in public?’ is a popular saying in certain Dalit circles, demonstrating the pervasive and absolute hegemony of patriarchy (Speaking in Tongues / Forms of Censorship / Women’s World-Asmita). This is an example of marginalization within marginalization for Dalit women. On the contrary, when Kannada poet Prathibha Nandakumar is accused by Dalits that being a Brahmin (uppermost caste) it’s easy for her to write poems, she replies: ‘Not a big deal / It’s as easy to strip Brahmanism / As stripping a bra.’ The truth remains that, in today’s India, where Hindutva and globalization seem to have an unholy alliance with each other, consumers at its recently liberalized market would love to see a woman strip her bra, but if a Dalit tries to strip his/her Dalit identity like Nandakumar talks of stripping Brahmanism, that audience would tear his/her very existence into pieces.
Categorically speaking, discussing this category is going to be the toughest one, as one cannot possibly talk about young writers of India as a homogenous group; we really cannot refer to them simply with a plain pronoun as ‘them’. They are all very different from each other with their own languages, linguistically as well as from literary point of view, and also as far as their subject-matters, forms, attitudes and styles are concerned. They are also deliberately conscious and very careful about staying different. We could say that this is the only similarity among today’s young Indian writers—this inner urge of being original and voicing this originality in a very confident and courageous manner. And we should take this as a powerful natural and inevitable reaction against that very ‘globalisation’, which, alongside engulfing every other aspect of our ethnic cultural and social independent existence, is also trying to influence our literary thought process. By ‘globalisation’ we necessarily understand apparent ‘westernisation’, and ‘urbanization’ —that’s true; but in India, it also has an Indian face (how funnily contradictory!), which is ‘Northanisation’. It tends to impose North Indian (more precisely, North Indian upper caste Hindu) culture as the mainstream ‘Indian’ culture upon our truly rich and natural diversity, it tries to ‘standardize’ it even at the ‘Indian’ level, before ‘standardizing’ it according to our Western ‘caretakers’. It refuses to acknowledge our strong individual existence, and looks down on it as ‘regional’ literature, which practically means, according to this scale of standardization, merely as insignificant as ‘marginal’, even ‘minorities’ or ‘outcastes’. But then again, what else could be expected in context of today’s prevailing consumer culture, which, being the most notorious bastard begotten by capitalism in crisis, has identified the Indian market as the object of its last desperate bite, and whose only motto proves to be ‘sellable standardization’? And in reply to this, the young writers of today’s India, could hit back but with what else except which is perfectly identified by K. Satchidanandan, one of the greatest literary legends of modern India, as ‘a polyphony … that results from the rejection of all forms of standardization natural to consumer societies.’ ?
Young writers of today’s India are ‘Indians’ (i.e., with their characteristic full-blown multiple identities), independently and individually; they are more keen on following their own instincts, instead of submitting to any kind of imposed ideas — of whatever nature those might be—including political isms, religion, or morality. They are not afraid of asking questions, expressing suspicions, defying norms, challenging establishments, criticizing and protesting against the presently liberalised socio-political scenario with its anti-people policies clearly and openly, voicing their own opinions, and above all, they are not afraid of becoming alone in consequence of doing all these. Though the fact is, they are not alone at all. We are pretty much united in our diversity — that’s exactly what India is all about, as it has been through ages.
Paul Lyngdoh, a very young writer (who also represents an ethnic tribe) from Meghalaya, a state in north-east of India, which, like other north-eastern states, is still struggling to achieve its due acknowledgement with respectful acceptance of its dignified diversity in the implied ‘mainstream’ Indian culture, writes both in Khasi (the official language of the state, but not yet recognized by Indian constitution as an official regional language) as well as in English. His stories can be quintessentially Indian, i.e. in his own spontaneous and unique way, in spite of being based on ethnic folklores of Meghalaya. Similarly, when Deb Maity, an even younger Bengali poet, writes from the heart of Kolkata, a modern Indian metropolis, about his unbound urban frustrations, that too captures today’s India with the same intense nakedness: ‘As the temples mushroom throughout the pavements / In this jet-age of globalization, / This contrast makes me feel uneasy, restless / … Whirling like a plane whose wings have caught fire, / I come down from illuminated traffic-congested main roads to this narrow dark dirty alley / Under the bulb-less lamppost, beside the act of urination by a dog with lifted leg / A motorbike … couple (lottery) marriage in gloomy light / … I come home searing memory’s ass with my cigarette / One more day the calendar will touch my jobless messy life / A hanging arrow will wake up in my womanless bed and ask / What’s the current rate in Sonagachhi*** these days ?’ Durga Prasad Panda, an Oriya bilingual young poet, reflects: ‘In the land / Where I was born / Everything sells. / … Our leaders sell / Many-hued dreams / To the incredulous masses. / Our showmen / Sell wild fantasies, vulgarity / To the crazy millions. / Our new-age maverick gurus / Sell faith and spirituality across / The counter for free. / Our reporters sell / Fried-up gossip, sleaze by reams / To the hungry bunch of Voyeurs.’ In another poem of his, he attacks and teases the modern all-powerful media: ‘You show / How deceit could be turned / Into a sublime art. / And how truth is a sleekly-packaged product / To be served to the meek and gullible / Along with their morning tea.’ Young Telugu novelist Chandralatha vigorously writes about forced displacements of common people due to technological advancement in the wrong direction. And young Hindi poet Ashutosh Dubey sums up all these decadences in his poem called ‘Falling’: ‘Falling is a lot easier when there is no eye-witness. The most convenient thing is to fall within one’s own body. Our sentences fall into exaggerations. Our desires abort into dreams. … A value does fall as if one falls from someone’s eyes.’ Amongst all these falls, Indian literature of today and tomorrow continues its struggle to rise. Assamese writer Moushumi Kandali’s short story C/O:firstname.lastname@example.org tells us about an Indian man who hides himself under borrowed identities to chat on the net. While chatting with Jessica32, he presents himself as Major Jadunath Singh, and ‘In fact, the war story he had narrated to Jessica32 was a real incident in the life of Naik Jadunath Singh, who had won the Paramveer Chakra for his act of courage in the Noushera battle in the 1948 Kashmir war. He had given a twist to this story, downloaded from the Indian Defence website. In this conflict Jadunath Singh has lost his life; Chitrabhanu (the protagonist) however had not allowed himself to die. Whatever the situation, Chitrabhanu would never allow himself to die. He could not. After all, this survival strategy, this play of fantasy, this multiple performance was so that he could live …’ — this is the survival strategy for our young writers as well, but the difference is, here their identities are not borrowed, they are true to the core.
***Sonagachhi: The biggest red-light area in Kolkata.
While speaking of young writers of modern India, I think I should talk a little about another present day literary phenomenon of our land, namely, the little magazines. These are non-commercial literary journals, often irregular due to want of steady financial support, which are prevalent throughout our literary scenario, though West Bengal is their most fertile hub. They are predominantly anti-establishment, passionately committed to their duties and dreams of publishing and promoting literature of substance, often showing a clear propensity towards radical and revolutionary leftist ideology. A considerable number of young talented modern Indian writers thrive on these innumerable little magazines, which they rightly consider as a parallel platform, firmly in place opposite to the open market of attractively packaged inane commercial literature. I myself co-edit such a magazine dedicated to publishing young promising Bengali poets, mostly from outside Kolkata, the centre for commercial literature. And just to share my joy with you, please allow me to say that we have started a publishing house dedicated to the cause of young poets who are not financially privileged enough to bear the cost of publishing their own books and not commercially glamorous enough to be lure by big publishing houses. We also give away an annual poetry award to one talented young poet as well. All these, are our little efforts with big dreams, towards decentralization of our literature.
Literature from the North-East
For many common mainstream Indians, the North-Eastern region is like an alien land. They know astonishingly little about this area, and more astonishingly, refuse to know more. Yes, the culture (here many tribes are matriarchal in social structure, as opposed to the quintessential patriarchy of mainstream Indian Aryan civilization), language, landscape, climate, anthropology is very different from that of other parts of so-called mainland India, but then, there are many unbridgeable differences among that mainstream Indianness as well.
This gross indifference is also reflected in our interest in North-Eastern literature. That is the main reason that we know very little about the writings in Mizo, Manipuri (Meitei), Khasi, Lepcha, Naga, Bodo and many more tribal languages and dialects, which belong to Tibeto-Burman group of Languages. Of theses, only Meitei and Bodo are officially recognised by Indian Constitution. Here I should mention that though Assam politically is considered as a north-eastern state, Assamese being a member of Indo-Aryan group of languages (like Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali etc), it enjoys due recognition to its rich literary heritage. The other reason behind this non-connection maybe the fact that these states are hilly, full of dense forests, and communication is not well developed. But these should not be any excuse, as internet connection is available nonetheless. Here comes another problem, — through the internet, what we get to know is solely North-Eastern literature written in English, which is a very popular language in whole of North-East except in Arunachal Pradesh. But we know that there is, surely and truly, a vast treasure of literature in their indigenous languages, most of which is not written, but handed down through generations after generations as oral literature, in the form of tribal folktales, rhymes, and songs. Here is a part of one such tale: ‘On the Eastern edge of the earth, the voices of Tenyimia (conglomeration of 7/8 Naga tribes with the same language and cultural habits) grow faint. How they cried to be let in when sky first covered earth. But now, their voices are almost indistinguishable, sweeps them aside and all you can hear now is the howling of the wind. Pushed to the edges, not forgotten, but never known. For you can forget only what you have known. But if you have not known, how can you even forget.’ So intensely and acutely this translates the pain of being left out, it haunts our heart.
Nowadays, this part of our land is torn between regional rebel militants seeking liberation, and nationalist Indian Army determined to protect integrity of nation. Common people as always, everywhere are treated as non-existent in this power-play. But, when Manorama, a young Manipuri woman was raped and brutally murdered by the Indian Army in July 2004, it was the Manipuri mothers who took out a rally, carrying banners that read ‘Indian Army, Come Rape Us’. The mothers were all naked. This incidence shook the whole nation. Sankha Ghosh, one of our premier poets wrote : ‘There is nothing more to lose / We all are naked now / Our hair is fluttering like torch / This is our last war-dress / We come running from all the sides / All the towns and markets are empty, so are the villages / We all are Manorama’s mother / All of us are Manorama’s mother.’ A young Manipuri poet (who writes in Meitei) Imojeet Ningombam writes in his poem called ‘War Kids’: ‘Kids conceived during war days / Were born on earth by turns / Ere the setting of the war sun. / In the dense forests of war / The infants’ whimper was gagged / With the hardened hands of their moms / For the hostile troop never to here / or — / Never to be able to weep / At the death of the moms in future.’ In another heart-rending poem he writes: ‘The sleeping little children must have aspired to ask / When everyone in this land has fallen asleep / who will awake us?’ Mona Zote is an amazingly bold Mizo poet who writes in English. She observes: ‘A boy and his gun: that’s an image that will do / To sum up our times / To define our red lakes / And razor blade hills of our mind. Out here this place never changes, never will / We will keep choosing grey salt, bad roads, / Some thin yellow flowers to grieve, alcohol over friendship … / Cash for peace, God’s grin of despair. If you think I’m starting to regret/ Sticking around and kicking at the tombstones, / (If not pulling out the AK-47) / Remember—the water lilies will bind you back.’ This can be presented as true representation of today’s North-Eastern literature, with all the anguish, anger and angst, which characterise the crisis that region is going through. In short, I again quote Zote: ‘This is not a poem for lovers or those whose heart lines are as fruitful as orchards across the easy plain of their contentment. /…This is not a poem to be stuffed in the tinfoil of an aborted ideology, stuffed into zippered bags and manhandled at airports and international boundaries like a potential terrorist, stuffed in a fat tapioca leaf and digested along with television spume and academic chins.’ But ‘It is a poem celebrating the impossibility of arrival and the necessity of violence, because these too are constants of the whole sad untelevised truth. / It is a poem that has agreed to conspire against itself.’
Let me also add here that this region was exposed to Westernization mainly through European missionaries who flocked to India during colonial era, i.e. late 18th to mid 20th century. Long before the rest of India practiced Western culture (like listening to pop songs, playing guitar, donning international fashion), the highlanders were way ahead in these matters. But this didn’t threaten their indigenous culture and literature either, which they guarded passionately. Likewise, other Indian regional literatures did not lose their true character in spite of being under British/French/Portuguese rules for two centuries. But now, as a free ‘globalized’ country, we are really being robbed of our freedom, our independent existence.
In India, where the social structure traditionally nurtures feudalism and hierarchy in every nook and corner, language cannot possibly escape the same fate. In this country of 1652 mother tongues, only 22 are officially recognized by our Constitution, and two more by the Sahitya Akademi, our National Academy of Letters. One writer each from these 24 languages gets a Sahitya Akademi Award every year, which is the highest public literary award in India. But this does nothing to lift the status of these Indian languages from being mere regional. And speaking of the multiplicity or diversity, it is naturally implied that differences are not merely restricted to pure linguistics, it really includes a whole lot of cultural, and even socio-economic variety. Every writer of his/her own respective language represents a different socio-cultural backdrop that can be very unique to that part of India where s/he originally hails from. At times these linguistic and socio-cultural gaps prove rather difficult to bridge, even within India. Even for a dedicated translator, these hurdles can be impossible to overcome, as well as give rise to sentimental issues. Like according to Tamil writer Ambai, footnoting of culture, which refers to the common practice especially by big publishers eying global market, to add foot notes to explain every non-English word which is otherwise very inherent to that particular language and culture, is totally unnecessary. She says that every culture has its own mysteries and nuances which need not be papered over to make it more globally consumable and palatable. Nobody footnoted well-known European and Latin American novels, she pointed out, but that didn’t prevent anybody across the world from reading, enjoying and understanding them. She definitely has a point, but it is also true that this difficulty to reach across differences in turn leads to a kind of indifferent ignorance, where a Bengali literati can be completely without any clue about what is going on in Sindhi or Punjubi or Manipuri literary scene, and vice versa. It wouldn’t be always fair to blame them either, how can one expect all the Indian readers, no matter how interested they really are in literature, to know all the Indian languages? So, it’s pretty clear that we don’t really have any other option than to depend on English translations (English being virtually the ‘national language’ of today’s post-colonial and globalised literate India) of these regional literary works, in order to enjoy Indian literature in its wholeness. Getting all the quality works from regional literature translated into English seems to be the first and foremost practical condition of collecting ‘Indian’ literature for an ‘Indian’ readership, though this really is somewhat embarrassing, tragic, self-derogatory, and above all, easier said than done. Able and apt translations are what one can hardly find, and more than that, quite a large part of our regional literary works, in spite of being reasonably high in quality, do not enjoy the good fortune of getting appropriately translated (if translated at all) and published in English. This is where the language hierarchy comes into play. Discrimination between Indian indigenous languages depending upon the socio-economic status and power of the people (or even only a handful of persons) speaking those languages, and discrimination between the native languages as a whole and English, which is off late officially recognised by our constitution as an Indian language, is quite obvious. This, in turn, determines which writer and which literary work would be translated into other Indian languages, and most importantly into English, and thereafter only comes the question of reaching a bigger readership. Obviously Hindi being the main official language of India, (and of course, the language of the rulers in the centre) it enjoys far better status, though not at all as glamorously globalized as Indian English. That precisely means that writing in any other language is instantly labelled as regional and that’s why our indigenous literatures are not really known even in their own country in the way they should be, for they are doomed to remain imprisoned in their ‘regionality’ forever.
I think this above elaboration should be enough to explain how writings in Indian English are in the most advantageous position as far as reaching a national (and international as well) readership is concerned. One could also add here, despite risking generalized simplification, that Indian English literature tends to be more urban, middle-class and more ‘globalised’ compared to its regional counterparts, which still thrive mainly on their own ethnicity. Quite understandably this too makes Indian English more penetrative worldwide, while our regional literature, with all its truer deep-rooted Indianness, lags behind.
Quite understandably, our indigenous languages are being badly affected by globalization. With emergence of English (American, to be more precise) as the world language, and language of power, and a large section of young educated Indians abandoning their mother tongues in the hope of becoming citizens of so-called global village, there is a marked decline in the readership of all regional literatures. Actually, with television, the internet, video games, cell phones and iPods plunging into everyday life of upper class urban young generation, a serious reading habit is a thing of past. The only literatures they grab are international best sellers and glossy magazines. In such a pathetic situation, one can understand how far more miserable the position would be for languages not recognised by our Constitution, and for several local, regional or tribal dialects, which are languages within a language. A vast part of our traditional literature, Dalit literature, women’s literature, tribal literature is created in these indigenous dialects, which are not even written down, but circulated within a clan as oral literature. With the invasion of English as homogenised power language, ‘the denial and obliteration of dialects, folk traditions and colloquial or conversational forms not only leads to linguistic impoverishment but amounts to a means of silencing.’ (The Language of Censorship / Speaking in Tongues). Thus, when Mujibar Ansari or Abhimanyu Mahato, both promising young poets from Purulia, a tribal district in West Bengal, write amazing poems using their own dialect, urban readers in Kolkata don’t really recognise it. But when someone writes a poem abundantly using English and Hindi words, much like the hybrid lingo used in modern day commercials, that piece of literature is greeted by the readers as a groundbreaking example of how poetry should be written today.
The protest literature of today’s India is comprised of all of the above—Dalit literature, women’s literature, the literature of individualistic youth who are not afraid to raise questions against traditional social mandates, and also present political ones, or literature of common people in solidarity. Bourgeois critics may have dismissed it as not conforming to ‘standard’ literary norms, but that cannot deny their existence as factual and fiery exposé. These are tireless in their varied missions against globalisation, technocracy, religious fundamentalism, ecological devastation, inequalities of class, caste and gender, violence in its diverse forms and at different levels, and so on. The best example one can site in this domain is the present writings of Arundhati Roy, who after being shot to instant stardom thanks to her 1997 Booker Prize for her very first novel, vowed never to write another novel again. In fact, she refrained from indulging in writing any fiction anymore and completely committed herself to the cause of crusading against the humiliation of humanity. The way she voiced her opinions through relentless essays and articles against recent state-sponsored communal riots in Gujarat under neo-fascist rules of the BJP, against imperialistic atrocities of the USA and its allies all over the world, against the present neo-liberal anti-people economic policies of our federal government, and most importantly, against the government’s inhumane and unscientific doggedness to build big dams on rivers and as a result ruin the lives of millions of people is the perfect illustration of how a pen can and should be used as a mighty weapon. One wouldn’t be exaggerating to comment that today she stands up as the nation’s conscience and moral consciousness against fascism, racism, religious fundamentalism, military and economic imperialism, and capitalism, a feat very rarely achieved by so-called classic littérateurs. I think it wouldn’t be completely out of context to provide you with this latest information about her – in 2006 she was selected for India’s highest literary public award given by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters, and she refused it, in protest against the government’s economic policies. And what matters more is the fact that, she may not be with the crowd, but she is not alone either.
This was, in short, a sketchy review of the present situation of Indian Literature, observed from the point of view of who I am … as I told you at the beginning … a woman, a Bengali, etc., etc. … but after finishing this talk, I really have a genuine gut feeling that, yes, I am an Indian. I am from that country, which, notwithstanding its much hyped economic growth and in spite of being the native land of the world’s richest man, remains a Third World country, forever struggling under feudalism, hierarchy, casteism, patriarchy, and now globalization. Yes, I represent that country, and more than that, I represent the Third World.
Originally presented at the International Rosa Luxemburg Conference organised by Junge Welt,
Berlin, on 12th January 2008.