Friday, July 16, 2010

Introduction to India: A Traveler's Literary Companion

Here is the introduction to my new book India: A Traveler's Literary Companion, recently published in the USA by Whereabouts Press. The anthology brings together both classic and contemporary Indian writers, and Indian writing in English as well as Indian literature in translation. An Indian edition of this book, which was originally commissioned by Whereabouts for an American audience, should be available later this year. The entire series of literary companions to different countries published by Whereabouts is here.

Much of the pleasure of storytelling comes from all that is left unsaid—from the things for which we readers are given a direction, but not an end. So too, so much of what we feel for the world of a story derives from the flavour of the local—from a turn of phrase, a glimpse of a patch of earth, a memorable detail, that is absolutely specific to the worldview of a particular character or culture.

When, for instance, Chandrakant, the youth leaving his village for the first time in Jayant Kaikini’s story “Dots and Lines,” feels the wind on his face on the train to Bombay, and imagines that the same wind “had just blown the tarpaulin off the night-halting bus on the banks of the Gangavati before reaching this place,” this image makes us see Chandrakant in two places at the same time. Not only does the idea of the wind from home catching up with the train going away from home encapsulate Chandrakant’s longing for what he has left behind, the specificity of the image of “the tarpaulin of the night-halting bus” being ruffled by that wind registers very strongly on our own imaginations. This is one of those flares of detail that make fiction burn brighter than other kinds of prose writing.

Similarly, in Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s “Canvasser Krishnalal,” we are told of Krishnalal, the itinerant seller of medicated oil, that “he would ply like a weaver’s shuttle, from Shiyalda to Barasat, from Barasat to Shiyalda.” This detail not only makes Krishnalal seem like a mechanised object himself, operating upon the world with the same regularity and constancy as that of a season or the trains, it also suggests the man’s jaunty temperament—it might be a metaphor thought of by Krishnalal himself. We understand, from such details, why Eudora Welty thought that while fiction’s reach, its themes, were universal, the power of a story was “all bound up in the local.”

This anthology brings to you a basket of such stories, plucked out of the gardens of India’s many language-literatures: works that are intended to bring you closer to the Indian landscape and the Indian imagination in all its variety, even as you enjoy the universal pleasures of storytelling. About half the stories here were written in English, and the other half are translations, each from a different Indian language.

Indeed, the most striking feature of Indian literature when seen as a whole—a source of its strength and variety, but also of the difficulty in navigating it—is that it is multilingual to a degree not matched by any other national literature in the world. Even if we exclude classical languages and contemporary dialects, we find ourselves before a field divided up among at least two dozen languages. As with any other language, each one of these languages represents not only a particular matrix of sounds and grammatical structures but also a distinct imaginative universe, with its own myths and beliefs, its own social structures, its own view of history and time.

Thus we arrive at the paradox: because of its profusion of languages, most of Indian literature is a foreign country even for Indian readers, who at their best can be no more than trilingual or quadrilingual. I myself speak English, Hindi—which is the closest that India has to a “national” language—and my mother tongue Oriya, and, I am ashamed to admit, can only read and write in the first two, although I can sing you a number of devotional songs in the third.

Unsurprisingly, as English is the language of university education and also the favoured language of the Indian elite, a link language between people whose first languages are different from each other, and also a powerful force in business and advertising, it is Indian writing in English—a realm in which much exciting work is being done— that receives the most attention both at home and around the world. Another factor inhibiting the appreciation of the literature from other Indian languages has been the paucity of good translations into English.

These are the conditions that led Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West to controversially declare, in their 1997 anthology Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997, that “the prose writing . . . created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work that most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India,” and that “‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

This is a contention—as I hope this book will demonstrate—that is being disproved rapidly. But the point remains: many of the riches of Indian literature are lying invisible in the shadows, waiting for a translation that will release their rhythms and energies into the world. It is my hope that some of the stories in this volume showcase the best of what is currently available of Indian fiction in English translation, and arouse in you, the reader interested in India, the desire for a more sustained encounter with writers whose work is every bit as good as their better-known counterparts who compose in English.

As with other anthologies in this series, the stories here are arranged on a geographical basis, almost laid out on a map. Each of the five regions in which I have divided the country could potentially have been the subject of an individual book, but here I have limited them to two or three stories each. Where the stories are set in a specific city or town, those have been named; otherwise the general region or state in which the story is set has been provided.

I have tried to make sure that the book gives a sense of the different realities of urban, small-town, and rural India, from the world of upper-class Delhi represented in Qurratulain Hyder’s “The Sound of Falling Leaves” to the village people gossiping and squabbling by the pond in Fakir Mohan Senapati’s “Asura Pond”. The stories also gesture at the diverse primary allegiances of Indian people, whether it is to the city (Bandhopadhyay’s Krishnalal), the guild (Nazir Mansuri’s fisherman Lakham Patari), caste (Phanishwarnath Renu’s villagers) or the tribe (Mamang Dai’s heroine Nenem).

The works brought together here are both old and new: the earliest was first published in 1902, while the ink is still not dry on the most recent one. Some of the writers here are legendary figures known to, even if not always read by, readers all over India; others represent the new generation, and are slowly making a reputation for themselves. I have made some notes on aspects of their craft and style in the individual introductions to the stories.

Not the least of the pleasures of the stories brought together here is that, while rooted in a particular world, they often hum with the stirrings of distant worlds that have made India such a diverse and fecund civilization. The architect of the Taj Mahal in Kunal Basu’s “The Accountant” looks at an architectural plan “drawn not simply from Hindustan but from Isphafan and Constantinople, Kabul and Samarkand—from the whole world”. In Nazir Mansuri’s “The Whale”, a trader in a port village on the west coast of India ferries “lime, dates, onions, and garlic to Basra, Iran, and Africa” till one day he never returns. Now these stories, too, go out into the world—many of them are being published outside India for the first time—and it is my hope that wherever they go, they will provide the same pleasure that they have given at home.

Chandrahas Choudhury
Mumbai, March 2010

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