JUNE 17, 2021
WHENEVER I FALL ILL, the only language in which I like to read is Bangla. It is the language I inherited from my parents, both of whom passed away when I was in my 20s. I mean ill with a mild fever, the seasonal flu — I’m a reasonably healthy person most of the time, knock on wood. When reading in good health, I usually like to pace the length of my home, holding the book or device. And on most of those occasions, I read in English, the language of my working life, and most of my waking life.
But illness is a kind of a sleep, a drugged escape from work paid with the price of pain, a felt memory of a death we haven’t yet experienced. Sunk into stupor, my body uncoils, abandons all aspiration; reading becomes like long-forgotten tropical afternoon naps. Seeking comfort, I often return to cherished classics, but illness has also led me to discover new writing in Bangla.
The bitter debates about whether postcolonial writers can write in English, which rocked decolonized nations in the mid-20th century, have, for the most part, been laid to rest. The questions mutate a bit — “can” sometimes changes to “should” — but given the wealth and variety of English-language writing from all over the world, it is safe to say that Chinua Achebe’s defense of local and variable Englishes has won out over Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s suspicion of the permanently imperial character of the language. But the question that has escaped attention throughout these debates is: Can the postcolonial reader read in English?
When it comes to India, the answer to this question explains many failures of postcolonial literature in English. Of course, I’m not talking about reading English as a function of basic literacy; the question I’m raising here is about the ability — and willingness — to engage with imaginative literature written in English. The issue also happens to extend, in a slightly different way, to imaginative literatures translated “into” English, but I’ll leave that aside for now.
Of course, the issue of basic literary cannot be simply set aside. It is always there. Readers in English, just like writers in that language, constitute a small fraction in India. But as one bilingual writer (I think it’s Nirad C. Chaudhuri) once said, in India even “small” fractions can run into the tens of millions. When 100 million people is now less than one-10th of the total population, the size of the English-reading Indian middle class, it should be clear to anybody, must be larger than the population of most countries in the world. If you doubt this, just take a look at the size of the English-language textbook industry in the country.
English-language textbooks — that’s a good place to begin this conversation. Ever since the Anglicists defeated the Sanskritists in early-19th-century debates, the craving for English-language education across India has attained the status of a cliché. Clearly, people want to be able to function in English, and as the middle class expands, more and more people come to share these aspirations.
Therein lies the problem for literature. What happens when English is the language of aspiration, of power and mobility? Aspiration, power, mobility — these things have very unpredictable, sometimes impossible relationships with art. Art loves failure and weakness just as much as it loves success, perhaps a bit more, in fact. Yet most people who read English-language books in India don’t have time for this indulgent nonsense. They read with tangible, quantifiable goals — to improve themselves, to rise through the grades, to ace exams, to get better jobs, to make more money, and, more generally, to appear smart to the maximum number of people, in the most obvious ways possible. From a book written in English, we want something concrete and directly profitable.
There are those books, Virginia Woolf once said, that call upon you to act when you read them — to join a club, make a donation, go to a meeting, and then your conscience rests easy and you are finally “done” with the book. And there are those books that call you to no action at all but leave you in a state of perpetual unrest, about which you can “do” nothing. And you are never “done” with such a book, never in your life. When it comes to English-language reading in India, it is quite understandable that there will be precious few takers for the latter kind of work.
Of course, you can say, isn’t that true of books in any language, anywhere? Right from the European Renaissance up to the Victorian age, books on self-fashioning and self-help have done a splendid business. When did lyric poetry ever overshadow their best-selling glory? This is absolutely true. But this fact takes on an intensity of truth when the reading in question happens in the language of aspiration in a deeply stratified postcolonial nation, where the difference involved in reading in the indigenous vernaculars is all too clear. I gave my own example of reading while ill, and I’m someone who reads for pleasure in English all the time (though the motives get a bit mixed up sometimes as I’m also someone whose very business is that pleasure). But the reaction of my body — of my entire sensibility — to language is not atypical in postcolonial India.
A fascinating example is the rise of Indian popular fiction in English in the 21st century. All the way to the 1990s, popular fiction in English, for Indian readers, centered on lives lived in the West, primarily the United States. As our parents’ fondness for the work of James Hadley Chase and Harold Robbins gave way, for us, to Stephen King and John Grisham. Barring a few outliers like Shobhaa De’s novels about the gossip-worthy lives of Bombay socialites, there was essentially no such thing as Indian-English popular fiction.
Then, in 2005, an engineer-turned-investment banker, Chetan Bhagat, exploded on the scene with novels set in newly affluent suburbs such as Gurgaon, about young Indians studying engineering or working in call centers. Bhagat, whose first seven novels (to say nothing of his motivational books) sold seven million copies, and who essentially pioneered the “homeward turn” of Indian-English popular fiction, felt perfectly in sync with the pulse of a hotly aspirational India in the first decade of the 21st century. But there was a more personal arc of aspiration often inscribed in the typical Bhagat plot, in which a small-town boy, more comfortable in Hindi than English, arrives in the big city or fancy college and works to realize his dreams. This often involves navigating bumpy romantic relationships with posh, English-fluent city girls, but that’s yet another kind of aspiration.
It was not just their aspirational plots that made reading these novels a personal triumph for millions of readers, in a country where pleasure reading in English was limited to those with an elite education. Even more critically, it was their easygoing colloquial language, the now-famous “Hinglish.” I remember an editor at a prominent publishing house telling me that India abounded in readers for whom reading an English book for pleasure feels like a true achievement, a personal milestone. One now hears news that the Bhagat phenomenon is essentially killing the market for Hindi popular fiction — but that too, is another story.
My view that Bhagat’s works, regardless of their negative consequences, are a valuable addition to postcolonial literature in English would not be a popular one among my fellow writers and critics. In a developing nation, there is something moving and powerful about the realization of mass aspiration through pleasure reading in English. The far more subtle — and far less tangible — problem is the diffuse and insidious way such an aspiration translates into the various forms of expectation we bring to literature in general. Chetan Bhagat is not the problem here; he is simply its most visible current symptom. The rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger would do superbly in postcolonial, Anglophone India if — and this is crucial — they could find the appropriate contemporary idiom.
It is truly difficult for Indians to see the English language — whether as a medium of entertainment or education — as separate from a narrative of upward mobility. A legacy of betterment is deeply ingrained in the legacy of English education in India. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s vision of a colonial curriculum that would create subjects who are brown in flesh but white in spirit was doubtless a masterstroke of soft imperial power, but it was articulated in the language of self-improvement and upward mobility. A sizable segment of the colonial bourgeoisie bought into that vision, and many of those who couldn’t longed for the purchasing power to do so. The sale went so well that an aura of aspiration now permanently colors the act of Indians reading in English, including imaginative literature. A work written in English immediately invites a certain kind of expectation in readers, an expectation that simply does not attach to work written in the local vernaculars.
It is as if our minds put on a jacket and tie the moment we start to read in English, no matter how relaxed and pleasure-seeking we imagine ourselves to be. At some level, even for the Indian middle-class reader, entering into an imaginative world created in English is like entering an upscale restaurant, endlessly re-achieving that sense of successful arrival. And when in a restaurant, fancy or not, Indians don’t like to eat the everyday home fare of roti and dal — unlike Americans, who delight in eating pancakes or hamburgers in a boutique diner. Reading works in English that merely articulate the quotidian texture of everyday life, perhaps celebrating the lost, the marginal, and the fallen with no clear arc of development or progress, is like getting the same old rice and dal, which is okay to expect in the indigenous vernaculars but not in the great Western language. When such things are served on the fancy dishware of English, it leads to a crumbling of expectations in the secretly aspirational reader that lurks inside most of us.
English literature must somehow uplift us. In this postcolonial nation, imaginative literature in English must always be, on some fundamental level, a literature that has external utility, with tangible rewards. But the greatest imaginative works in any language have always involved beautiful perversions of the quotidian, often presented in a spirit of loss, despair, or confusion. The true birth of English as a literary language in postcolonial India hinges on figuring out how to serve roti and dal unadorned, without the alluring spice of aspiration.
One could draw from any period or genre, but I want to conclude with a reading of poetry, the literary form most stubbornly resistant to utilitarian expectations. According to Amit Chaudhuri, an intricate chronicler of the aimless quotidian in an English idiom, “the most striking example of the language and the structure of the Hollywood mafia film transplanted onto an Indian work of art is not some Bollywood film but the poem ‘Ajamil and the Tigers,’ which occurs in Kolatkar’s great sequence of poems Jejuri (1976).” So, by couching his narrative about a sheepdog and a tiger in the language of a mafia movie, the poet Arun Kolatkar uniquely perverts the progressive or motivational aspects of literary language. And by picking up on this act, Chaudhuri participates in the perverse play. It is poetry of a quintessential Kolatkar kind, where an unlikely Western influence — scarcely thought of as elevating — suspends its popular narrative muscle in order to serve a vernacular morality tale with a message that is not uplifting in any sense of the term.
It takes a special kind of poet to take a Western ingredient and turn it into a local sweetbread like puran poli, neutering all ambitions associated with the power of popular Western culture. Postcolonial writing in English has always been good at this. Finding the postcolonial reader who enjoys such a suspension of ambition while reading in English is much rarer. The mismatch between the English writer and the reader in postcolonial India is not one of aptitude — for there is indeed a vast English-reading public in India — but one of expectation.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels, The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird/Play House (2015/2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of criticism, Prose of the World (2013); a work of general nonfiction, College (2018); and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur. He writes the LARB column “Another look at India’s books,” on books from India that haven’t received due attention. His new novel, The Middle Finger, will be published in October 2021.