Wednesday, June 20, 2018
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STATE OF REGIONAL LITERATURE

Bound by boundaries of language

What is the state of literature in Hindi and other regional languages? In this issue, we look at how Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Haryanvi, Himachali, Kashmiri and Dogri writings are faring17 Jun 2018 | 12:47 AM

Although India, as a country, produces a huge, diverse body of what is called regional literature in its 23-odd constitutionally recognised languages, Indian writers who write in Hindi or in regional languages have to struggle to be heard and read in the charmed circles of Indian readership.

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Pankaj K.Deo

Although India, as a country, produces a huge, diverse body of what is called regional literature in its 23-odd constitutionally recognised languages, Indian writers who write in Hindi or in regional languages have to struggle to be heard and read in the charmed circles of Indian readership. Indian writing in English or IWE literature, on the other hand, continues to enjoy its ‘twice-born’ status, even after seven decades of the country’s independence from the British rule. Neither Hindi nor the regional languages have been able to break the magic spell of the English language on the country’s population. And this is when only a small percentage of India’s population can read, write and speak in English.

A thorough analysis of the Indian book market for literary works would require delving deep into the regional markets’ respective size, pricing and distribution channels, the impact of digital technology and government’s promotional policies. Furthermore, one needs to study consumers’ purchasing behaviour, demographics and their inclination towards buying books or not buying them and the reasons thereof.

According to a Nielsen BookScan study some years ago, 55 per cent of the trade sales comprise books in English, whereas books in Hindi make up for 35 per cent of Indian language sales. However, the largest share of sales is taken by books in 'other languages' though the report doesn't have any figures for these, as regional books are largely selling from a "highly disorganised" local publishing sector and a fragmented market.

What works in favour of the literature published in English in India is that the English knowing population — small in percentage but sizable in number — is distributed across the country, as against regional languages that are confined to certain geographies defined by state boundaries. Moreover, this well-heeled, urbane English-speaking population has higher purchasing power, easier access to bookshops and is generally more inclined towards buying books than the readers of regional literature. If an Indian author writing in English gets an international break, his or her popularity soars among the domestic readers. The book even gets translated into Hindi and regional languages, which further boosts its readership.  

Authors, who write in Hindi or in regional languages, have certain advantages over those who write in English. For, what they write is often rooted in everyday lives of Indians in general, and hence their writing brings the credibility of shared experience. The setting is regional and so are the characters. The readers of regional literature do not have to suspend their sense of disbelief because they speak the same language. Books in regional languages are immediately accessible, and their readers can critically judge them at once for their faithfulness to facts. 

To promote literatures in the languages of India, we have the Sahitya Akademi and various such bodies. The Sahitya Akademi in Delhi brings out bibliographies, compilations, and critical editions, besides publishing works and anthologies of regional authors. The Akademi also undertakes translation work in the constitutionally recognized languages, besides organizing promotional events and awarding authors.

However, market forces work much more effectively than governmental support. So, if you look for a Hindi or English translation of Amar Mitra’s Dhrubaputra that won Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006, you may not find any. But Amitav Ghosh’s  Flood of Fire, published in 2015, is easily available in Hindi translation as Agnivarsha on Flipkart and other such online retailers. 

Writers have an incumbency longer than their lives. So, established writers, especially in Hindi and regional languages, continue to enjoy a near-monopoly position in the market long after they are gone. A new writer getting initiated into the trade has to compete with those who are literary icons in their respective literatures. 

Post-Premchand Hindi literature, especially fiction, has seen many electrifying new voices who have tried to breathe new life into the space. Vinod Kumar Shukla who writes both fiction and poetry is a case in point. Critics often point out the influence of magic realism in his fiction and postmodern linguistic experimentation in his poetry. His works such as Naukar ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1979) and Khilega to Dekhenge (Once it Flowers, 1996), and Divar Mein Ek Khirki Rahti Thi (A Window lived in a Wall, 1997) are often discussed in various literary forums, and some of them have been translated into English as well. His first novel, Naukar Ki Kameez, was made into a film by Mani Kaul. Acclaimed British magazine Granta published some of Shukla’s poems. 

However, Shukla is still not a household name in the Hindi heartland as Premchand is. A new writer not only has to break new grounds in creativity but also dislodge the earlier icons form their pedestals. A young English reader in India will not pick up a book by Charles Dickens unless it is prescribed in the syllabus; he or she would rather pick up a Vikram Seth or an Amitav Ghosh for pleasure reading. A young Hindi reader would perhaps not be aware of the new Hindi writers for lack of any publicity blitzkrieg that invariably follows the publication of a book in English. Indian English writers are often present in the relevant fora, including social media where they enjoy a large following. Most authors writing in Hindi or regional languages prefer to live in anonymity and are seldom seen marketing their works in the relevant places, except for some who are writer turned social activists. 

Perumal Murugan, a Tamil novelist not known beyond his home state, caught the attention of both national media and social media in 2015 when he announced on Facebook his “death” as an author, reminding many people of Roland Barthes’ famous essay, The Death of the Author. Murugan’s literary ‘death’ was incited by the political flare-up over his 2010 Tamil-language novel, Madhorubhagan, which dealt with the volatile mix of sex and religion, involving a childless couple, as a subject.

The Tsunamic socio-economic changes in the wake of globalisation, the celebrated locales of globalised India — call centres, gated communities, IT companies—have caught the attention of many Indian English writers. However, literary works published in Hindi and regional languages have largely not concerned themselves with these new themes.

As much as we may denounce Salman Rushdie’s comparison of the literature produced in India’s indigenous languages with Soviet Union’s “tractor art” — insipid socialist realism reeking with misery and poverty as essential ingredients of human life — very few Hindi and regional authors have chosen to break the mould and to handle themes that would resonate beyond their provincial audiences.

Yet, there are exceptions like Kiran Nagarkar, the celebrated writer from Maharashtra. Contrary to earlier writers such as Harivansh Rai Bachchan, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Bhisham Sahni who consciously avoided writing in English despite having a command over the English language perhaps due to the anti-English stance of the freedom movement, Nagarkar chooses to write in both English and Marathi. His novels in English such as Ravan & Eddie and God’s Little Soldier have earned him national and international fame. 

Authors writing in Hindi and regional languages need to leverage both media and social media. Our media can play a key role by highlighting such authors from time to time and not just when they win a particular award. Punjabi novelist Nachhatar won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award last year for his novel, Slowdown. Nachhatar has written six novels and his latest one is Cancer Train, which deal with the predicament of those suffering from cancer in Punjab’s Malwa region. Such creative works need to be highlighted not only for literary but also sociological reasons.

Since the smartphone is becoming the preferred device for reading and watching, it’s time such authors make their presence felt through the social media network. Publication of their books in e-book format and translation into other languages may also help in reaching out beyond their regional boundaries. Best seller lists by newspapers can spur readers’ interest in new books being published in Hindi and regional languages. 

— The writer is a literary scholar, JNU

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