Writing India

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two)
Nabaneeta Dev Sen
22 December 2005


What do I fear most in 2006? Consider the following.

I have walked into a classroom in West Bengal, India, where I am introduced as aBengali writer. The students look surprised. They have never seen a Bengali writer. Are there living Indian writers who still write in Bengali? Wasn’t that a practice of olden times, when green tramcars were drawn by white Weller horses on the beautifully cobbled streets of Calcutta? Isn’t present-day India writing in English?

Regional languages, after all, are there to be spoken. True, Bengali was the fourth largest spoken tongue in the world in 2005, but that does not mean there are crazy people still writing in a language that nobody reads. It is just what it claims to be: a regional language, not a global tongue. In this world of global citizens who, except for specialists, cares for regional varieties?

There are, to be sure, courses in India where Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu and other regional idioms are taught to local students who have shown intellectual curiosity in the cultures connected with these now remote spoken tongues.

After all, those languages had once produced great literatures, and some had long literary histories behind them, but could not survive in the competitive global market, in which extra-literary qualities matter as much, if not more than the literary ones.

No one noticed exactly when the language of the global market became the language of Indian literature. Strangely enough, the trend of Anglicization in India, which destroyed twenty-two full-grown literary traditions, was not global. Literatures in French or Spanish, even in Latvian or Estonian have survived, as they have in Japanese, Chinese, Arabic or Hebrew.

So what of India? Post-colonial damage? But during the British Raj Indian regional languages flourished. Mother-tongue was identified with the motherland, giving writers and readers a cultural identity, tied to a geographical and historical background that made them proud of their national heritage.

Mother -tongue has lost that utility in Mother India today. Now we need to be free of any specific background. To become citizens of the world, we need international languages. This does not, however, prevent us from exploiting our exotic cultural experience. That is what the sensible Indian writer has been doing: writing India in an international tongue. What else should one do? You get more freedom to express yourself, unchained from your cultural inhibitions, and you get a readership that covers the whole planet, financial considerations aside.

Maybe in 2006 I shall introduce myself in a classroom as an Indian writer in English. And send my grandchildren to special modern Indian language courses to learn to read and write Bengali. After all did not both my parents also spend all their lives writing poetry in that lost language? Interest in ancestral history has come back into fashion these days.


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