Magazine article Foreign Policy

English Spoken Here: How Globalization Is Changing the Indian Novel

Magazine article Foreign Policy

English Spoken Here: How Globalization Is Changing the Indian Novel

Article excerpt

In a scene early in Vikram Chandra's massive 2006 cops-and-robbers novel Sacred Games, the small-time gangster Ganesh Gaitonde sells some stolen gold and feels, for the first time in his life, wealthy and powerful. He goes looking for pleasure on the streets, and a pimp offers him "a high-class cheez." But no sooner is Gaitonde left alone with the prostitute than he begins to feel set up. He has only one way of finding out whether his "cheez" is as high-class as promised. "Speak English," he orders the woman. When she complies, Gaitonde cannot understand the words, but it doesn't matter. "I knew that they were really English," he thinks to himself. "I felt it in the crack of the consonants."

The prostitute's utterances in English earn her fee, just as the Indian novelist who chooses to write in English has often been accused, especially by readers and critics at home, of being inauthentic or a sellout, forcing characters with their roots in the words and worldview of some other Indian language to "speak English." The debate, of course, is old, fraught with the historical baggage of India's British colonial past. In fact, the book now considered the first Indian novel, Rajmohan's Wife, was written in English in 1864 by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, a young magistrate of the Raj.

But the tension has taken on a new form amid the growing appeal of the "global novel"--a story that is pitched not just to a national but a worldwide audience, and thereby necessarily written in English. As the Indian novel in English, assisted by India's rising profile in global affairs, finds an audience wherever English is spoken, it often seems to sacrifice the particularities of Indian experience for a watered-down idiom that can speak to readers across the globe.

Often such books are received very differently by those at home and those away. For instance, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008), the story of an antihero and a cutthroat new culture that rests upon and often perpetuates the inequities of the old India, won the Man Booker Prize and is now a global hit. Yet within India, the best-selling book did not make the short list for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award, the country's most prestigious prize for novels in English.

The use of English-which often makes the Indian novelist both writer and translator-generates major problems of language and perspective that can be off-putting for Indian readers. Sacred Games is written in high-flown and lyrical English, but even so, the reader is persuaded that its narrator is an uneducated gangster because Chandra flecks his English with resonant Hindi words that he leaves untranslated. The novel generates, like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children did a generation ago, its own tongue, neither wholly imitative nor entirely invented.

But in the hands of lesser writers, much of the specificity and charge of Indian life is simply lost when rendered in English, becoming paler, weaker, and more simplistic. So what readers around the world frequently find instructive, fresh, and moving about Indian novels available to them in English is often experienced by Indian readers as dull, cliched, and superficial.

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Indeed, globalization has spawned a kind of hackneyed Indian (really, South Asian) novel that, even as it tells a story, acts as a primer on Indian and Pakistani history, politics, and culture, self-consciously offering bits of potted history and contextual explanation that seem absurd coming from characters rooted in a particular world. …

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