Rushdie once said that in independent India, the Indian writing in English “is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 18 ‘recognized’ languages of India.” Many writers did not like this statement. Arundhati Roy said that it was a cruel and unnecessary statement. Vikram Seth said that this is not true at all, and that unfortunately, people are likely to believe him.
Remember: I am not taking a position here. But, why is this an implausible claim? The smart Indian writers are unusually likely to write in English. This is increasingly becoming true, if it were not true a few decades ago. If my work is in Malayalam or Tamil, not many people will read my work. Why should I even try? Why do some writers write in their mother tongue? I do not think there is any strong incentive to do so, except when the uncertainty they feel while writing in the English language is significant—-significant to the point that they prefer to write in their mother tongue. Even when there is a strong incentive to do so, all things considered, there is very little external pressure to perform.
I have never had any liking for provincial writing, even in the English language. I do not think the best non-fiction works ever had an audience worthy of mention in India. Until recently, there was very little access, if any. There was no access because virtually no one wanted to read them. I think some talented Indian writers in English are incredibly narrow because they did not expose themselves to the best literature of the west when they were young. They were not pushed to perform. They do not know elementary social science, and do not care. This is true of Indian writing in English. In all likelihood, this is even truer of regional language literature. I think people are just being “difficult”.
Nearly a decade ago, on Orkut, a large majority of the users were from India and Brazil. There were more good philosophy communities in Portuguese than in English even though the Portuguese translations of many of the best works in philosophy are not yet available. Many bright Brazilian kids I knew found this a huge barrier. My closest Brazilian friend was 12 when he read Mises. If Brazilians have better discussions on the web despite these barriers…
Read the whole interview (1997): “The conclusion I reached in this anthology is one that I frankly never expected to reach. I set out to read as widely as I could in the literature of the last half-century and on the basis of English translations. It is surprising for me that when I came to make a final selection that so few texts that had not originated in English got into that selection. I found myself coming to this conclusion, which I thought was profoundly ironic and unexpected, that in the 50 years before Independence if you looked at the best writers, they would by and large not be in English. By an extraordinary ironic twist of fate, if you look at the 50 years since the English departed, Indian writers in English seem to have been doing the most interesting work, broadly speaking. Doesn’t mean that there are no great writers in other languages. I am aware that it is a conclusion that will raise eyebrows and that people will disagree with it. Let them do so. All I am saying is that this was arrived at not polemically and not for some mean-spirited desire to denigrate local languages but on the basis of the writing that I read, it was my conclusion. Set aside all prejudices and long-standing rivalries and just look actually at the texts. Just forget mother-tongue and social class.”