I think many, perhaps most Indian writers find Rushdie’s claim controversial:
“The prose writing – both fiction and non-fiction by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 “official languages” of India, the so-called “vernacular languages”, during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. It is a large claim, and while it may be easy for Western readers to accept it (after all, few non-English-language Indian writers, other than the Nobel laureate Tagore, have ever made much of an impact on world literature), it runs counter to much of the received critical wisdom within India itself. It is also not a claim which, when we set out on the enormous and rewarding task of doing the reading for this book, we ever expected to make. The task we set ourselves was simply to make the best possible selection from what is presently available in the English language, including, obviously, work in translation. To our considerable astonishment, only one translated text – S. H. Manto’s masterpiece, the short story “Toba Tek Singh” – made the final cut.” Those who wish to argue with the conclusion we have drawn may suspect that we did not read enough. But we have read as widely and deeply as we could. Others may feel that, as one of the editors is English and the other a practising English-language writer of Indian origin, we are simply betraying our own cultural and linguistic prejudices, or defending our turf or – even worse – gracelessly blowing our own trumpet. It is of course true that any anthology worth its salt will reflect the judgments and tastes of its editors. I can only say that our tastes are pretty catholic and our minds, I hope, have been open. We have made our choices, and stand by them.”
I have said this before. I haven’t read literature in “vernacular languages”. But, I think Rushdie is right. I have my own reasons. 1) The Indian writers in English have much higher IQs. 2) English is a rich, complex language. 3) Writing in vernacular languages doesn’t pay. 4) If the non-English-language writers were smart, they would have been writing in English. It is hard, if not impossible to express complex thoughts with the highest degree of fluency in vernacular languages. But, I am being charitable here.
I noticed this now:
“First, there has long been a genuine problem of translation in India – not only into English but between the vernacular languages – and it is possible that good writers have been excluded by reason of their translators’ inadequacies rather than their own. Nowadays, however, such bodies as the Indian Sahitya Akademi and UNESCO have been putting their resources into the creation of better translations, and the problem, while not eradicated, is certainly much diminished. And second: while it was impossible, for reasons of space, to include a representative selection of modern Indian poetry, it was evident to us that the rich poetic traditions of India continued to flourish in many of the sub-continent’s languages, whereas the English-language poets, with a few distinguished exceptions (Arun Kolatkar, A. K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, to name just three), did not match the quality of their counterparts in prose.”
If it is, indeed, true that Rushdie is prejudiced against vernacular writers, why is he unusually prejudiced against prose writers, but not against poets? People don’t think.