Books: Glossed in translation

Do the best of Midnight's Children still prefer to write in English? Aamer Hussein contests a monoglot view of post-Independence literature; The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-97 edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage, pounds 7.99

At a gathering of South Asian writers I attended in Berlin last weekend, the link between the writers' many languages was German, not English. English, represented by Githa Hariharan, was included as an Indian language. And as the Urdu authors read out their stories, the Tamil speaker Hariharan listened to them assiduously on earphones via which the originals could be heard.

Hariharan - her name misspelt on two occasions in The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997 - is one of the most welcome presences in Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West's often predictable, conservative and self- admittedly Anglocentric collection of contemporary Indian prose. Her sharp, elegant and witty short fictions (one of the finest, Remains of the Feast, is included here) and her cerebral novels are deeply informed by a sense of location. She also, paradoxically, exemplifies the younger Indian writer for whom dislocations of language and geography - even within their own country - are among life's inescapable realities.

South Asian readers and writers are accustomed to polyphony. They are usually, of necessity, bilingual. English, which plays a significant role as a link language, seems progressively less important in the world of letters. Hindi and Urdu, in spite of the hegemony assigned to them by Rushdie, seem equally important as a lingua franca. And, with the exception of a very few success stories, writers who choose today to write in English do so as a result of their sense of dislocation. At the same time, they maintain a connection with their own linguistic traditions. Younger writers such as Amitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri (who are represented here) and Sunetra Gupta (who, surprisingly, isn't) are either effortlessly bilingual, or have struggled to master the script and traditions of at least one "vernacular" language.

Rushdie offers us a sweeping, birds' eye view of 50 years of good writing. He proves that there is an Indo-Anglian canon, and as he reaches our own time, he elects new contenders for future glory. It is heartening to see, alongside Chaudhuri and Hariharan, names like Padma Perora and Anjana Appachana, each as yet the author of only one collection of stories.

Apart from his occasionally faltering choice of texts (don't the tough, subtle fiction of Attia Hosain merit a place?), Rushdie's selection of some of these younger writers contradicts his defensive assertion that no translated fiction lives up to the contribution of work originally written in Indian English. Surely Lakshmi Holmstrom's renditions from Tamil of the radical stories of Ambaj, Gayatri Spivak's from the Bengali of Mahasweta Devi, or any number of translations by M U Memon and Rukhsana Ahmad from the Urdu are as good - if not better - than the writings of Upamanyu Chatterjee, Firdaus Kanga and Ardashir Vakil here? And is there nothing from the work available in English by Nirmal Verma, Mrinal Pande, Qurratulain Hyder and Ismat Chughtai - choosing merely from Urdu and Hindi, the languages I read - that equals Rushdie's selections from Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth and many others?

Rushdie accuses vernacular writers of parochialism. I'd say far too many of them, at an earlier stage, were too abstract and postmodern. And the Anglophone writers have repeated themselves ad nauseam about the partition, Mrs Gandhi's Emergency, and migrations's assault upon their bourgeois sensibility and privilege.

The matter of translation, good or bad, remains tangled. Yet many writers here would cite influences on their work available to them only in translation. Then there is the question, which Rushdie eloquently raises in the case of Urdu influence on his own work, of the aural - rather than written - impact of local languages on Indian writers. Poetry is an integral part of our lives, always available in sung versions. Even the most resolutely Anglophone among us cannot escape its onslaught.

The Pakistani Parsee writer Bapsi Sidhwa (elected an honorary Indian by Rushdie, as is Sara Suleri) is a fine practitioner of this polylingual English. She quotes richly from poets such as Mir, Ghalib, Faiz and Iqbal, although she says her knowledge of written Urdu is imperfect. A Gujerati speaker by origin, she was exposed at an early stage to Urdu and Punjabi. This intertwining of tongues makes Ice-Candy Man - her stunning novel of Partition, cunningly excerpted here - all the more effective in evoking the subcontinental Tower of Babel.

Also important for Rushdie and Sidhwa is the seductive subliminal role of the mother tongue: that favourite topic of French post-Freudians, and the cause of so much nostalgia among casualties of a purely monolingual, Anglocentric education at a time when returning to the study of their own languages was seen as "going native". Both these writers, and others who followed, made this a strength, illustrating the positive values of subcontinental English.

Another important factor for the older generation is oral reception: not only of one's native language, but of others. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons that Rushdie assigns significance to Anita Desai's exquisite novel In Custody. Desai chose English as a via media between the many languages she spoke, but wrote about an Urdu poet and the dying glories of a passing, pre-colonial tradition in a materialistic, post-national era. Unfortunately, the story chosen here doesn't match her finest work.

English serves South Asian writers well. Many of us who live abroad choose to use it for the liberties of communication it affords, in spite of the constraints of expression it might impose. We're even free to see ourselves as English, transnational, American or homeless.

When banded together, however, we can only agree with Rushdie when he says that "there is not, need not, should not be, an adversarial relationship between English language literature and the other literatures of India. We drink from the same well." Indeed.

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