You are here: Home » Opinion » Columns
Business Standard

Looking for the great Indian novel

SPEAKING VOLUMES

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

Try this with your friends when you're playing party games sometime. Ask them to name the twenty greatest European novelists, in no particular order.
 
These are some of the names that might come up: (Don Quixote), (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), (The Good Soldier Svejk), (The Gulag Archipelago), (Crime and Punishment) and a slew of other Russians. Some will name Sandor Marai (Embers), many will name Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum), or Ismail Kadare (The General of the Dead Army), or Orhan Pamuk (Snow). Some might reach further back into memory and stake a claim for writers like Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) or Stendhal (The Charterhouse of Parma) or Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time).
 
With the exception of writers from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, few of those on the list of great European writers will have had English as their first language. And yet, few readers will have not encountered Kundera or Camus, Tolstoy or Maupassant.
 
Kundera and Hasek are Czech writers, Marai is Hungarian, Kadare Albanian, Grass German, Cervantes Spanish, Hugo and Maupassant French. Except for the few of us who read across four or five European languages, most of us will have read their works in English. Ask any European, and she will tell you that all these languages have distinct and separate traditions: a Russian writer inhabits a different landscape from a Spanish writer, a Hungarian writer will not necessarily share the same sense of history as his Italian counterpart. But few would question the category of the European novel.
 
Now ask your friends to name the twenty greatest Indian novelists of the last two centuries. I tried this a few weeks ago with a group of people who were in general both far brighter and far better-read than me. All of us could name the small but growing pantheon of those who write in English, from Mulk Raj Anand to Kamala Markandeya, Nayantara Sahgal to Salman Rushdie, Pankaj Mishra to Amitav Ghosh. After that, the lists divided sharply on regional lines. Few of us could do more than name a handful of great names who wrote outside the comfort zone of the languages we were born to and spoke at home.
 
Collectively, we came up with a respectable list. To quote it in full would be tedious, but this might give you a rough sense of the size and capacity of the category we call Indian literature. It would include Saadat Hasan Manto's short stories, the novels of Rabindranath Tagore and Sharatchandra, plays by Girish Karnad and Vijay Tendulkar, stories by Ismat Chugtai, Qurrutulain Haider's Aag ki Dariya, novels by C V Raman Pillai and short stories by Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, Srilal Shukla's Raag Darbari, Rahi Masoom Raza's A Village Dividied, Premchand's entire oeuvre, Mahasweta Debi's selected short stories, Ashapurna Debi's work, U R Ananthamurthy's writings. As you can see, this is by no means exhaustive or even more than mildly indicative, but even this brief list compares with the best of European writing.
 
What became sharply clear to me was the "iceberg" quality of Indian literature. Even the best-read and most inquiring among us were constrained by language, and the availability of books in translation into English or other Indian languages. What I see of Marathi literature, for instance, is just the tip of the iceberg; what a Kannada author saw of Bengali literature was only a small sample of what has been published.
 
Canvassing bookstores over the next few weeks, I discovered that Indian literature in English translation can be very hard to find. Srilal Shukla's classic Raag Darbari, a satire that should be on the required reading list of every politician and voter in the country, was unavailable in several bookstores, though I hear that a new translation will be out soon. U R Ananthamurthy's Samskara was available in a few bookstores, but a friend who has read the original says that the translation is clunky, ungraceful and inadequate. There are some good translations out there, but they aren't easy to find.
 
At the end of a fortnight, I had only six books on the list of the thirty essential Indian classics I'd compiled for a friend who is new to India and speaks none of the major Indian languages. All I could do was reiterate that the great Indian novel, like the great European novel, does exist. It's just a far more elusive beast to corral.

nilanjanasroy@gmail.com  

The author works as chief editor, EastWest/ Westland Books. The views expressed are personal
 
 

First Published: Tue, May 29 2007. 00:00 IST
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU