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The idea of national literature

The new syllabus in Britain has abandoned American classics like To Kill A Mockingbird in favour of British ones. This idea of national literature is somehow novel to an Indian who grows up in a multilingual environment

Vikram Johri 

Vikram Johri

An ongoing debate in Britain concerns the English General Certification for Secondary Education (GCSE) syllabus published by OCR, an examination board. Done at the behest of Education Secretary Michael Gove, the new syllabus has abandoned American classics such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird in favour of British ones, those penned by Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

Expectedly, the move has caused a furore. Christopher Bigsby, professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia, derided Gove in The Guardian, censuring "a confessed admirer of rap" for fluttering the "union jack of culture" over his department. As always, Twitter was abuzz with its unique brand of succinct condemnation.

How odd really, the idea of a national literature! Especially to an Indian who grows up in a multilingual environment and often picks up two or more languages? We, supposedly crushed under the weight of our colonial legacy, have as much stake in this question as any other. More so, in fact, given that we have a plethora of languages and several vernacular writers who, in spite of their genius (UR Ananthamurthy and Mahasweta Devi spring to mind), have missed the globalisation bus because they write in languages that are 'local'.

The moot point, however, is the question of experience. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie has spoken of how her childhood reading experience was markedly different from her lived reality in Nigeria. In a TED talk titled 'The Danger of a Single Story', she spoke amusingly about her first childhood experience of writing a story: "All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out."

In India too, people like us who have grown up on a steady diet of Nancy Drew and The Famous Five can relate to Adichie's dilemma. It was as if we were walking on parallel tracks - one paved with the greats of 'Western' literature and the other with 'local' writers who spoke to us of dal-bhaat and court-kacheri. The middle ground - often no man's land - was taken up by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Mulk Raj Anand who narrated 'our' stories in an arguably 'foreign' tongue.

Not until Salman Rushdie, to a persistent drumroll, brought chutney and summer into Indian writing in English did we claim a genuinely Indian variant of English writing. Be that as it may, Adichie's subtle humour at the discrepancy between fiction and experience hides a graver truth. Because of the greater access of English-language fiction, and the accompanying cast of publishers with buckets of prizes that ensure millions of dollars in sale and other appurtenances of literary superstardom, the point of which language to write in and how to showcase one's experience acquires urgency.

There is also the question of translation. Does Ramayan become any less authentic if read in English? Does Godaan lose some of its astringency if not read in the original Hindustani? A reading of Proust, for one, is said to yield far richer profit when done in the original French. But do not forget that French too belongs to the stratosphere of languages that are, for right or wrong, part of what Edward Said called the 'imaginary geography' with which the West views the East.

Apart from all these arguments, however, there is that final question of the slipperiness of the very concept of a 'national literature'. Dalit writers, for example, have drawn strength from fiction on race. Less politically, modernist writers, by focusing their stories not on the outer world but on the nuances of what a person feels and suffers, have crafted fiction that speaks to everyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from. When Mrs Dalloway ambles along Bond Street looking for flowers, she is every woman, dipping into the past and striving to retain courage enough to live the present.

In her TED talk, Adichie recounts an incident. An American student walked up to her, professing admiration for her book, and then said: "It was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers."

That, as the title of the talk warns us, is the danger of a single story. Is it any good teaching young British kids Dickens? Absolutely. But does that mean they have to be deprived of Steinbeck and Kafka, Tagore and Kundera? No.

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First Published: Sat, July 19 2014. 00:18 IST