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GSP Rao: Editorial Impressions

Peacocks by Rajendra Kumar Shyam, Gond artist. Credit-

The emerging literary scenario

Muse India has, from its inception, showcased all of Indian literatures. Each major language of the country has been featured multiple times in our Issues. We have brought focus on a number of minor languages and subaltern voices as well. Having championed Indian language literatures and the need for their translations right through, we thought it would be befitting to assess where Indian literature stands today in this 10th Anniversary Issue. With coverage on all major languages, including Indian English, by some of the senior most scholars and writers of the country, this has become a very comprehensive review, perhaps unparalleled in a journal. 

Enter a good bookstore in any big city in the country and you will find an amazing array of attractively designed books, spanning all genres of fiction and non-fiction, translations, graphic novels, Young-Adult and Children's literature, and more. Vying for honours would be the present popular fiction of Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi and the like with political writings of Sanjay Baru or a Rajdeep Sardesai, and biographies of sports celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar. There would be a host of books of other genre doing brisk sales as well. This should be a fair indication that Indian literature and publishing are doing very well indeed. Indian publishing industry, with an estimated worth of Rs 10,000 to 12,000 crores (there are no reliable data on this, though) and an impressive compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 25%, produced around 90.000 titles in 24 languages, including English, in 2013. This makes India the third largest English language publishing country behind USA and UK, and the seventh largest in the world. Let us take a quick look at the emerging trends in reading habits.

Indian English writing continues to hog the limelight. There is an upsurge in reading habits of a young generation that has taken to mythologies and modern fiction in a big way. As GJV Prasad comments in his article on Indian English literature, "Now, we have writers selling a new India (of aspirations) to Indians, who are buying (the slap dash novels) in huge numbers." This has elevated writers like Bhagat and Tripathi to iconic, celebrity status. Tripathi made headlines last year by becoming the first Indian writer to be signed for his next trilogy with an advance of an astounding million dollars.

There is a sea change in reading styles of the young as well. For the tech-savvy nex-gen, books are being delivered on their laptops, tablets, ipads, kindle and cellphones. There is a spurt in publication of eBooks by Penguin, Harper-Collins, Aleph, Hachette India and others, delivered at a click of a button by Amazon, Flipkart and Kobo. The reader interests and expectations seem to be far outpacing publisher innovation. This defines the new Indian reader.

Translations on the upswing

While Indian English fiction has held world attention for some time now, with several Indian authors winning international accolades at regular intervals, the genre of translations from Indian languages has, of late, made impressive strides. Today many of India's leading publishing houses are bringing out translation of Indian language classics and books by award-winning writers. There is an impressive range of translations available today in the bookstores. Recently two translations from Malayalam made it to the shortlist of DSC Prize for South Asia Literature 2014: Anand's 'The book of Destruction' (translated by Chetana Sachidanandan) and Benyamin's 'Goat Days' (translated by Joseph Koyipally). Both these translations are published by Penguin India. Furthermore, Peak Platform acquired English language rights to the works of several Indian language writers with the intention of publishing their work in English in the UK. The writers include Poornachandra Tejaswi, Chandrasekhar Kambar, Pratibha Ray, Vaidehi, Mamta Sagar, and Sethu Madhavan among others.1

International publisher, Harlequin, known worldwide for their Mills and Boons series, have launched Indian language books in Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam. eBooks are no longer being published in English alone. Last year Random House (now amalgamated with Penguin India) launched its first Hindi eBook Har Haftey Ghatayen Ek Kilo Vajan (Lose a Kilo a week). Hundreds of ebooks in Indian languages are available now, many of them even as free downloads.

All this augurs well for the Indian language literatures indeed, though there is a genuine grouse that Indian English writers continue to corner all the attention in the national media and in literary festivals that have mushroomed all over the country. They are the ones who are serenaded by the publishers. In spite of the healthy trend in publication of translations, still considerable work needs to be done to showcase the richness of Indian language literatures and the work of young contemporary writers. The main difficulty is the serious dearth of good translators.

The trends in Indian literature

To gauge the present status of Indian literature, we invited Muse India's Contributing Editors for various languages to write about the recent trends in their respective literatures. We also invited a few other senior writers to present their views. In his scholarly and sweeping lead essay – literally a tour de force - K Satchidanandan takes a look at the developments that have marked the growth and trajectory of Indian literature since Independence. The essay covers all the important literary genres. Commenting on the changing landscape of Indian literature, he says, "… our literary discourse (is) marked by the negotiation of a necessary heterogeneity, by a conception of identity that lives through difference and hybridity." His essay provides the backdrop for the other articles included in the section.

A major trend in Indian literature, seen in the last couple of decades - reflective of the social transformation taking place in the country - is the emergence of the subaltern voices: the feminist voice against patriarchal system and gender violence; dalit voice against suppression and exploitation of the outcastes for thousands of years; LGBT voices that had been stifled for long as socially bizarre and incongruous; or the voices of the exiled and the insurgents. These voices have found utterance in the new era of democratic tolerance and have been accepted in the mainstream Indian literature, making it progressive and all-inclusive. Today, almost all viewpoints are given unrestrained space, except perhaps those that are perceived as detrimental to national interest or law and order. This era of Indian literature would go down as the era of liberation.

Writing of Punjabi literature, Tejwant Singh Gill says, "Subaltern writing continues with urgency. It continues and has flourished considerably in the realm of poetry." Rajaram Brammarajan comments on Tamil literature, "Dalit writing has come of age. … Deep focus is 'on' for dalit writing in English translation." Subaltern writing adds to the diversity of expression and sensibilities. Talking of the enhanced sensibilities of the current era, Mamta Sagar writes, "In the last one decade, social and literary sensibilities have become multidimensional.'

Issues of identity and location, of exile and homeland, have brought the 'local', as against the global, into sharper focus. Many writers feel that the themes have returned back to native issues and concerns. Of Assamese literature, Bibash Choudhury avers, "there is no denying that the local is surfacing as a theme of prominence." Lipipuspa Nayak says of Odia writing, "fiction writers are now relocating their worlds to the humble hamlets they were born in, or the antiquity of the little rivers that flowed through them which may have joined some sea-bound water courses somewhere far-off." Vidyanand Jha on Maithili literature: "Overall, the Maithili literature remains situated in villages."

At the same time, literature has been strongly influenced by globalisation and exposure to outside cultures. Mohammad Zahid, writing on Kashmiri literature, says, "This period gave rise to a very sensitive writer who stood at the confluence of a powerful local influence and a fast advancing global environment. Contemporary writings thus expressed this influence with fine sensitivity that sets them apart from those of earlier times."

Mass entertainment poses a serious challenge to literature. Hear Sachin Ketkar's concern on the impact of modern media on Marathi literature: "there are serious concerns about its sustainability in the face of overriding forces of entertainment industry, media and new media, rampant communalism, casteism and commercialization which were launched by globalization."

Talking of the diversified issues and themes that are being dealt with by writers, T P Rajeevan says, "Malayalam literature today is a potpourri of isms with everything in vogue: from fossilized classicism to nascent postmodernism; from sheer pragmatism to unconditional idealism; and, from unbecoming opportunism to inflexible romanticism. One can feel the scent of all."

Subodh Sarkar bemoans that Bengal or Bengali intellect no longer holds the position of pride, or influences Indian literature, as it did in the decades after Independence. "Bengal's supremacy in Indian literary scene is now over, the swan song is being rehearsed…"

Sukrita Paul Kumar, reviewing Hindi and Urdu literatures, sums up the overall need of Indian literature today: "What is called for is a strong critical response and the building up of suitable theoretical apparatus and tools to sift the genuine from the pretentious and the extraordinary from the ordinary. The defining of new classics needs to happen with a self-conscious critical examination of the mass of literature in front of the reader or else some of the excellent literary pieces may just be blown away or drowned into oblivion! Time will tell …"

The biggest marvel in Indian literature, in modern times, has no doubt been Chetan Bhagat. He has read the pulse of the Indian reader like none had done before him, and writes exclusively for such a reader in his 'desi' language. He candidly admits this would not win him a Booker or the Pulitzer. In his article on Indian English, marked by sparkling wit, Harish Trivedi writes, "(Bhagat) sells in India on a scale that should be the envy of all our Rushdies and Roys, and Ghoshs and Seths…. This is an entirely new phenomenon that even the wildest supporters of Indian English could not have dared to dream of ten years ago. This proves for me, more than anything else, that English has now become an Indian language, with novels written in it which are exclusively of, by, and for India." Bhagat, Tripathi and others like them, seem to have brought about a paradigm shift in the style and content of Indian literature that would have a long term impact.

In this review, we have not been able to include the literature of the Northeast – of which GJV Prasad observes that it is turning into a powerhouse of Indian literature - as the article did not reach us in time. However, we do have poems of Mamang Dai and Kynpham Nongkynrih, two of the most eminent poets of the region, in the Poetry section of this Issue.

I thank all the writers for contributing their perspectives to enrich this discourse on the multihued panorama of Indian literature today.

1 "2013: The Year in Indian Publishing" by Chitralekha Manohar, 17Jan2014.


Focus – Indian Literature Today

  GSP Rao: Editorial Impressions

Lead Essay
  K Satchidanandan: Changing Landscape of Indian Literature

  Assamese Literature: Bibhash Choudhury
  Bengali Literature: Subodh Sarkar
  Gujarati Literature: Ajay Sarvaiya
  Hindi Literature: Sukrita Paul Kumar
  Indian English Writing: GJV Prasad
  Indian English Writing: Harish Trivedi
  Kannada Literature: Mamta Sagar
  Kashmiri Literature: Mohammad Zahid
  Maithili Literature: Vidyanand Jha
  Malayalam Literature: T P Rajeevan
  Marathi Literature: Sachin Ketkar
  Odia Literature: Lipipuspa Nayak
  Punjabi Literature: Tejwant Singh Gill
  Tamil Literature: Rajaram Brammarajan
  Telugu Literature in Andhra: U Atreya Sarma & K Ravindra Trivikram
  Telugu Literature in Telangana: Itha Chandraiah & U Atreya Sarma
  Urdu Literature: Sukrita Paul Kumar

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