Aiyo and the Imperishable Empire of Words

Mini Krishnan


Portable World

'I would not be this writer if I hadn't come from India and I wouldn't be this writer if I hadn't left it.' (Salman Rushdie)

Some dates have a curious synchronicity. Every educated Indian knows that the year 1857 saw the revolt against the East India Company in the northern and western parts of India and how it led to a housecleaning with the Crown taking over from the Company. Few know that it was also the year that the society of Philologists in London decided to compile a standard dictionary of the English language believing that existing dictionaries were either deficient or incomplete. Something writers-in-waiting everywhere will recognize is that what began as a ten-year plan rolled on for another 12 years till the collaborators located their publisher : the press of the Oxford University.

By that time, back in the India, the 'Raj' which was to last 90 years, was in its second decade. Imperial Britain turned the oceans into an English lake, and behind the new worlds the alien language brought lay immense cultural confidence. Though it is true that colonization impoverished the subcontinent, the influence of Europe and the English language brought us out of our pre-modern state.

The multilingual ethos of India was infiltrated, hybridized and energized by Western languages and their histories, and, more recently, by all the scientific advances and discoveries that accompanied India's contact with Britain, including the impact of an agrarian nation struggling to be reborn as an industrial one.

The post imperial storyline shows a fall of what Sunil Khilnani called the sand-castles of the Raj, 'washed by the tide of India's ineffaceable past.' Amidst this churning, many forces both seen and unseen erupted from this encounter of civilizations and gave rise to an unstoppable flood of creativity especially in urban India--- the natural habitat of scholars, artists, musicians and writers. Even in the lean years following Independence a great deal of transfers into and out of Indian languages via English took place, literary academies were established and a national literary culture began to take shape. By the end of the 20th century, nearly every publisher was contributing hybrid products of this meeting of cultures : Indians writing in English and Indians translating their own languages into English.

St Jerome
St Jerome : Photo from Wikimedia Commons (Artist: Jacques Blanchard)

No sizable population outside the country, however, was either watching keenly or offering our writers headlines the way we publicized and continue to publicize imported writing in our media. Most people even those in the know, so to speak, were rather sniffy. 'Good luck with your obscure novelists' said a researcher in Cambridge to Rumina Sethi when she was working for her post doctorate degree in the 1990s. That a writer of Raja Rao's stature could be considered obscure stung Sethi who said that she was determined to put Indian novelists on the post-colonial map. Fifteen years later the words aiyah and aiyoh, amongst hundreds of other Indian terms and exclamations, entered and enriched that Mt Kailasam of lexicograpy : the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the time India became the paradise of Bible translators seeking collaborations with local bilingualists, and the third largest producer of books in English, a small cloud had appeared. It was the tension between writers of Indian origin who write (and can write) only in English and those who write in the regional languages of the country and depend on translators and publishers to take their work to the same platform from which it is offered to the same reading public as the first group. Naturally when there is a struggle for survival, when a book gets about three seconds of a browser's attention, the question of who is more 'worthy' becomes crucial. Let's be honest about why people read books that they don't need to absorb to pass an exam. Who is easier to read ? Who is the better entertainer? Resentments grow and are fed by a delighted audience who would like nothing better than a literary war. To raise temperatures and tempers, smart writing sometimes masquerades as significant writing, and muddies our river of Literature. Does a book become a best-seller by its literary worth or its writer's notoriety? Or by skillfully planted reviews and interviews? Elsewhere appeared a certain brightness : the subaltern was not only speaking but raising her voice well over the din of the mainstream. She was also lauded at literary gatherings and beginning to be studied in universities.

Used with permission of
Aleph Book Company

In another room in the house of Literature where we find the writer and the reader, there were some concerns. Having been misrepresented for many years ( no thanks to agents and go-betweens who want a new book which is a clone of the previous year's best-seller) as a country of cities and no rural-life worth reading about, India began to be seen as a literary zone where there were no risk-takers. King Market decided what editors (once the power-centres in publishing houses) should accept and develop. A great pity. If the IT industry could make us the second largest users of mobile phones, if marketing teams could put bottles of coloured water in every village, surely we can lean on our universities to restore pride in our literature, our non-fictionalized history, and convert our multilinguality (often seen as a liability) into an asset.

I will wind down with William Buck's description of Hanuman's jump to Lanka : Hanuman stood on the hilltop. He held his breath and sucked in his stomach. He frisked his tail and raised it a little at the end. He bent his knees and swung his arms. On one finger gleamed Rama's gold ring. Then without pausing to think he drew in his neck, laid back his ears and jumped...the speed of his leap pulled flowers and blossoms from behind him and they fell like stars ...the air burned from his passage and red clouds flamed over the sky...he was like a comet, pushing the sky from his way and bumping clouds aside.

Buck knew no Indian language but read every translation he could get hold of, and in 1986, published his own Ramayana in English.
India and English translated a foreigner into a native.

I dedicate this column to Jerome of Stridon the first translator of the Bible into Latin which made possible its spread and influence. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, lived in 4th century Rome and was canonized on an uncertain date some centuries after his death. His Feast Day, September 30, is observed as World Translation Day.

(Mini Krishnan co-ordinates a translation programme for the Tamil Nadu Textbook & Educational Services Corporation)

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