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Reading Delhi and Beyond
THE PAVEMENT BOOKSELLER
I ask a pavement bookseller what he has for sale, and he replies, "Only best-sellers." I have little interest in best-sellers, but that is about to change. "What makes a book a best-seller?" I ask matter-of-factly. He points to Difficult Daughters, the first novel by the Delhi-based writer Manju Kapur. To me this novel is serious literary fiction, and I am happy to hear that it is also selling well. A paperback copy of the book is lying face up on the ground with other novels, magazines, travel guides, and histories about India. Whether for tourists or locals, in Delhi the roadside compulsion to define India is strong.
We are in Kamla Nagar market in north Delhi, near Delhi University. The bookshops here on Bungalow Road mostly sell English-language textbooks. Students appear with lists and leave with books, the ones they have to have, the ones they can't get online. One shop in the row sells spiritual texts and guides; it has the most floor space and the fewest customers. The pavements are reserved for best-sellers. Some are re-bound photocopies selling for half the price of the published versions. The print is faded, but you can still read it.
The pavement bookseller explains to me in Hindi that when Amitabh Bachchan asked who the author of Difficult Daughters was, as a trivia question on Kaun Banega Crorepati? (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), the novel started to sell. What became a best-seller certainly also had to do with the perennial best-seller status of the Bachchan brand. If the "Big B" was mentioning the novel and asking who its author was, surely it was worth knowing who she was and perhaps even buying what she had written.
A few years later when I told Kapur about my encounter, she smiled incredulously and said, "Really?" At that time the paperback version of her fourth novel, Home (2006), was just coming out, and she was a bit dismayed by the cover. It was being published by Random House India, one of the new MNCs (multinational corporations) on the block that had launched its Indian venture with Kapur's novel. The hardcover features a curtained window on the facade of a house with a telephone wire crossing the foreground, all overlaid in mustard hues. I told Kapur how I thought the image perfectly captured the essence of the novel, since the reader gets to pull aside that curtain and witness the intimate lives of a joint family in an everyday Delhi milieu, the old neighborhood of Karol Bagh. She smiled and nodded and said, "But Rashmi, you're an academic so you see that."
Now it was my turn to be dismayed. I said, "But I'm a reader first! It appealed to me naturally!"
She then sighed and explained that she wanted her novel to be seen as serious literature but that her editor thought the book could be both serious and more popular, that is, reach a wider audience. The paperback version had a shinier look: its cover featured a blurred figure of a woman in a colorful sari with a large bunch of keys tied to her waist, as is the custom of the female head of household in the kind of joint family being depicted in the novel; another woman looms in the background, suggesting intrigue and potential conflict. Kapur was happy to have more readers, but she was also hoping the new cover would not diminish the seriousness of the work.
We returned to Amitabh Bachchan, and Kapur told me she had been at home watching the show with her family the night the question was asked. She seemed amused by it, even if reluctant to associate her works with a distinctly nonliterary media hype.
Star TV's Kaun Banega Crorepati? was the most popular Hindi television show at the time and became the vehicle by which Amitabh Bachchan reclaimed his number one superstar status. That the show was in Hindi but also offered up elements of Indian English culture was no surprise, as the worlds of Hindi and English constantly overlap. Moreover, print and electronic media worlds, especially in the nation's "metros," or urban centers, have become increasingly multilingual; Hindi newspapers feature advertisements in Hindi and English; Hindi radio, especially stations geared to younger audiences, is peppered with English phrases and words; and popular Hindi romantic comedies feature titles such as Jab We Met (When We Met) and Love Aaj Kal (Love These Days), with Hindi dialogue spliced with English to match.
However, this "mixing" (Hinglish, as it is sometimes called) is evidence not merely of greater linguistic facility among India's cultural consumers; many, in fact, argue that the quality of spoken English in India is becoming worse, not better, as the number of people who know English increases. On the one hand, the urban middle classes have come to define their own identities partly through their association with the English language; English has become more integral to middle-class identity in the past few decades and has led to the rise of a sizable middle-class readership for English-language publications. On the other hand, the desire for the language is greatly expanding as more people further down the class and caste hierarchies see the possibility of adding it, in some form, to their social profiles. What has changed for everyone is that the things people feel they should or have to know—cultural information, trends, and trivia—are crossing the linguistic divide like never before.
On another pavement, in south Delhi, the drama heightens as younger "booksellers" step down onto the asphalt, selling their wares to the calibrated interludes of stop-and-go traffic. They sell paperbacks and glossy magazines, as well as balloons, roses, tissue boxes, and kitchen towels. The scene is replayed throughout the day and into the evening at any major "cutting," or intersection. An insistent boy carrying a stack of books will try to sell you a copy of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss as you sit in an auto rickshaw or car (as opposed to if you're riding a bicycle or on the bus). He will also have Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian on offer, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies, and perhaps Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan. These are some of the emblems of Indian English culture, sold alongside international best-sellers by authors such as John Grisham, Paulo Coelho, and Dan Brown.
The boy, it turns out, gives most of his money to his parents, and with the encouragement of a local nongovernmental organization is learning the Hindi alphabet on some afternoons under the flyover. It is sometimes hard to know what the "serious" literature is in this scenario: the boy's life circumstance or the book in his hand?
In Delhi, as elsewhere, the two continually go together, but here what separates the boy from the book and the motorized world of Indian English cultural production and consumption it represents is not merely the money to buy the book, but a private English-medium education that makes his chances of gaining fluency in English and entrance to the jobs and access to the cultural emblems of that world practically nonexistent. The legendary social divides in Indian society—of caste, class, gender, religion, and, perhaps most significant, urban versus rural belonging—work in tandem with linguistic divides. To speak of urban elites is to refer to the class of people (the rich, the upper middle class, and many sectors of the middle classes, who also tend to be upper caste) who are educated from primary school onward with English as their medium of instruction. The rest of India, about 80 percent of Indians have, until recently, tended to be educated in government schools that may teach English as a subject but whose medium of instruction is in one of the thirteen other official state languages. The boy may well be represented in the books that he sells, but he probably won't ever read them.
It is this disjuncture—between the language on the ground, of daily life, and literary representation—that is most relevant to the place and role of Indian fiction in English. And it is in fact what raises the stakes of literary debate in the Indian context. English is part of the social scene, but the bulk of conversations and sentiments of fictional characters would in reality take place not in English but in one or more of the other Indian languages. More important, this disjuncture is indicative of a larger schism in Indian society that has to do not only with language as it is spoken but with the disparate thought-worlds and hierarchies of language that saturate everyday life. The linguistic divide is sometimes quite stark, especially where poverty and the lack of access to education mark its parameters. However, in many respects the divide is even more insidious for those who "know" English but have not had the opportunity to master it.
This divide came into relief in the tragic real-life story of Brajesh Kumar, a Hindi-educated twenty-two-year-old who came to Noida (a middle-class extension of Delhi's urban sprawl) and entered the world of English higher education to study engineering at a technical college. Kumar was from Jaunpur, a small city in Uttar Pradesh (the largest state in India and part of the Hindi heartland), and though he studied English as one of his subjects until the tenth standard, his medium of instruction was Hindi. In his suicide note he wrote that he had felt undue pressure from his English-language courses and did not want to burden his parents with the costs of English coaching to help him prepare better. This disturbing story, covered in the Hindi and English print media, highlights the long-standing divide between students who come from English-medium backgrounds and those who come from "vernacular" ones.
Several months after Kumar's suicide, the weekly news magazine Outlook ran a cover story calling this aspect of the linguistic gap the "English speaking curse." The story describes the mad rush among the middle and lower classes to get some kind of English any way they can, amid a sea of unqualified teachers at the primary and secondary levels, where funding for English-language instruction is extremely limited. Four months earlier, in the same magazine, the same reporter had written another story, "Jab They Met," about how English words and ideas were increasingly being featured in small Hindi magazines and newspapers published in the heart of the "Hindi belt," the state of Uttar Pradesh, in cities such as Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, Agra, and Varanasi. It spoke of how young people wanted to "get into the mode" of English. The aim of editors in such a mixing of the languages was to reach "aspirational readers"—defined as people aged eighteen to thirty-five who wanted to live their lives partly in English and be part of the consumer revolution—and to use the English language "especially for descriptions of modular kitchens, cutlery, electronic gadgetry, career options and college festivals."
Of course, there is nothing contradictory about English being both the language of aspiration and a curse for those not in a position to master it. The issue is not merely one of who speaks English and who does not, but is more substantially about a cultural divide based on the kinds of English that people learn, speak, and write, depending on their access to different levels and kinds of education. As one writer explained it to me, "One was learning English, talking English, but a large part of our consciousness was something else. There was a strange contradiction, which always had to be negotiated." In these milieus knowing English is not a question of language fluency alone but says much about one's exposure to different worlds and values. This familiarity with and exposure to English resides alongside the mother tongues, hence English is at the heart of many social changes, yet exists within the reality and idea of the Hindi heartland. More and more Indians know and aspire to learn English, but the language marks a social, economic, and at times cultural divide that most are unable to cross.
THE PLACE OF ENGLISH
This book is an account of postcolonial literary production, centering on the relationship between language politics—what languages mean and represent—and the literary field. Its premise is that English has taken on a more contentious and more varied role in Indian society than it did during the period of British colonial rule, which formally ended in 1947. After independence, I argue, colonial binaries withered away, as English became a mediator between other Indian languages. English often takes on the role of mediator because of its seeming neutrality, a position that has a logic and new politics of its own. Politically, English becomes less polarizing even as it remains a clear marker—a dividing line really—of certain kinds of elite privilege. Knowing English fluently provides innumerable social and economic advantages, but—and this is key—it always exists alongside Hindi or other Indian languages. I contend that it is the qualities that different languages impart, at times manifesting themselves as veritable ideologies relating to caste, class, gender, and other social and political identities, that become important in a multilingual context, qualities that highlight or detract from various aspects of the identity of an individual, an institution, a community, or even a state. Even for those who do not know English—the vast majority—it is a symbol of what is attainable by Indians in India, and this belief or aspiration is not confined to urban consumers or to the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. It is for this reason that an inquiry into the English language in India can never only be a story of numbers or of discernible public spheres. Most crucially, since English in Indian society is no longer a language of colonization, it must be viewed in the context of other Indian languages in order to grasp the profound effects of linguistic identity on modern Indian life. It is not enough to say that English is a language of privilege, which it is, among other things. English is also a language of globalization, but this fact alone does not tell us very much without delving into the specificities of place, history, and present circumstance. To this end, the process of reading Delhi and beyond highlights the place of English in the multilingual literary consciousness, the work it does as mediator in India's linguistic landscape, and its complex and hierarchical social positioning vis-à-vis other Indian languages, especially Hindi. What I find remarkable is not that Indians write, publish, and critique in the language of the former colonizer but that they do so in an English that has been infused with the social and political consequences of its own indigenization.
It is in this respect that literature, and specifically what might be called an anthropology of literature—one that outlines the literary field, delves into its production, and analyzes its individuals and institutions ethnographically—can allow us to understand the complexity of English and its relationship to other Indian languages and sensibilities in India today. In regard to "anthropology of literature," Arjun Appadurai likens the role of fiction to myth, and hence as being part of "the conceptual repertoire of contemporary societies." He goes on to link fictional content with social mores when he writes, "Readers of novels and poems can be moved to intense action (as with The Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie) and their authors often contribute to the construction of social and moral maps for their readers." I would take this assertion much further to say that the world of literary production shows not only how authors, readers, and texts but also how the entire nexus of literary producers and discourse create a social and moral framework that at once reflects and interrogates cultural norms. In this regard, I draw on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the literary field; however, I build on it to include the social and political dynamics central to a field composed of multilingual literary production. The multilingual is not a mere feature of the literary landscape, but rather it redefines and makes more complex the very notion of a literary field. My approach, therefore, dwells on the connections between place, language, and textual production in order to show what language comes to stand for in people's lives and in society more generally.
By "literary production," I do not mean the actual putting together of paper and print, but I do mean the producers of literature, be they writers, editors, translators, or publishers. I also mean booksellers, readers, critics, and others who create meaning in and around texts once they are in the public domain. To write about these figures, connected directly and indirectly to the production of literary texts and the social life of those texts, is to do more than contextualize or even historicize the literary text at hand. By combining textual and ethnographic analysis, this book critically evaluates the problem and promise of the chasm between social reality and literary representation. It mines the paradoxes within this chasm. Thus, literary production is not only about the creation of literary texts but also about the production of social identities and the differences between them. It is in this sense that the anthropology of literature, in the way I have developed it, offers a new analytical frame.
Excerpted from English Heart, Hindi Heartland by Rashmi Sadana. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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