Last fortnight, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra was nominated for the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Here, he lambastes English literary sensibility in India
13 Jun, 2009
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is the first South Asian to be nominated for Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry
There is just no literary criticism in India, especially when it comes to writing in English. Actually, literary criticism in English has not even begun here. There are several reasons for this, but the main reason is that we are a semi-literate country really. What we have is book reviewing, not criticism. Short pieces of 800 words or so, a summary of a blurb. And how many such reviews do we even see in Indian publications? Few really, those too are ususually written by staffers.
Indian journalism itself needs to step up. Take The New Yorker, which sent journalist Katherine Boo to India for over a year to cover the slums here. Would any Indian newspaper do it? Would they carry a long piece on it? Would their journalists even be able to write long pieces? Or would they lose steam after a thousand words? Readers enjoy good book reviews and journalistic pieces. If people abroad like comprehensive pieces as in The New Yorker, surely Indians will too. Why regard them mentally deficient, incapable of reading?
Many newspapers in India still use what I call babu English. And it just doesn’t make sense. We are rubbish writers if we can’t even string a few sentences together. I could point out examples from the major papers. In no other country can people get away with writing terrible reviews, decade after decade.
The key difference is the training foreign journalists and literary critics receive. Literary criticism is a scholarly pursuit. But funding for such programmes is a problem here. Foreign magazines have a good system where they get reviews done from outside. Plus, they circulate copies on their desk and take care to archive every book reviewed. But in India, there is no system, it’s anarchy. Then of course, many of our bright young people go abroad.
More worrying, many Indian languages are no longer being studied. I recently heard of an American university looking to fill the vacancy of a Telugu professorship but not finding anyone. We are too busy booking our Nanos and investing in the stock market. Universities do produce dissertations, but that is their job after all. But how many are earth-shattering and say something new?
Another concern of mine is about ‘tensions’ in the different languages inside the writer’s mind. We have not begun to understand how different languages relate to each other. How does the writer’s knowledge of various languages affect his style of writing? It’s an unresearched subject.
For this, we also need good archives. Archiving is vital to scholarship. Our history is well-documented (by the British, though) and we also have good historians here in India. But material from the last 50 years is not available. A few years ago, I was researching a history of Indian literature in English. I wanted to see the front page of the Illustrated Weekly of India for 15 August 1947. But that cover wasn’t available on microfilm at The Times of India archives. Debonair was a great magazine, with a good literary section edited by Anil Dharker, Vinod Mehta, Adil Jussawalla and others. But it is difficult to find all the issues of the magazine. In many cases, the microfilm was not stored properly. It got stuck together and disintegrated into lumps of celluloid due to the heat.
It’s not just newspapers. Would you find a complete catalogue of artists who exhibited their work at the Jehangir art gallery since the 1960s, say someone like Bhupen Khakkar?
We need to get all these things in order, archiving, a tradition of literary criticism, serious scholarship. Until that happens, literary critics in India should tread softly.
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