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  • Stepping into the divide

    May 12, 2009

    As he’s been known to do, Salman Rushdie ignited a controversy in 1997 when he claimed that the only worthwhile literature coming out of India was written in English. A few years later, Nalini Iyer, was at a conference with other scholars who got to talking about Rushdie’s comments. The consensus was that the issue was more complex than what had been coming out in the media, and Iyer says she and others wondered, “Is there any place we can meet in this divide between Indian and English languages?”

    Iyer, associate professor of English has created that place with Other Tongues:Rethinking the Language Debates in India.The volume, which she co-edited with Bonnie Zare of the University of Wyoming, came out this year. It was reviewed last month by India’s leading English language newspaper, The Hindu,which has the status of a New York Times Book Review in India, often including reviews by India’s leading intellectuals.

    The preponderance of Indian literature written in English has long aroused deeply passionate feelings that go to the core of the nation’s identity, particularly its former status as a British colony. Other Tongues takes some of the heat out of the discussion and replaces it with a more nuanced examination of Indian literature. That Other Tongues goes where no other publication has is largely due to the makeup of its authors. The volume brings together as never before a diverse group of stakeholders in Indian literature, including seven scholars, three writers and three publishers. The result is a dialogue that brings to the surface underrepresented aspects of Indian literary culture while exploring why so many of these gems remain buried.

    While English, as Iyer points out, is a fairly new arrival to India’s linguistic landscape, its growing influence in the country is undeniable. Add in the recent proliferation of English-language call centers and more liberal policies that tend to play down differences in local language, and the threat to Indian literature is very real. And, as Iyer and most scholars agree, it has nothing to do with the quality of Indian writing, as Rushdie asserted.

    Much of it comes down to the prevailing market forces, as is taken up in Other Tongues. As Iyer explains, publishing houses wanting to print Indian literature face an exceptionally tight, multilingual market. She was reminded of this last quarter when she assigned two books written by Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) in her class. The texts proved so difficult to track down that Iyer was prepared to scrap her plans. Not to be deterred, the students went online and creatively worked around the problem to find what they needed. But the experience underscored for Iyer the significant obstacles that stand in the way of bringing Indian writing to market.

    Other Tongues addresses another factor key to the vitality of Indian literature: translations. And not just any translations, but good translations which, Iyer says, preserve the integrity of Indian languages by including footnotes and living with, rather than smoothing over, the awkwardness of irreconcilable linguistic differences.

    Despite these challenges, Iyer believes the future of Indian literature is not necessarily bleak. “Hope lies in the publishing industry,” she says. As for Rushdie,Iyer doesn’t know if he’s read the volume he helped spark. “We did comp him a copy,” she says with a laugh.

    To read the review of Iyer’s book in The Hindu, visit http://tinyurl.com/cwcy6s.

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