To speak about Rabindranath Tagore would be tantamount to speaking about the evolution and gradual changes in the Bengali psyche. Tagore has provided us, we Bengalis, with an identity which, when placed in a global perspective, is unique. We pride ourselves on being literary conscious individuals. Yet Tagore is the only Bengali to have won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Even as we celebrate hundred years of that momentous achievement, it is time to indulge in some soul-searching. The Indian publishing business is making hay while the sun shines. Books by Indian authors are coming out by the dozen. Indian writing in English has gained a toehold in readership surveys. This is partly because most parents insist that their children get an education in English-medium schools.
The concept of reading has undergone a sea change. When we were children, our parents had made it mandatory for us to read the classics. Today, when I meet children and college students who fawn on authors like Chetan Bhagat and Stephenie Meyer, it fills me with immense pain. This is not because I underestimate the quality of their works. But if gen-next only ponders personal confrontations with marriage, sour friendships and vampires, what would happen to the socio-economic condition of our country? Moreover, only a handful of young readers are conversant with vernacular literature.
In the 1970s and 1980s, we spoke about ‘mainstream’ and ‘parallel’ cinema. This demarcation was mainly meant to segregate films made for the masses from the ones that targeted a select audience comprising intellectuals and film aficionados conversant with the experimental genre. This demarcation seems to have got blurred in recent times. We have had experimental films that have been popular at the box office.
Significantly, the division has now appeared in the publishing business. Today, we have ‘serious ‘ literature running parallel to ‘light-weight’ fiction. But the preponderance of the latter over the former has caused many to contemplate the future of literature itself. Why is the literary genre of fiction and poetry changing drastically? Is it because of the ‘rat race’ that leaves very little time to be spent in reading?
The question is — are we not producing books that are worth reading again and again? Why is the reading habit dying among people all over the world? The print and the electronic media do reveal that various awards are being granted to people for their contributions to the world of literature. These authors are either non-resident Indians or have strong links with foreign publishing houses. So if these people are writing and are getting published, who are reading their works?
The media play a pivotal role in this context. This indispensable tool and invention of the modern age brings Indian as well as world literature to the people. The endurance of works of literature depends on readability, literary content and their contribution to the social order.
Literature cannot — and should not — be treated in isolation. Its impact on society is immense. Hence writers ought to share a sense of social commitment. This would ensure that their fiction remains grounded on terra firma. Literary works should be able to withstand the test of time and prove that literature is the only creative instinct that is capable of enduring.