The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Asian writers in the West know little of their traditional literatures

Britannia has long ceased to rule the waves. No matter, thanks to the American century, English has retained its dominance on the global stage. It is by far the most important lingua franca for conducting international affairs, including trade and communications. Even the obstreperous French have come round to acknowledging this, for-them-hard-to-swallow, reality.

The rapid spread of the English language has coincided with another equally breathtaking development. Bright youngsters, the offspring of families who migrated from the subcontinent and are settled on either side of the Atlantic, have emerged as major phenomena on the international literary scene. They are an exceptionally clever lot, coming as they usually do from affluent, fairly sophisticated households. Their parents, financially secure and socially well-established in the United States of America or Britain, have sent the children to distinguished academic precincts, where they have often outshone the native breed. Quite a few of these bright young things, with a Pakistani or Indian or Bangladeshi background, have taken to literary activity as a profession. Writing either poetry or fiction, some amongst them have in no time created a niche for themselves in the fiercely competitive literary arena. The English they write is smart and elegant and exudes a certain charm. The emerging market in the US as well as in Britain for ‘ethnic’ themes has provided them with a fortuitous additional advantage.

Many of the young ones venturing on a literary career have been taken aback by the degree of success they have achieved. The works of fiction they write find a roaring market. Literary awards such as the Pulitzer and Man Booker come their way. Established publishers make a beeline for them and inveigle them into signing contracts for new works; the advance offered sometimes amounts to as much as five hundred thousand or a million dollars.

All kudos to this new generation. They are a determined lot, they work hard, and they certainly have a feel for the joys and achings the information-technology-laden global society is experiencing. Some of them have exhibited remarkable dexterity in weaving stories around the challenges migrant families they have sprung from face in the new environment that they have settled in. This is occasionally accompanied by a moderate dose of nostalgic mishmash for the land they have left behind.

While what such émigré writers produce is attractive in their own manner, the more intense issues afflicting humankind are rarely their cup of tea. A vast quantity of their products are in the nature of intra-mural conversations on themes of immediacy, for instance, one group of migrants interacting with other groups, or some assorted migrants interacting with assorted original settlers. Often the focus is still narrower, such as on some boy involved with some girl, or some boy involved with some other boy, or some girl involved with some other girl. As one finishes reading a random specimen of these literary endeavours, one does get the whiff of a certain climate of emotions; perhaps the whiff is not even of a climate, but merely of a transient weather.

A disturbing thought intrudes. It is more than possible that many of these writers of south Asian extraction, famous and rich on either side of the Atlantic, do not have even a nodding acquaintance with what goes on in the field of literature in the languages their migrating families were born in. For example, one such writer bearing a Bengali surname, who might have won a Pulitzer or a Man Booker, would conceivably have never heard of Manik Bandyopadhyay. Or consider the case of a young man from an emigrating Lahore household, currently in the limelight of global acclaim because of his best-selling work of fiction in English; he does not have even a cursory acquaintance with Sadat Hasan Manto. Both Manik Bandyopadhyay and Manto died more than half a century ago in dire penury. They continue to be unrecognized in international literary circles. In their own countries too, only a limited number of copies of their works get sold every year. Most of their output remains untranslated into English or any other important foreign language. Whatever is not available in such translations is reckoned as not worthy of being considered as great literature.

Besides, literary judgment itself is now transformed beyond recognition. Globalization has changed the pattern of daily living, almost everywhere, for the average householder. There are innumerable demands on the time set aside for leisure and recreation. Reading occupies an insignificant corner of this space. Given this parametric constraint, light reading is the preferred menu; few are interested in exploring the angst defining the human condition.

Move back three-quarters of a century or less. Dark colonial days, the stupor of hunger, illiteracy and superstition: the dignity of existence was a foreign concept for millions in subjugated lands. And yet, alongside the frequency of excruciating suffering and brutal goings-on, dreams would sprout, passions would find their outlet, starving writers, their creative power stripped for action, would beget literature with the impress of breathlessly daring imagination. The duo, Manik Bandyopadhyay and Manto, did precisely that, one in Bengali, the other in Urdu, exploring the lower depths as much of the mind of an individual as of society. They, at the same time, kept watch on the grisly dance of decadence in the colonial milieu with a merciless enchantment.

Bandyopadhyay and Manto were without question two of the greatest writers of the 20th century; obiter dictum or no, the statement can be defended even after account is taken of the output in the world’s major languages. Bandyopadhyay was barely 26 when he wrote, at one go, in overlapped time, those two outstanding works of fiction, Marionette Dance and The Boatman of Padma. This pair of novels were serialized in two literary monthlies: one journal would pay Bandyopadhyay five rupees per installment, the other offered the princely sum of fifteen rupees per piece. Manto, almost similarly placed, scraped together some sort of a living preparing scripts for Bombay films and, later, as a journalist in Lahore. Economic distress never parted company with either of them.

Historical progress is described as the configuration where time future packs within itself less of inequity than time past or time present. The hypothesis unfortunately does not hold for either Bandyopadhyay or Manto; their claim to greatness continues to receive short shrift. Disbelievers are invited to read just one searing short story Manto wrote on the grisly tragedy of the Partition. A teenaged girl is snatched away from her family during the bestial frenzy of the ongoing communal turmoil. She must have been violated a hundred times in the course of a couple of days. The desperate father finally discovers her inert body in a dingy, suffocating room. A doctor is called in, he takes a quick look at the girl’s still figure. Before examining her further, he asks the window to be opened up — “Khol do” — so that some fresh air could come in. The doctor’s stentorian voice perhaps penetrates into the furthest recess of the seemingly lifeless girl’s subconscious, it interprets the order in the light of the harrowing experience of the past few days; the girl’s hands try to make a movement towards the direction of the strings tying her salwar. The father goes berserk in joy: “She is still alive, my daughter is alive.”

The best-selling crowd of young writers of south Asian descent, have not, it is an odds-on probability, heard of Manto’s “Khol do”, nor have they come across any of Manik Bandyopadhyay’s explosive short stories on the more horrid aspects of social disintegration. Their ignorance leaves them unruffled. Old, the market has assured them, is not gold; what they produce, is.

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