transnational literature

Transnational Literature | Turning the Tide

In the latest of our series exploring themes of transnational literature, in partnership with Bath Spa University and their Centre for Transnational Creativity, and Literature Across FrontiersVinutha Mallya explores the differences and similarities of multi-language and multi-literary diversity in Europe and India.

At the International Literature Forum held in Aberystwyth in early April, the keynote speaker, celebrated novelist Sjøn, said: “A language spoken by few doesn’t have to be bigger or smaller than any other. Our language accommodates giants.” He was referring to the Icelandic language, of which there are not more than 400,000 speakers. He argued that Icelandic wasn’t a small language if it was big enough for Dante and the Bible.

Unlike ‘Icelandic Literature’, which is the literature of the Icelandic language, the term ‘Indian Literature’ encompasses the literature of many languages. The stories of many literatures are gathered under that umbrella term. In a sense, Indian literature(s) is closer to ‘European Literature’, although they are present in a single nation state. While the term ‘European Literature’ communicates internationalism, India’s literatures are often perceived to be a single monolithic entity.

The Indian Constitution recognises 22 Indian languages as ‘official’. In addition, English is also accorded official language status, along with Hindi in the Devanagri script. The Sahitya Akademi (Indian Academy of Letters) publishes books in 24 languages. But the diversity of languages in India is mind-boggling, and not limited to these official languages. The official figure of mother tongues, which include ‘minor’ languages and dialects, reveal the extent of India’s linguistic diversity. As per the 1991 Census, 1576 mother tongues exist in the country, including those not native to the land. The mother tongues are grouped under 114 languages.

The languages spoken in India belong to five different language families: Austro-Asiatic (14 languages, with a total population of 1.13%), Dravidian (17 languages, with a total population of 22.53%), Indo-European (Indo-Aryan, 19 languages, with a total population of 75.28%, and Germanic, 1 language, with a total population of 0.02%), Semito-Harmitic (1 language, with a total population of 0.01%), and Tibeto-Burman (62 languages with a total population of 0.97%).

Taking a different approach to classifying languages than the official categories, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a citizens’ initiative, under the guidance of the renowned linguist Prof. Ganesh Devy, recorded 780 spoken languages in the country, with 86 different scripts in use in the country. Of these languages, 480 are spoken by tribes and nomadic tribes, while about 80 are coastal languages. The survey, announced in 2012, discovered that 250 languages had died out in the last five decades.

The origin of languages spoken in the southern parts of India date back to the 3rd Millennium BCE. Most of the languages spoken in the north developed during the 1000–1300 CE. Some languages in India are given the status of ‘classical languages’ – for the antiquity of a body of literature, texts and recorded history over a period of 1500–2000 years – these include, Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Odia. Another ancient language, Pali, could also be a strong contender for this status. Through oral transmission and folk expression, languages and their literature have survived over centuries.

Linguistic diversity is organically embedded in the social fabric of the country and this is also given recognition in the Constitution. People in India have an affinity for languages, and for interpretation and translation. This makes them equipped for a variety of cultural exchange. Languages like Urdu, Punjabi, Bangla, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Saraiki, Tamil, Malayalam and Nepali are spoken across borders, in the vast sub-continent. For example, Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, where Punjabi is also a major language. While Punjabi is written in Gurmukhi script in India, the same language is written in modified Perso-Arabic alphabet in Pakistan. The notion of “international” therefore exists in the subcontinent where different language nationalities intersect in daily life.

However, this impressive story is often forgotten in the context of India, both within the country and outside. The compulsion of seeing the nation as a monolithic structure imposes a hierarchy, lending privilege to those languages that are official and those that are not. Especially due to neglect at the policy level, the literatures do not interact, via translation, as much as they possibly could. The strong presence of English gives the Indian writers writing in that language greater access to the world stage. But the writers from the many Indian languages are unable to get their due share in the global space, and are unable to approach it with the same confidence. Moreover, non-printed literary forms that remain alive in the Indian languages get sidelined and remain outside the ambit of the great global literary party.

Due to the corporatised, globalising publishing industry, there appears to be a blind replication and implantation of models from the West when agencies from there execute projects in countries like India. The literary festival format is one example of this phenomenon, which results in drawing mostly Indian writers writing in English, with a cursory representation from the writers that write in Indian languages. By recognising and actively seeking multi-language and multi-literary diversity, India and Europe are poised for opportunities to appreciate transnational exchange, but it requires creative thinking. We require a variety of events, not just paper trails, to disseminate literature and culture. The idea of literature as limited to the printed book, and now the digital book, requires a re-think.

The industrialisation of India’s book-publishing industry strengthened in the late 18th century. Although the printing press had made its way to the Indian coast in the 16th century, entrepreneurial efforts at setting up publishing enterprises emerged two centuries later. Europeans, especially missionaries, played a pivotal role in establishing the printing press – from documenting literary works and translating them, to developing the types, and creating resources like grammars and encyclopedias (many of which remain source texts for linguists and scholars even to this day).

As a young democracy, whose parts were thrown together as a nation in 1947 formed by linguistically divided states, India has remained focused on defining an idea of nationhood. Since more than last two decades it has remained set on defining its membership in the global economy. But traditional social structures – an oppressive caste system and patriarchy – keep a significant mass of people out of the processes of knowledge/ literary production and delivery.

The book industry in India has maintained its umbilical cord with the West. Also because of its colonial past, the English language enables it to receive knowledge products originating in the Anglophone world. And just like every developing country, India too has been allowing “global” forces to set the agenda for its knowledge ambitions. The tag of ‘emerging market’ has ensured that there is a growing interest in India as a market of many readers. However, India is not a market alone; it is a civilization, which has much wisdom to contribute to the world through its stories. The flow needs to go in all directions.

The volume of literature that we receive from the West far exceeds what we export there, and so we need more sensitivity that universal stories resonate everywhere. We know more about the UK and Europe than the other way around. The channels that find and bring forth good literature to readers – agents, editors, publishers, and others in the value chain – must become aware of this and strive to seek a balance. Trying to fit a country like India into the narrow colonial and postcolonial frameworks is a loss for both India and the world. Its riches will remain waiting to be discovered.

The importance of creative association and translation for transnationalism needs to be underscored. Cultural exchange facilitated by public diplomacy rarely emphasizes on collaboration, but that is what is needed. Literature can travel meaningfully when there is a spirit of openness towards all cultures. The many languages and literatures of India and Europe could, some day, equally inform each other of its riches then.


This article is an expanded version of the keynote address presented at the Literature Across Fromtiers International Literature Forum held in Aberystwyth in April 2016.