Writing in the age of best-sellers

Writing in the age of best-sellers
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First Published: Tue, Jan 29 2008. 12 22 AM IST

Updated: Tue, Jan 29 2008. 12 22 AM IST
The crowds that throng to literary festivals or litfests in India, usually on the lookout for the authors of latest international best-sellers or instant literary stardom, would certainly hate Nabokov, who wrote: “A work of art has no importance whatsoever to the society. It is important only to the individual, and that individual reader is important to me.” They would also hate Martin Amis, who described the business of writing as a “...sort of sedentary, carpet slippers, self-inspecting, nose-picking, a***-scratching kind of job” that would disappoint all those who take to writing for “..worldly gains and razzmatazz.”
From Neemrana to Jaipur, Indian litfests seem less and less about literature and more and more about “worldly gains and razzmatazz”. Never mind if it occasionally also means toning down the unusual and the rare, and a sexing-up of mediocrity. Vernacular writing that refuses to be translated into English, native themes that resist being thrust into that glittering sarcophagus, The International Best-seller, crafted jointly by the publishing industry and their brand managers, writing that demands a close and painstaking reading and multilingual skills, are all usually in short supply at litfests. Instead, with the help of academe-perfected definitions, a few out-of-work filmstars and politicians, a rock concert-like ambience is created. Participating authors are frequently invited not so much on the basis of their literary skills, but their media image and the controversies they have invited recently.
The young hopefuls arrive first, clutching fat packages that contain their masterpieces. Like pilgrims travelling from one holy place to another, they have taken to following fests from city to city. They hang conspicuously around hotel lobbies and auditoriums, waiting to be discovered by that mythical beast, The Great Literary Agent. The Important Ones, as Marianne Moore once said, always arrive late and are the first to leave, followed quickly by their security and a burly jostling bunch of TV cameramen, the Australian cricketers among the media teams.
Under these circumstances, one wonders what future does a brilliantly quirky work by some publicity-shy vernacular writer from India’s hinterlands have at a fest which aims, among other questionable deeds, at Translating Bharat?
Good question. When you flick through the list of big-time writers in Indian languages, you are struck dumb by the numbers of those that were not. Not during their lifetime. And not just Hindi, but Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, each major language has a long list of astoundingly brilliant writers who achieved fame posthumously. And an even longer list of those who went on to be translated during their lifetime, but are now all but forgotten. How much can one rely on the choice of commissioning editors from English language publications here, most of whom have had no live interaction with the Indian vernaculars? Another good, but hitherto unanswered question. We know we tread on tricky ground because even a well-known translator such as Max Brod could err while translating from one European language into another. Years after one had read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in English and Hindi, one learnt (from a scornful Nabokov) that in the original story, the hero Gregor Samsa wakes up as a beetle and not as a cockroach as Brod’s translation had led millions to believe.
Then there is yet another pitfall. Having rescued an undervalued genius from oblivion, as Brod did with Kafka, a committed English translator of a bhasha writer may similarly metamorphose into some kind of a monstrous artist’s widow, standing guard over The Master’s works, vetting and authorizing editions and occasionally editing and anthologizing some embarrassingly substandard half-written pieces the poor old sod may have meant to trash.
Actually, the central folly in sessions like Translating Bharat is that they unconsciously confer upon the act of translating from Indian languages into English the aura of a Hindu sacred thread ceremony, out of which arises a fully Sanskritized Twice-born Brahmin. This may easily tempt some translators and editors to indulge in a bit of literary priest-giri and present the work to the world as though it is largely they who have crafted a Kohinoor out of a rock lying in the Natives’ basement in Indeah. Perhaps we should not be surprised if companies too get in on the act and offer to create a sort of a Jurassic Park for The Wonder that was India’s Vernaculars. Nestle, for example, could consider acquiring copyright for Bhakta poet Surdas’s Brij Bhasha poems on the butter-loving Krishna, and Raymond could consider similarly backing the weaver poet Kabir’s lyrics.
India being the flavour of the month, one doesn’t have to be a Shah Rukh or a Mallya to see the incidental virtues of such lovely ethnic melas. Such fests, dear reader, would also not be at all irrelevant or dispensable for the publishing industry. If they were, well then the White Mughal robes of Dalrymple, Fatima Bhutto’s fulminations against her aunt, Taslima’s security, Arundhati’s angst and Rushdie’s quips too could come to be irrelevant, and this could mark the logical end of a long and colourful historical trail originating from Fort William in Agra and leading to Page 3.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at theotherside@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Jan 29 2008. 12 22 AM IST