The Tamil writer Perumal Murugan wrote the novel Madhorubhagan in 2010. Central to the plot is a festival at the temple of an androgynous god where a childless woman is allowed the liberty of having sex with someone other than her husband and so have a chance to conceive. Murugan’s story follows a couple who take recourse to this step and the consequent strain it puts on their relationship. The book went into four editions. As his publisher Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu Publication Pvt. Ltd pointed out during a panel discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, there were no objections to it thus far.

In December 2013, it was translated into English and published by Penguin Books India as One Part Woman. For some reason, it took four years since the publication of the novel and a year after the translation for Hindutva elements to suddenly wake up to what they considered to be an insult to the Hindu religion. Of course, the fact that Murugan disowned the caste structure in previous writings would certainly have added to the fire. So dastardly was the attack on Murugan that he was forced to not just flee his home, but announce his death as a writer earlier this year.

Sundaram, who has ardently defended Murugan and served as his voice since the author’s withdrawal, mentioned that he’d been told that there was a Hindutva group sitting in Delhi that scanned books in translation to decide which ones were objectionable and needed to be banned. Considering the timeline, this theory seems to have some weight. And if true, it is worth speculating if these Hindutva elements consider a book in the English language more of a threat than if it exists only in its original regional language.

This brings us to another bhasha writer, the Marathi author Bhalchandra Nemade. During a felicitation ceremony last week after being chosen for the Jnanpith award, Nemade spoke of the threat bhasha literature faced from the English language. He described English as a “killer language", and is quoted as stating, “What’s so great about English? There isn’t a single epic in English. We have 10 epics in the Mahabharat itself. Don’t make English compulsory, make its elimination compulsory."

He also lashed out at writers Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, whose writing, he said, “panders to the West". Further, that Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children “lacked literary merit". Rushdie, never one to mince words, retorted by calling Nemade a “grumpy old bastard". And Maharashtra cultural affairs minister Vinod Tawde has now jumped into the ring, objecting to the “objectionable language" of Rushdie’s tweet.

The squabble is attaining heights of silliness. While in Murugan’s case, it was the state’s responsibility to step in to protect the writer’s right to freedom of expression—which it has failed to do—here Tawde would have acted more responsibly by letting these two authors have their slanging match and allowing it to die down quietly without making it a matter of the state’s honour.

We have obviously not seen the end of the drama, with the LIC-Gateway Litfest of regional writers, which is taking place in Mumbai on 14-15 February, making its stand very clear: “As organizers of the event, we (also) strongly deplore the abusive remarks by Rushdie. As the winner of our highest literary honour and being one of the tallest writers from a regional language, it is our responsibility to show our solidarity with Nemade," festival executive director Mohan Kakanadan has stated.

Where does this feeling of victimhood come from? Why is it so difficult to get rid of the colonial baggage and accept that English is as much an Indian language as any other? Nemade would certainly not have forgotten Rushdie’s biting remarks in an anthology of Indian writing, where he dubiously claimed the superiority of Indian writing in English over those produced by bhasha writers. However, the real problem seems to be one of latitudes and longitudes. Nemade, himself a stalwart of Marathi literature, should not have complaints of a lack of readership. Only, considering that there aren’t enough credible (or visible) translation efforts in this country, that readership remains local, largely confined to people of a particular state.

Literature in English, by virtue of its accessibility across the country and especially by a global audience, appears by comparison to be doing well. Is it really, though? Leave aside Rushdie and Naipaul (writers of Indian origin, actually), few Indian literary writers in English, despite being in the limelight, actually tend to make a decent living off their writing. The solution surely isn’t, as Nemade suggests, to eradicate a language altogether, but to find a way to use it to one’s advantage.

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