This recent New York Times article really hit a raw nerve. As a literature student and an Indian, I consider myself specifically close to Indian writing in English. I have always spoken about the quality (or the lack of it) of English novels in India that are currently being published and read by the 21st century generation. Does anyone know the internationally acclaimed writers? They probably do. Have they read anything by them? In most likelihood, no. Can a popular novel also be well written? I’d like to think so. I must say, I will come across as a bit of a hypocrite when I speak about this subject, but I will try my best not to be one. I readily accept the fact that barring one book by Chetan Bhagat, I have not read any of the newer ilk of writers that are popular in India. I wouldn’t want to waste my honest buck on them. But judging from the excerpts in the aforementioned article, I am pretty sure you get an idea of the kind of writing that is being sold as “fiction.”
One of the writers claims that he tries to write in “simple” English. Simple does not mean “poor.” Language can be simple yet lyrical and beautiful. Some of the best written books use the most common words, but weave them so magically that it sucks you into a different world. I can give you any number of examples of famous books written in the most basic language that are popular, classics, and well-written.
A big argument for the way these books are written, will be “Well, we write the way people speak.” But, this is in no way a valid justification for poorly written fiction. Yes, Indians often speak by mingling two or more different languages and it gives our spoken English a very typical flavor and cadence. However, the rest of the narrative need not be written in the same, lingo-filled words. I study comparative literature and the best example I can give is from African American Literature. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God balances spoke-English with the written one beautifully. When her Southern Black characters speak, this is what they say:
“Hello, Janie, how you comin’?”
“Aw, pretty good, Ah’m tryin’ to soak some uh de tiredness and de dirt outa mah feet.” She laughed a little.
“Ah see you is. Gal, you sho looks good. You looks like youse yo’ own daughter. […]”
“G’wan! G’wan! You must think Ah brought yuh somethin’. When Ah ain’t brought home a thing but mahself.”
When you read this dialog in that particular dialect, it makes the reading much more enjoyable. Just by using their way of talking, the writer conveys so much about the characters. Now compare the “spoken English” of the characters to the “written English” of the narrator:
Janie stood there where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. […] She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.
The writer does not need to confuse that she is an educated, talented writer and a separate persona from the characters of the novel. For the sake of authenticity, quality need not be compromised. We don’t always read to educate ourselves. Sometimes we do read just for fun and entertainment. But why read something that’s dumbing things down on purpose? For the sake of popularity? Are we really that stupid? We are the consumers of these books, and even if they are self-proclaimed to be not “a literature,” frankly, they really are. Are we sure we want these books to represent the canon of Indian Literature?