Have you got your suitcases packed and passport at the ready? Well, you won’t need them for this particular trip, but you’ll still have a breathtaking journey as we depart once more to see the Readers of the World. Loads of riveting worldwide literature insights and no last-minute panics about jabs or currency exchange – that has to be a good thing…
Last time we went off to Romania; this time around we’re heading to the second-most populated country in the world – so there are lots of stories to tell – and a fascinating cultural mecca: India. Over to our Events and Publications Intern Michael McGrath to give the lowdown…
India. The name alone can stir one’s imagination. It’s not difficult to conjure up images of the country’s warmth and charm: vibrant, colourful landscapes; fresh, exotic foods; the beaming smiles of passing children. What lies beneath these familiar images and sensations, however, is an incredibly diverse country. There is an ever-increasing gap between the urban rich – in cities like Mumbai and Delhi – and the rural poor that make up the majority, for example. Cultural differences also exist between the many different religious groups that coexist in the country. But perhaps it is India’s astounding array of languages that is its most divisive feature.
Charles de Gaulle once asked of his native France, ‘how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?’ If France’s plethora of all things fromage demonstrates its varied national identity, then surely it is India’s profusion of languages that gives one a sense of its magnificently diverse population. There are at least 1652 languages in use in India today, with the government recognising 112 mother tongues that have more than 10,000 speakers.
The lingua francas for most Indians are Hindi and English, but it is the latter that has flourished in recent decades. India’s emergence on the world stage (including its membership to the G20) has given the country a more outward-looking identity, with English becoming the language of the educated, the prosperous, and the aspirational. A 1997 survey by India Today magazine estimated that about a third of the country’s population of more than one billion could hold a conversation in English. This linguistic trend has had an undeniably large effect on Indian culture, particularly its literature.
A new wave of Indian novelists and poets writing in English has materialised in the last few decades. Not only have these writers created an exciting new branch of English literature, but they are also receiving some of the most coveted accolades in literature for their efforts. The Nobel Prize in Literature, for example, has recognised Indian writers, awarding Rabindranath Tagore, V.S. Naipaul and Indian-born Rudyard Kipling honours for their works. In the last fifteen years three Indian writers have received the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Literature: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008).
This recent success has revitalised the literary scene in India. Jaipur, the famously pink city in the middle of the Rajasthan desert, has held an incredibly popular literature festival since 2006 – attracting the likes of Tina Brown, Ian McEwan and Oprah Winfrey.
Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of fiction to emerge from India in recent years is Salman Rushdie’s much-lauded Midnight’s Children. The book begins with the story of the Sinai family and the birth of its newest member. Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, at the precise moment of India’s independence, Saleem Sinai is celebrated in this new country and welcomed by Prime Minister Nehru himself. But this coincidence of birth has consequences for Saleem, namely: telepathic powers that connect him with 1,000 other ‘midnight’s children’ – all born in the first hour of India’s independence.
Saleem, using his telepathic powers, assembles a Midnight Children’s Conference, bringing hundreds of ethnically diverse children together while also attempting to discover the meaning of their gifts. It is also at a time when Saleem’s family begin a number of migrations, and witness a number of the violent outbreaks that cripple the subcontinent during its separation. Saleems’s path in life mirrors India’s varied fortunes during this period, allowing Rushdie to examine the effects of colonialism, independence, and partition.
Midnight’s Children has won a host of literary awards, including The Man Booker Prize in 1981. In addition, to celebrate its twenty-fifth and fortieth anniversaries, the Booker Prize presented Midnight’s Children with ‘The Booker of Bookers’ and the ‘Best of the Bookers’ awards respectively.
Rushdie’s magnum opus is but one example of the many great works that have emerged from India since the country’s independence. What links the majority of these works is their ability to challenge long-held assumptions, confront difficult issues, but also enthral readers with their exquisite language and beautiful verse. If Midnight’s Children heralded a renaissance in Indian writing, then the future of Indian literature (and indeed world literature) is looking rather exciting.