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Confessions of a Marathi writer.

I have been asked to write about myself as a Marathi writer. That's the slot for me, apparently. However, I happen to be a questionable sort of Marathi writer. I wrote my first mature story, "Flies," in the summer (Indian) of 1963, between the two years of the M.A. in English literature I was then reading for. As it happens, I wrote this story in English. Dilip Chitre was editing a special issue of a renowned Marathi magazine, Abhiruchi, run by his father, and I made a hasty crib, to my mind unsatisfactory and lacking the style of the original, for the issue. The Marathi "Flies" appeared in Abhiruchi in 1965; the original English text appeared in The London Magazine in 1981. (I felt flattered that Alan Ross in 1981 thought of a story written in 1963 as new and significant.) As by then my other, later stories written in Marathi had appeared in English as translations, I allowed this story to appear in LM as "Translated from the Marathi," and that is how it stands in my 1990 collection, Fair Tree of the Void (Penguin India). Well, there's a "Marathi" writer for you!(1)

Even the stories et cetera first written in Marathi by me are often covertly English. I remember composing the long final sentence of "The Terrorist" (which I wrote first, and then worked toward it from the beginning) in Marathi, mentally translating, laboriously over an entire day in my tiny apartment in the benighted city of Basra, a complex English syntax into my native tongue: still, the long, rolling rhythms of that final sentence in the English version are but a shadow in the "original" Marathi. The allusions to Kafka and Eliot in "Testimony of an Indian Vulture" sit uneasily in the Marathi text but come into their own in the English. Numerous examples of this sort could be given. The rhythms in my head are the rhythms of English, and they come into their own only when I do the "original" Marathi text into English. As a matter of fact, I regard the English versions of my stories as the definitive text, and the "original" Marathi as only a stage toward the final casting.

This might sound like a strange admission from a "Marathi" writer, and I anticipate the inevitable question: why, then, do I write in Marathi? The answer is that I cannot, and do not wish to, spurn my roots in the Marathi language. Till the age of sixteen, I read only Marathi. At sixteen, I read my first full-length book in English (Jim Corbett, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag), and thereafter it was almost exclusively English, English, and English. For most of my adult life, my stream of consciousness has flowed in English, and it is in a way odd that, when I sit down to write, I switch to thinking in Marathi. My conscious mind may function through English, but my unconscious is rooted in Marathi; and to draw upon the resources of my unconscious, I must go through the initial rites of passage in my native tongue. However, the conscious part of my mind being situated in English, it still remains necessary to re-create the text in English. To write first in Marathi, then to redo the text in English, is thus a means of reconciling the two halves of my divided psyche.

A more down-to-earth explanation is that, writing in Marathi, I do not have to worry over prepositions and articles. I feel I can be more freely inventive and innovative working in Marathi. Sort of, do your devil-may-care experiments in your backyard, and then bring them before the world.

At the same time, I have always thought of myself as belonging, in my own small way, to an--admittedly somewhat nebulous--international modernist tradition. It is also, should I say inevitably, a West-era/European tradition. I have imagined myself as working in the context of writers I have admired most: Kafka, Hemingway, Camus, Beckett, et alii. Marathi literature is so hopelessly mired in the stick-in-the-mud middle-class ethos and reflexes, with its peculiar literary style (laden with exclamation marks!) that would appear antediluvian in English, that, from the beginning, I refused to have any truck with the sensibility it represented. The narrow, and subtly caste-marked, paths of Marathi literature I saw as something to avoid at any cost; a largely self-invented international tradition offered a liberating route to self-realization.

This does not mean, again, that some parts of the Marathi tradition, absorbed in childhood, did not leave their imprint upon my formation. For instance, the short story was, I think, the most developed and sophisticated form in Marathi in the 1950s and early 1960s, and in my teens I eagerly read the stories of the Marathi Navakatha (New Story) writers: Gangadhar Gadgil, Vyankatesh Madgulkar, Aravind Gokhale. That I could achieve some distinction as a short-story writer is no doubt, to some extent, owing to the fact that I stand on their shoulders. Therefore, I cannot say that I owe nothing to the Marathi tradition. Such are the complex ways in which a writer may hold a problematic, dual citizenship in the world of letters.

Bilingualism can leave you in a tricky situation. Marathi readers have frequently complained that my Marathi sounds as though it were translated from English, and I daresay they are not entirely off the mark. At the same time, whenever I have written directly in English, there sometimes came the complaint that it did not sound quite English. Reviewing my 1978 collection of poems written largely in English, A Kind of Silence, a reviewer in World Literature Today grumbled that the images in my poems were very Indian, and probably looked good in Marathi, but that in English they did not come out all right, for, as he said of me, "his sensibility is rooted in the climate of India." It can be the unenviable fate of the bilingual writer to be turned away from both houses he considers his own. People everywhere have a very possessive and exclusive attitude to what they consider their language.

I began to publish in Marathi in the early sixties. It was probably one of the best and liveliest periods in Marathi literary history. A few years before Independence in 1947, B. S. Mardhekar had begun modernizing Marathi poetry, and Gangadhar Gadgil had likewise initiated the same process vis-a-vis the short story. The "New Poetry" and the "New Short Story" continued to flourish during the fifties. It was in the early sixties that the first generation which had come to maturity after Independence began to write and publish. Political independence seemed to have given a new sense of identity and self-confidence to the writing of this generation. Marathi witnessed the vigorous growth of a lively "little magazine" movement. Avant-gardism, experimentation, and creative crankiness were in vogue. The air was full of excitement. Bhalchandra Nemade wrote Kosla (The Cocoon), a novel composed at white heat in a mere fourteen days, at a very young age, that overnight changed the face of Marathi fiction and its style. Kosla remains the finest symbol of the brash and daring creativity of that period. (An extract from Kosla, translated by me, can be found in the Penguin New Writing in India, 1974.) Dilip Chitre (a precocious talent) and Arun Kolatkar were writing a poetry informed simultaneously by the work of medieval Marathi poet-saints and the French symbolists and their modernist heirs. I count myself fortunate that I began publishing my work at a time like this.

What seemed like the beginning of a renaissance consequent upon political independence has, however, all too quickly and disappointingly petered out. The little-magazine movement died out by the early seventies. The spirit of rebellion and experimentation was spent. The aliveness to diverse foreign influences and the willingness for cross-fertilization have vanished. Champions of modernism and innovation such as Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, and myself seem like lone rangers in an unconducive, hostile environment. Marathi literature has reverted to older, populist modes, and writers complacently indulge in pandering to middle-class tastes. There is little or no evidence that today's Marathi writer takes any interest in other contemporary world literatures. A kind of cultural fundamentalism, closely allied to its religious variety, now governs the Marathi literary world. As I remarked in an article published in Indian Literature in 1992: "The Marathi literary world today resembles a little pond crowded with frogs croaking at each other in self-satisfaction."(2)

The journal Indian Literature is published by the Sahitya Akademi (Indian Academy of Letters), and my article was in fact written as part of an "End-Century Assessment" of Indian literatures orchestrated by the Akademi in the form of a seminar at New Delhi. At the end of the article I voiced my fear that the situation vis-a-vis other modern Indian literatures was probably no different than what I found to be the case with Marathi, and, confirming my suspicion, the editor of Indian Literature prefaced my article with a note describing it as "paradigmatic" and called for a general debate on this sorry state of Indian letters. My portrayal of the Marathi literary scene in the present essay, therefore, has a wider relevance, and the current situation of Indian literatures in general remains a matter of grave concern.

In view of the regressive mood of Marathi literature, described above, the rise of a phenomenon called nativism (Deshivad) is probably not surprising. Ironically, its leader is the novelist Bhalchandra Nemade, the one-time avant-garde, tradition-breaking author of Kosla, with the practitioners of "rural literature" as his principal followers. They have accused writers such as Chitre, Kolatkar, and myself of being "slaves of Western culture." Nemade wrote an article in Marathi expounding the theory of nativism, and I have countered it with an article challenging the tenets of nativism. I see nativism as a retrograde, hidebound, and perniciously limiting movement. It is a movement by people who are afraid of the world, who want to retreat into their little hole in the dirtheap. An eclectic, multicultural outlook is the only thing that will save us from in-breeding and anemia. I quote here a statement by V. S. Naipaul that I cited in a Marathi article I published in 1986 and that I take to be an important pronouncement:

I feel there is a great universal civilization at the moment which people would say is Western. But it has been fed by innumerable sources. It is a very eclectic civilization, and it is conquering the world because it is so attractive, so liberating to people. What disheartens me is that there are certain cultures where people are saying, "Cut yourself off. Go back to what you were." There is nothing to replace the universal civilization they are rejecting. The Arabs, the Muslims, some Africans are doing this. I think it is a disaster. The great Arab civilization of the seventh to the twelfth century was the world's most eclectic civilization. It was not closed to outside influences. It was endlessly incorporating the art of Persia, the mathematics of India, what remained of the philosophy of Greece. The universal civilization that now exists . . . is not the preserve of one race, one country, but has been fed by many.

One might add that Naipaul's optimism about an eclectic universal civilization seems less justified today, when so many parts of the world are being swept by cultural and religious fundamentalism, and varieties of communalism and nativism. But the most vicious feature of nativism is that it sees the world in terms of an Indian-versus-Western dichotomy. It leaves no scope for the writer's individuality and originality, which may magnificently transcend the parameters of Indianness and Westernization.

"Depend on / interior journeys taken anywhere," advises John Berryman in a poem called "Roots." My writing has been, above all, a record of interior journeys, often fantastic, sometimes literal, as in the Chakko story in Fair Tree of the Void. Their counterpart in my life has been my geographic journeying--to Bloomington, Indiana, to Basra in Iraq, and now to Kuwait. I stay away. Not entirely, not perpetually, but, maintaining an ambiguous relationship to home, I keep an option on the basket of crabs where each crab pulls the other down, so that none escapes to freedom.

"Interior Journeys" is how all my early stories may essentially be described. For many years I was an extremely subjectivist writer, exploring the existential world of a solitary individual in each story. I regarded fiction writing as a metaphysical (and not empirically psychological) exploration. The relationship of the self to the external world, tentative gropings toward human relationships, and the possibility of compassion were my themes. (My most effective working out of these themes, to my mind, is the story "History Is On Our Side" in Fair Tree of the Void, earlier published in New Directions 41.) I was oblivious to the world of caste, creed, class, and politics that surrounded my Parnassian/Flaubertian concentration upon writing in Bombay till December 1970.

I arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, just after New Year's in 1971. During my three and a half years there I continued to write highly existential stories such as "Musk Deer" (I enjoyed the irony of writing about the beggars of Bombay, sitting in an air-conditioned room in a high-rise American dorm), but I also became gradually aware of the political situation in the many countries from which students had flocked to that dorm. Iran, Latin America--the world was full of areas of unfreedom.

Then, in 1974, I went directly from Bloomington to Basra, in Iraq. The claustrophobic atmosphere of dictatorship to which I awoke in that country decisively changed my existential-metaphysical perspective. I wrote three stories in a row to exorcise my Iraqi experience. The first of these--and the best, I think--was "The Terrorist" (first published in Encounter, 1979), which initially came to me as a typically existential story: the post-office box as the central image, and the possibility of communication as the theme. But I no longer would be content to write that kind of story; slowly, the political motif entered the story and changed it entirely. The challenge in writing the story was to effect the transition from the existential to the political smoothly every few sentences, and I believe I have managed it with fair success.

The three stories mentioned above ("Kalluri's Radio" and "Return" being the other two, none of them set directly in Iraq) did not succeed in exorcising the Iraqi experience from my psyche; I sat down to write a fourth story set directly in Iraq, and it grew into the novel In the Land of Enki, published in Marathi in 1983, with the English version issued in August 1993 by Seagull Books of Calcutta. As I have said in the preface to the English text: "The larger, more dramatic, and, should I say, glamorous gulag of the USSR has drawn greater literary attention. That Great Gulag has now vanished, but the lesser gulags remain. . . . We need to be more aware of these."

I said good-bye to Iraq in 1979, perhaps with a writer's instinct that, having gotten a novel and a few short stories out of the experience, as well as a changed world view, I had no further use for the place; but also perhaps with a prescient instinct for safety, for the Iran-Iraq war broke out within a few months of my departure. The broader perspective that I had acquired helped me to write, now on my return to Bombay, stories that focus upon the social divisions of India. Thus, "Testimony of an Indian Vulture" is, you might say, a "Dalit" story in spirit, written by a non-Dalit in an oblique, Swiftian manner, with far greater artistic finesse (if I may presumptuously add) than Dalit writers have been able to muster. The vulture concludes his monologue with the pointed question: "It's only our country that's divided into those who eat meat and those who don't. . . . Tell me, what hope can you have for a country where food divides people?"

The change in perspective did not lead me to embrace social realism. I now began to see the substance of literature not as centered upon the self, but as a dynamic tension between the self and the external world (meaning especially sociopolitical reality). The self and the inner world remain the central focus, since all experience is essentially subjective, but they are no more seen as unrelated to, and more important than, sociopolitical realities; the greater the intensity, and the tension, between the two poles, the higher is likely to be the literary value. I believe this position enables one to circumvent the one-sidedness that one notices in so much Western literary theory. Movements such as realism, naturalism, and chosisme focus upon external reality, whereas others such as expressionism, stream-of-consciousness writing, and existentialism look in the opposite direction. Virginia Woolf complained about the inadequacy of the "materialists" like Bennett, but it is plain that her own work is as lopsided as theirs. No doubt, a writer can produce a limited amount of great work from a singularly one-sided standpoint (I have Beckett in mind here), but in the long run it does not pay.

The position I have sketched here seems to receive support from modern science. Heisenberg informs us that scientists cannot know reality entirely "objectively." Although this vindicates modernist subjectivism, there remains Sartre's salutary insistence that consciousness is always consciousness of something. The dangers of going to either extreme are best illustrated by Sartre and Beckett. Sartre moved more and more toward actual political involvement and produced no imaginative work during the last twenty years of his life; Beckett, after the spectacular, extensive eruption that is the Molloy trilogy, shrank further and further both in his fiction and in his drama. Excessive regard for external reality on the part of the one and excessive regard for inner reality on the part of the other reduced both writers to silence.(3) Beckett can also be usefully contrasted with his guru, Joyce. To use different metaphors from modern science, Joyce's later work exemplifies the expanding universe, whereas Beckett's progress was inexorably toward the black hole. If a writer can achieve the extension of the expanding universe, maintaining at the same time the intensity of the black hole, if he can hold at the highest tension the inner and the outer worlds, he will produce the best possible work.

I think I have got it right. The point, now, is to write. Chained as I am to a teaching career, projects have piled up in the mind, and in notebooks. I have already announced sequels to Enki, dealing with Kuwait and Iran respectively, thus making a Gulf Trilogy: ever since I wrote "Musk Deer," I have wanted to write a novel about the beggars of Bombay; then there is the plan to make a novelized translation of the Mahabharata, presenting it as the astonishingly modern work that it is. "Art is long . . . ," at least t as you plan it. Time is running out. I know, I know.

1 Incidentally, when writing "Flies," I was under the spell of Beckett's Molloy trilogy and Nabokov's stories (especially the one called "First Love"/"Colette"), and I wrote "Flies" as an experiment in combining Beckettian material with Nabokovian style. There's a research paper here for anybody looking for a topic.

2 Perhaps the only bright patch in this dismal scene is the emergence of Dalit writing since about 1975. The Dalits are writers from the former untouchable castes who have found a voice of their own. The life they write about is a life never before written about so authentically in Marathi and for which there is no equivalent in English literatures. Marathi can be justly proud that, in India, Dalit writing first emerged in Marathi, and only more recently have Dalits begun to write in other Indian languages. At the same time, Dalit literature, not unexpectedly, remains naive and lacking in literary sophistication. Their best works are autobiographies, which are more like raw material for great art than great art itself.

3 I have discussed Sartre and Beckett as case studies from this viewpoint in my essay "Sartre and Beckett: The Dialectic of Literary Creation," The Literary Criterion (Mysore), 1988.

VILAS SARANG was born at Karwar on the west coast of India in 1942. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Bombay University and another in comparative literature from Indiana University. He taught at the University of Basra in Iraq during the 1970s, became Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Bombay University in the eighties, and since 1992 has been teaching at Kuwait University. A bilingual writer (and self-translator) in Marathi and English, he has published the verse collection A Kind of Silence (1978), the short-story volume Fair Tree of the Void (1990), and the novel In the Land of Enki (1993). He has also published The Stylistics of Literary Translation (1988) and edited the anthology Indian English Poetry Since 1950 (1989). His stories have been widely published in European, American, and Indian journals and in various anthologies.
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Title Annotation:Indian Literatures: In the Fifth Decade of Independence
Author:Sarang, Vilas
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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