17 January 2012


Rashmi Sadana

English Heart, Hindi Heartland

The Political Life of Literature in India

English Heart, Hindi Heartland examines Delhi’s postcolonial literary world—its institutions, prizes, publishers, writers, and translators, and the cultural geographies of key neighbourhoods in light of colonial histories and the globalization of English.

Rashmi Sadana places internationally recognized authors such as Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, and Vikram Seth in the context of debates within India about the politics of language, and alongside regionally recognized writers such as K. Satchidanandan, Shashi Deshpande, and Geetanjali Shree. She undertakes an ethnographic study of literary culture, probing the connections between place, language, and text in order to show what language comes to stand for in people’s lives.

In so doing she unmasks a social discourse rife with questions of authenticity and the cultural politics of inclusion and exclusion. She illustrates how the notion of what is considered authentic not only obscures larger questions relating to caste, religious, and gender identities, but that the authenticity discourse itself is continually in flux. To extract cultural capital from India’s linguistic hierarchies, writers deploy what Sadana calls ‘literary nationality’.

Her book argues that English in India, and the way it is positioned among the country’s other languages, does not represent a fixed pole, but rather serves to change political and literary alliances among classes and castes, often in surprising ways.

Rashmi Sadana lives in Delhi and is working on a book about the Delhi Metro.

Hardback / 230pp / Rs 595 / ISBN 81-7824-349-0 / South Asia rights / Feb 2012
Copublished with the University of California Press, Berkeley

To coincide with the appearance of this book, Permanent Black asked Vasudha Dalmia and Rashmi Sadana to converse with each other. Both have worked at Berkeley, have focused on cultural history, and have collaborated with each other. (Dalmia's classic monograph, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions, appeared in a new paperback edition some months ago, see here.) Their conversation appears below.

Rashmi Sadana to Vasudha Dalmia …

1.    RS: After writing your dissertation on Brecht and drama in modern India, what took you back to the nineteenth century and to Bharatendu, the “father” of modern Hindi?

VD: I encountered Bharatendu while working on Brecht, while trying to trace the history of modern Hindi drama. He stood at the fountainhead, so to speak, and he had the same irreverence, the same ready wit as Brecht. He lived extravagantly, transgressed every known boundary, squandered the family fortune in the process, and yet broke new ground, creating a new language for literature and creating works that outlived him. He managed to do a prodigious amount in his thirty-five years. When I finally came to write on him, I had, ironically, to exclude drama, it would have added another seventy pages to a book that was already spilling out of its covers. Rukun Advani [who edited the book] would not have allowed it. That had to wait another ten years and for another book.

2.    RS: Could you explain how your research took you from the study of literature to the study of religion, from “Hindi” to “Hindu”?

VD: I was literally forced to. I was quite unprepared to handle what I discovered while wading through Bharatendu’s collected works and his dynamic new journals, tucked away in mouldering recesses of the city. He was a leading light, he found the formulations for a reconfigured Hinduism, articulated now in a Vaishnava context, to figure out which I had to go back in time, in order to understand where he came from and then to understand what Western Indology was doing with the texts under consideration, and what nationalists such as Bharatendu were making of that. I learnt on the job, so to speak.    

3.    RS: From the start, your book draws on and qualifies Ranajit Guha’s notion of the “third idiom” as a way to understand the forces of cultural assimilation and resistance by Indians in the colonial period. Now, fifteen years on, do you still believe it is an important way forward for scholarship on India’s colonial modernity? Is it relevant to contemporary scholarship on India?

VD: It was the most useful heuristic device for understanding what was happening in nineteenth century India, as new terms came into being and older terms were put to new uses. To fit into some frame that sense of excitement, at times overwhelming, of encountering a new world, of melding it with the already known. It was the best way, I found, of getting rid, once and for all, of the tradition-modern binary. I am surprised that the three idioms have not found more currency in scholarship today.

4.    RS: What is your relationship to Banaras in the years since writing your book? Do you feel you are walking among ghosts – the 19th-century writers and institutions you wrote about? What about the present-day city inspires you intellectually or otherwise?

VD: Initially, I went back to Banaras to find the missing pieces of my Bharatendu work. But then, somewhat to my own amazement, I found myself going back in order to discover the radically different world of Premchand, who returned to the city insistently in his fiction. And later still, to look at a world not unrelated to his, that of theosophy and the theosophists, foreign and Indian, and the modernization and politicization that, perhaps surprisingly, often went hand in hand with the occult. Apparently one lifetime is not enough to exhaust the fascination that the city can hold for people once they get hooked. 

5.    RS: I know you are now at work on a book about the Hindi novel of the 20th century. How does this new work relate to or depart from your study of Bharatendu?

VD: I’ve spent so many years in the nineteenth century, it has come to form my base. In my present work, I begin once again with a late nineteenth-century novel, when Hindi was still struggling to define itself, and a nascent Hindu middle class was beginning to emerge. The rest of the novels I take up, at least as I plan the work now, three before independence and four after, become a kind of discovery, almost a self-discovery, of what happened, culturally and politically, to these Hindi-Hindu middle classes, as they came into being in the great urban centers of North India, Delhi, Agra, Banaras, Allahabad, Lucknow and Lahore, themselves entirely re-configured after the great destruction of 1857. 

6.    Name six books unconnected with your academic interests that have influenced you deeply.

VD: When Brecht was asked to name the single work that had made the most impact on him, he replied: ‘You’ll laugh, the Bible’. I begin then with Tulsidas’s beautiful and moving Ramcharitmanas; it would be the single work, were I asked to name only one. We learnt large stretches of it by heart as children. The same holds true for Shakespeare; many of his plays are now ingrained in my memory, Hamlet, if picking one. Ditto Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Agyeya’s Shekhar ek Jivani. Hertha Mueller’s The Land of Green Plums, on the power of poetry in dark times.

Vasudha Dalmia to Rashmi Sadana …

1.   VD: You grew up in Los Angeles, studied in Berkeley and SOAS; it would be easy to imagine that you would become interested in Anglophone literature and explore its antecedents. What moved you to write on English and Hindi? 

RS: I had been exposed to Hindi through my family and relatives growing up and on visits to Delhi, and was always aware that if I had been growing up in India rather than in the U.S. I would have had a much more naturally multilingual life. I think that prompted me to take Hindi as an undergraduate at Berkeley, and then in my last year of college, I took a course on Indian women writers where most of what we read was in translation, not only from Hindi, but also Bengali, Malayalam, Gujarati, Kannada and others. This was the early 1990s and the “boom” in Indian fiction was in full swing. But, as we know, this was an English-only phenomenon. It seemed to me that something was missing. I knew from all the time I had spent in Delhi that the languages around me, at home and in the street, were Hindi and Punjabi. I wanted to find out what got lost - not in translation, but in transnational literary production. Why was India only being represented by English? Surely this writing existed in a multilingual context, but looking at how Indian novels in English were read and received in the U.S. and the U.K., you would never know it.

2.    VD: Do you feel you have to defend the place of English in India? 

RS: Not at all. Just about everyone will agree that English is a language of opportunity, aspiration, and exclusion - and not only in India, but in many parts of the world. There is a hierarchy of languages in different Indian contexts, depending on the languages in use, but even these hierarchies shift according to different situations. English is the language of the elite, but it can also be an underdog at times. Hindi is also a language of elites in that there is an elite discourse in Hindi. But Hindi is also popular in a way English is most certainly not. And yet, English more and more is “popularly” desired. It is a complex situation that seems simple on the surface. That's what drew me to write about it. 

3.   VD: Of the various situations and people you encountered in the years you worked on this project, which do you think provided you with the most immediate insight into the Hindi-English relationship in the nation’s capital? 

RS: Actually there is no one person or situation that encapsulates the relationship for me. What was fascinating for me while I was doing my research was how each person I spoke to offered a different angle on the question of language politics based on his or her work and personal history. Geetanjali Shree showed me a novelist's intimacy with language and emotion, whereas the bookseller Amar Varma shed light on what it meant to promote Hindi books internationally. Ashok and Arun Maheshwari and then Ravi Dayal made the worlds of Hindi and English publishing appear like completely different ones with different histories, yet operating side-by-side. Ashok Vajpeyi and K. Satchidanandan were fascinating to listen to because they understood the politics of the multilingual literary landscape and helped shape them, yet as poets, they were also incredibly sensitive to the wide gap between the world of politics and that of contemplation and creativity. I was intrigued by how they dwelled in that gap.  

4.   VD: Alok Rai, in his widely acclaimed Hindi Nationalism, dealt with quite another aspect of Hindi, the relationship of official “Hindi” to Hindi, as actually spoken. How do you place your work vis-à-vis his?

RS: Alok's book was foundational for me; it came out during my first major research stint in 2001 and became a kind of intellectual guidebook I toted around. It brought the political and cultural history of the Hindi-Urdu divide that Amrit Rai and Christopher King had written about in regard to the 19th and early 20th centuries, into the post-Independence context - with such passion and sense of immediacy. My book looks at the competition between English and Hindi elites from an ethnographic view. I interview figures from Delhi's literary establishment and place them in relation to one another and the larger field of literature and politics. Perhaps because of my insider-outsider perspective, these figures stood out for me, even though they are mostly known and regularly featured in the Indian press. I make the ideologies that Alok Rai maps out come alive through contemporary figures in the literary world. In the process, some of these ideologies get refined, re-tuned, debunked, or emboldened, enabling me to make new arguments about such vexing topics as cultural authenticity, literary nationality, and the postcolonial / global status of English.

5.   VD: Could you say something about the range of authors whose works you analyze? What moved you to include the works of Chetan Bhagat, a writer who would ordinarily be excluded from the galaxy?

RS: The texts I write about emerge from what I saw and experienced “on the ground.” My book begins with me reading the slush pile at Granta in London, since that is how I very literally found my subject. In India, it was seeing books being sold on pavements and at stoplights that initially brought me into the realities of language, class, and caste. Living in Old Delhi for a time made me reflect more deeply on Delhi’s linguistic history and led me to write about Twilight in Delhi and In Custody. I wrote about the Hindi translation of A Suitable Boy (“Koi Accha-sa Ladka”) because it came up in a debate I witnessed at the Sahitya Akademi. I conclude the book by reflecting on Chetan Bhagat because it is impossible to ignore the impact he's had on English in a popular context. His books draw readers into the “having made it” world of IITs, and aspirational worlds of call centers, bank jobs, and love marriages, through a more simple, manageable English. My book is motivated by the story of English vis-à-vis Hindi and the bhashas more generally, and Bhagat's novels speak to that. I was also teaching at IIT Delhi when I wrote the conclusion to the book, so I was thinking about my students and the range of Englishes they spoke.

6.   VD: Name six books unconnected with your academic interests that have influenced you deeply. 

RS: The exciting thing about reading a new book is that, when you begin it, you don't know how it might influence you, and then when you finish it, you can never be sure exactly how it will influence you. Everything I read probably affects my intellectual life in some way, but if I were to name some of my cherished, non-academic books, those that moved me and shook me up in some way, I would include: Ovid's Metamorphosis, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ismat Chughtai’s short stories, Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and just about everything by J.M Coetzee. Wait, was that seven?

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