Which novel by Chetan Bhagats makes no sense


Dr. Sabine Wienand

Dr. Sabine Wienand, born in 1974, studied Indology, Philosophy and Literature and did her doctorate on ecological ethics in Buddhism. Today the journalist works for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

India's modern literature is more than Rabindranath Tagore and Salman Rushdie

In Germany, English-language literature with Indian roots is best known - from Rabindranath Tagore to Salman Rushdie to Aravind Adiga. In addition, however, there is an incredible variety of stories and poems that have been and are written in one of the numerous regional languages ​​of India, which even the locals hardly understand. Against this background, it is forbidden to speak of "Indian literature" in the singular.

Just a small sample of Indian literature - a customer in a bookshop in Old Delhi. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

Opening up a country through its books is always a risk. Just think of the proverbial blind man in India who is allowed to touch an elephant's tail and who, when asked what an elephant looks like, can only answer that it is a thin, brush-like animal. But feeling your way forward to gain a nuanced understanding of modern literature is anything but easy. Above all, we lack good translations, and the availability of mainly English works by Indian authors makes us overlook the fact that Indian writers and poets also write their stylistically and thematically different stories and poems in the other 23 Indian national languages, the countless regional languages ​​and dialects . To speak of "Indian literature" in the singular at all no longer seems appropriate.

A small consolation may be that it is also hardly possible for Indians to gain a meaningful overview of developments in the Indian languages ​​they are not familiar with. Because translations from an Indian language into English are still too rare and often of dubious quality, but hardly ever into a non-English language, i.e. also into other Indian languages. So where should you start, what shouldn't be missing? The work of Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first and so far only Indian author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, is still a must.

Tagore's modern, unmistakably Indian work

The massive blind spots in the western reception of Indian literatures of the last century were programmed from the beginning. At least since its spiritual discovery by the Romantics, India should be a mystical land of faith that has fallen out of time and, if you please, should remain. India, that was the land of the Vedas, the Upanishads and certainly of the ultimate truths. Modern literature was therefore also expected to be religious or at least philosophical.

Rabindranath Tagore in Calcutta, probably 1915
One found oneself happily confirmed by Tagore (1861-1941). The offspring of an influential Brahmin family, productive in all literary genres, had long since risen to become the grand master of contemporary Bengali poetry when, in 1910, a selection of his god-seeking, nature-mystical poems, which he himself translated quite freely into prosaic English, appeared for the first time. Gitanjali (German 1914), the flowery "Liedopfer", for which he received the Nobel Prize, immediately beguiled the enthusiastic Western public. Tagore visited Germany three times (1921, 1926, 1930) with flowing hair, beard and robe like the eternal dream of a wise oriental savior. This saw his clichés - from which Tagore could hardly break free in his western reception - confirmed and was accordingly entranced.

In his homeland, Tagore not only advanced because of his linguistic and culture-defining achievements, becoming a pioneer of modern Bengali literature who was revered and fought, but thanks to his Nobel Prize he gave the whole of literary India self-confidence. That could use the intellectual life of the country well. At that time India was still a British colony, and in the second half of the 19th century the first imitative attempts at imitating the novel genre, which was new for the subcontinent, were based on English literature. 1913 was a turning point in that with Gitanjali for the first time a modern, unmistakably Indian work was recognized as an equal world literature.

This also includes the works of Tagore contemporary Munshi Premchand (1880-1936), who wrote first in Urdu, then in the sister language Hindi and can be considered the father of modern Hindi literature. He wrote 300 short stories, a genre that flourished in all Indian languages ​​and often developed in parallel, plus twelve novels, including his major work, which was translated into German 70 years late Godan (1936). In light but not banal, lively but not agitating prose, the Premchand, influenced by Gandhi, Tolstoy and Marx, tells socially realistic stories from rural India.

Remarkable, regionally anchored Hindi novels

Remarkable, regionally anchored Hindi novels such as Phanishwar Nath Renus (1921-1977) also emerged in the decades to come. Maila Anchal (1954) or Nirmal Varmas (1929-2005, also written Verma) Parind (1960). Like no other, the award-winning short story writer, novelist and travel writer Varma succeeds in weaving atmospherically dense stories of melancholy loneliness and alienation from seemingly trivial situations. Feelings of loss and isolation also shape the language of the influential Hindi short story movement Nayi Kahani, the fundamentally skeptical "New Story" of the 50s and 60s, represented primarily by Mohan Rakesh (1925-1972) and Rajendra Yadav (born 1929) .

Although he published the most important magazine of this movement for two years, Bhisham Sahni (1915-2003) shows himself free from its depressed inwardness. In his outstanding novel Tamas (1973) he confronts the great Indian trauma of 1947, the bloody division of the subcontinent into a predominantly Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. The division cost the lives of at least one million people and more than ten million more their homeland. Literature on independence and the never-twisted partition continues to exist today, Hindu-Muslim conflicts are frequent leitmotifs. A very early example that caricatures the madness of the times on the basis of a planned exchange of the inmates of a madhouse is the story Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), the icon of 20th century Urdu literature.

With the exception of Tagore and Manto, who wrote in grammatically identical Urdu but permeated by Persian-Arabic vocabulary, all of the non-English examples of great Indian literature just mentioned come from the Sanskrit-influenced Hindi. This is only forgivable insofar as Hindi, together with English, is the official state language of the country and has the largest number of speakers. It is the first language for around 300 million people around the world, and it is understood by just as many.

Even more precise knowledge of the Hindi classics of the last century can give more depth to an all-too-flat picture of Indian literature derived only from Indo-English works. Here, too, the probability is greatest that you will come across not only literal, but also stylistically satisfactory translations.

Unrecovered literary treasures in regional languages

Many literary treasures in other languages, be it Bengali, Malayalam or Kannada, to name just a few, remain unexplored. The jewels that should be particularly emphasized and already discovered by the interested West are Mahasweta Devi (born 1926), the granddame of the committed Bengali novel or the language magician O.V. Vijayan (1931-2005), an icon of the Malayalam widespread in Kerala. In Karnataka, the English professor U.R., who deliberately wrote in Kannada, was particularly successful. Anantha Murthy (born 1932) as well as the extremely popular Purnachandra Tejaswi (1938-2007), who succeeded, with a revolutionary heart and a light hand, in combining extremely precise social conflicts and experiencing nature in a sophisticated way.

Largely unknown in this country, the South Indian authors are often envied by their Hindi-speaking colleagues because the recognition of the author's profession is far higher in the more literate southern states than in the Hindi belt, which lies over northern India. Local alliances like that Kerala Sahitya Pravartaka Sangam had also made it their business since the 1950s to strengthen local literature through extensive publications and fair participation of the authors in the proceeds - with success.

Hindi authors, on the other hand, have recently complained that English is taking their toll. English-Indian literature is nothing entirely new. Even if English has been the preferred language for less than five percent of Indians and is actually the mother tongue for only a few hundred thousand, it was created in India long before Salman Rushdies' furious appearance in 1981 Midnight children notable anti-colonial Indo-English literature.

R.K. Narayan (1906-2001), the "William Faulkner" of India, gave the world the imaginary small town Malgudi, to whose affectionately dissected lower middle class and its problems he remained loyal to in short story novels for over 60 years. Mulk Raj Anand's (1905-2004) style experiments countered the established authorial (omniscient) narrative attitude with innovations such as the inner monologue or the Stream of Consciousness Technique (analogously: stream of consciousness) and conveyed his social criticism through an English interspersed with colloquial language and forms of speech borrowed from Punjabi. The triumvirate of the great Indo-English writers are complemented by the not easily accessible novels by Raja Rao (1908-2006), which deal with philosophical ideas in a demanding manner.

"Shallow fiction books with too much mango scent"

What the three old masters have in common is that they never wrote primarily for a Western readership. In view of the millions in advances for authors like Vikram Seth, India's intelligentsia and representatives of non-English literature often speculate that the younger generation writing English is now producing primarily commercially driven, superficial and too remote from the realities of life in India.

Arundhati Roy wins the 1997 Booker Prize, the most important British award for literature (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
In parts, the domestic accusation is certainly unfair that many of the authors who are popular worldwide today, whether they now live in India or abroad, like the great epic Rohinton Mistry, actually write world literature. But surely sloshing in the wake of the magical realist Rushdie, but especially after Arundhati Roy's chutneyfected world bestseller The god of little things (1997) published a multitude of shallow fiction books with too much mango scent about the West, which, with bad luck in this country, is then perceived as "typically Indian" literature.

It is uncertain whether in a globalized world language, origin or choice of topic will be decisive for the assignment to "Indian literature" in the future. When, for example, Kiran Desai, daughter of the much more interesting German-Indian author Anita Desai (born 1937), who has not lived in India since she was 14, for her second work anchored in India and New York Heir to the lost land Received the prestigious Booker Prize in 2006, did "Indian Literature" win the prize? The outstanding world-class lyricist and prose writer, Vikram Seth, is now a particularly Indian writer when he is with A good game (1993) brings the India of the 50s to life in a monumental 2000-page panorama, his next novel Related voices (1999) but plays in Europe free of India?

Amitav Ghosh, who was born in Calcutta, is one of the few writers who are equally popular both inside and outside India. It may be due to his unpretentious belief in the de-provincializing transculturality of storytelling, which enables him to praise his Bengali grandfather's bookcase and at the same time to see himself committed to international literature. In the beginning he seemed to be inspired by Rushdie, but depending on the topic he throws the magical elements of magical realism overboard in historical novels like the Glass palace (2000) and countless essays to prove his abilities as a clear-sighted chronicler.

Aravind Adiga is also heard by the Indian and international audiences, and it was actually shocked by the ruthlessness with which his evil, socially critical and satirical debut White tiger, for which he won the Booker Prize in 2008, highlights the country's brutal social injustices. His touching second novel Last Man in Tower (2011) on the misery that the construction boom and its speculators bring about Mumbai's little people is downright Dickensian in quality. But Adiga will not reach millions of copies in India, even if you include the countless pirated copies of his books.

In recent years, only Chetan Bhagat, a former investment banker and graduate of the Indian elite institutes IIT and IIM, who is regularly represented with several titles on the Indian bestseller lists, has reliably succeeded in this. He writes in simple English without regard to the international market, stylistically undemanding. And that is enough for its mildly socially critical and delicately provocative - yes, there is premarital sex in India too! - books to the advantage. Because it makes the stories of first love and parental stress, of college, career and corruption easily accessible even to those for whom English is a second language. Anyone who wants to know what the aspiring middle-class youth between 15 and 25 is concerned with will have a hard time getting past him.

But where do you start reading? Wherever you want, because at least this much should have become clear: It will be worth it.