Where’s the Great Indian Novel?

A novel written in English can never really become a ‘Great Indian Novel’. Such a book in English can only be a translation of an Indian novel, rather than one originally written even in His Salmanness’ sparkling prose
Life & Letters
It is the translator—and not the Indian writer in English—who can ultimately make English an Indian language. For, if a wealth of writing in India’s original languages is translated into English, the language will have gained the Indian-ness of those texts

When Russia won the rights to host the 2018 Football World Cup, a tweet on my timeline wondered which Great Russian Novel to read as preparation. India may not be able to embarrass Fifa into getting hosting rights for 2026, but the question should still be answered: which Great Indian Novels (GINs) should people read to prep for an encounter with our country, or to feel warm and fuzzy and well-read in India?

Uh-oh. Wrong question. After all, is there any number of GINs whose names we can reel off to the curious? Is there even one, actually, that we can all agree on? Yes, I hear murmurs about Salman Rushdie, but shouldn’t the writer of a GIN at least be an Indian resident for us to claim that the I-for-Indian part is genuine? Let’s admit it, we cannot unanimously—or even consensually—identify any one, leave alone ten, work that will qualify.

On the other hand, ask those who read Malayalam, or Bengali, or Tamil, or… (you get the picture) and there will be no lack of candidates, at least, for the G Malayalam N, or the G Bengali N, and so on. But I-for-Indian? How can we even get enough people from across the country to agree unless they can all read the novels in question? Obviously, they can do that only if the novels are first translated. Into English. Which, I admit, is at least the language of semi-colonisation; but it’s too late to complain about that, folks.

Enter, accompanied by trumpet blasts, the translator. No, wait. If English has to be the medium of consumption, followed by acceptance or rejection, why not just look within the realm of English language fiction in India, which, after all, has been anointed by His Salmanness with this incantation: ‘The prose writing—both fiction and non-fiction—created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’, during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, Indo-Anglian literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.’

Actually, Rushdie is right—inasmuch as those who have never heard Bhimsen Joshi proclaim Manna Dey the best classical Indian singer. Dey is very good, of course, at what he does, but, but, but… And if Rushdie has not read enough of the novels written in any of those 16 languages he alludes to, that’s largely because he doesn’t know the languages. Those who have read a Pather Panchali or a Mathilukal or a Kafan—in any language—know that English fiction alone cannot claim to speak for all of India.

The empirical evidence apart, any candidate for a GIN would also have to have been written by an author who has lived her life in the language of the novel. There may be exceptions, but it is hard to imagine India’s War and Peace being written in a language that is not the one its characters and author actually use every moment of the day. English as a medium of existence—combining conscious thought, subconscious impulse and unconscious instinct, the very fabric of one’s creativity—has probably not existed long enough in India to produce the GIN.

So, get out of the way, you actors and actresses, and let the translator make her entrance. For she—and she alone—can give you the GIN.

Or can she? Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in claiming that while a novel written in English cannot (yet) lay claim to the mantle of the GIN, a translation into English can strut its stuff? After all, when a novel is read in English, the reader is also making a jump from his real existence—he, too, has probably not lived his life in the English language. How valuable, then, is his assessment of the novel, and how credible is a consensus that says that such-and-such novel, written in Gujarati (or Kannada or Oriya) is a worthy claimant to the GIN tray? As Arab writer Mohammad Rabie puts it, ‘(Translation)… can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness.’

The truth, however, is simpler than this analysis might suggest. The G-for Great in the IN will shine brightly through any fog—real or intellectually imagined—cast by the process of translation into English, the borrowed language that has now burrowed into our lives. But only a translation can take the beacon out of the regional cave in the first place into the plains of the country and the world.

Of course, there is that other contentious question. Can there at all be an Indian novel, given the divergences in regional cultures and sensibilities? Translated into English, would novels in Assamese, Marathi and Punjabi actually have anything in common that marks them as Indian, other than a currently shared administrative geography? Wouldn’t making a claim of a common identity between such works be no different from suggesting that the literatures of Spain and of Slovenia are both mysteriously ‘European’ because the countries have a common currency today?

Is the GIN only an imaginary assertion of an imaginary homeland? Should we just look for the GBN, the GTN, the GMN, the GHN and so on…? (In which case, no translation is required for that particular purpose.)

This argument may have been true 50 years ago, when regional labels were strong enough to identify what set a Tamil apart from a Punjabi. But it isn’t valid today, for culture, work, entertainment and consumption behaviour across the geography of India are converging on an approximation of something that can be identified, if not sharply defined just yet, as Indian. Not Malayali, not Kannadiga, not Bihari, but just Indian, under a common economic, administrative and market-friendly environment. And under this umbrella, regional literature—no matter when it was written—is still Indian literature for today’s reader. And only the translator can ensure that the reader discovers it.

Ironic aside: It is the translator—and not the Indian writer in English—who can ultimately make English an Indian language. For, if a wealth of writing in India’s original languages is translated into English, the language will have gained the Indianness of those texts, in the process being woven into the reader’s faculties as a means for transmitting India.

Envy, if you like, the translator her mission. The Indian writer can write only for a limited audience—it is the translator who brings him out of the room on the roof into the front lawns where readers come and go without requiring linguistic visas. It is only the translator who—wince if you must—can bring tonic to the GIN.