On Indian Literature
Few countries can claim to have such a rich and diverse history in literature as India is fortunate to have. Now, although it may seem so, let me clarify that I am not just saying this because I am Indian, or because I love Indian literature. Nor am I saying this out of any misguided nationalistic or patriotic sense of pride and attitude. Trust me, I am not.
In fact, I firmly believe that literature must not adhere to any boundaries, religion, caste, economic background, etc. And I believe every country’s literature and its writers belong to the world at large. That is why I consider, even if one may not agree with me, African literature to belong to world literature, and the same for Latin American or American or Asian or European, or Australian literature. They all belong to world literature. They belong to everybody. And therefore, they all belong to me as well. They are my literature. They influence me, teach me, inspire me, and entertain me.
That being said, please allow me to break away from that philosophy of mine so that I can address the topic at hand. This topic would necessarily require me to narrow down literature to just the Indian subcontinent, that too, just for a few minutes. I am aware that I sound like a hypocrite right now, and maybe I am. But it cannot be avoided, it is the only way to address this topic.
So, dear reader, please forgive me and forget my philosophy on literature while you are reading this essay. That is all I ask.
Obviously, I cannot possibly address the entire history of Indian literature in this little insignificant essay of mine, for that would be an impossible task. I refuse to even attempt it. Volumes and volumes of books have been written by academics and scholars and historians and literary critics (all of whom, needless to say, are infinitely more eligible, qualified, and capable than I to write on this topic), and even they have not succeeded in covering the vast expanse of Indian literature. And if they have, they haven’t been able to truly justify its diversity, complexity, and importance.
For, you see, it is not as easy a task when a country or a subcontinent such as India is concerned, where every state has its own language and script, where every language and script has its own dialect, and where every dialect has its own nuances, which not even a so-called expert in that language would know or understand. That is India, and so, one is forced to work with that limitation and hopelessness that stems from too much diversity and variety. One must make do with what they have and can understand, and leave the rest for others to figure out. That is the only way. The Indian way.
And so, I shall only strive to write on a highly superficial level, merely touching the surface of the vast, deep ocean that is Indian literature.
Now, where do I begin? So many things to say, and so many ways to say it all. From where do I start? I do not know. Once again, I feel lost but hopeful. Hopeful that I will figure it out along the way.
Indian literature, I believe, can roughly be divided into two parts. The first, old and ancient, comprises centuries of literature. While the second part, new and young and still finding its way, consists of only 74 years of literature. The dividing line between the two parts would obviously be the year 1947, the year India gained her independence at the cost of the subcontinent being split up.
The literature produced before 1947 is the literature of an ancient civilization. It is the literature of the entire Indian subcontinent in all its majesty and diversity. And like the origins of every other region’s literature, Indian literature, too, finds its origin in oral literature. Stories, myths, fables, and parables were passed down and transmitted orally, from man to man, community to community, village to village, kingdom to kingdom, and generation to generation, until they became a vital part of the culture of the entire subcontinent, a common legend, and folklore that every man living in the region would hear from the time of his birth up until his death.
It is said to be the ancient Sanskrit language which was the language used to orally transmit this literature. And therefore, Sanskrit literature begins with the oral literature of the Rigveda, an ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. It is the oldest known Vedic Sanskrit text and is one of the four sacred canonical Hindu texts known as the Vedas. It includes the Upanishads as well.
The Rigveda dates to the period between 1500-1000 BCE, making it one of the oldest texts in any Indo-European language. It is said that the sounds and texts of the Rigveda have been orally transmitted since the 2nd millennium BCE. It includes, among many other subjects and issues, texts dealing with philosophical, metaphysical, and speculative questions, questions regarding the nature of the divine and the origin of the universe. They also address the importance of virtues like charity in society and the hymns praise deities and discuss cosmology.
To this day, verses from the Rigveda continue to be recited during Hindu weddings and prayers, and other rites of passage celebrations, thereby making it the world’s oldest religious text in continued use.
After the Rigveda, came the great Sanskrit epics of Ramayana by Valmiki and Mahabharata by Ved Vyasa, which became the most popular, dominant, and significant texts in Indian history. These epics were codified and appeared toward the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, and over the course of the centuries became the foundation of one of the oldest religions of the world – Hinduism.
Then came the age of classical Sanskrit literature, and along with it the great poet and playwright Kalidasa. Kalidasa is considered to be ancient India’s greatest playwright and poet in Sanskrit literature. His works were predominantly based on the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas. His most famous work is the epic Raghuvamsha (Dynasty of Raghu), and his famous plays include Meghaduuta and Shakuntala. Other famous writers and poets of this classical age include Bhasa, Shudraka, Sri Harsha, Jayadeva, Vatsyayana (who wrote the famous Kama Sutra), and Chanakya (who authored the Arthashastra).
Then came the onset of Prakrit literature with Hala‘s (a Satavahana king) anthology of poems in Maharashtri (a notable Prakrit language). Another famous work of this period is Gaha Sattasai (or Gaha Kosa), an ancient collection of poems about love and love’s joy dating back to the 3rd to 5th century CE.
Classical Sanskrit literature flourished and developed during the first few centuries of the 1st millennium BCE, along with the Tamil Sangam and Pali literature.
In Pali literature, the canonical works include the famous Jataka Tales (a body of literature concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form), Abhidharma (ancient Buddhist texts), and other Buddhist discourses.
Tamil literature (or Sangam literature) of the Sangam period, primarily deals with emotional and material topics such as love, war, trade, governance, and bereavement. Poets such as Mamulanar explored historical events that happened in India, and poets and philosophers such as Thiruvalluvar wrote on ethics, and on the various issues of life like virtue, love, wealth, charity, etc.
In the Medieval period, the 6th century saw the appearance of Kannada literature, while Telugu literature appeared sometime in the 11th century. Eventually, literature in various regional languages such as Bengali (the language in which India’s first Nobel laureate in literature, the great Rabindranath Tagore, mostly wrote), Marathi, Odia, Assamese, Gujarati, Maithili, Meitei, Punjabi, and Malayalam appeared.
Then came Hindi, Urdu, and Persian literature. Persian literature flourished in India under the Mughal rule, as Persian became the official court language, the language of the educated, and of the government. Several Indians, such as the great Amir Khusro, who became an iconic figure in the cultural history of the subcontinent, and Muhammad Iqbal, became well-known and respected Persian poets.
Persian was soon replaced by Urdu as the court language of the Mughals and came to be known as the Kohinoor of Indian languages due to its sophisticated and refined nature. Urdu literature produced great poets such as Mir, Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq, Muhammad Iqbal, Ghalib, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
As the years and centuries rolled by, literature in various dialects of Hindi, Persian, and Urdu began to appear as well. Soon, almost every single distinct region of the subcontinent had its own literature to boast of. And as the British consolidated their rule over the subcontinent, the English language soon took on an important role in Indian literature.
Now, let’s stop for a while in order for me to make a quick disclaimer. Have I covered all the different kinds of literature that have sprung up in India through the various languages? one might wonder. Hell no! Not even close. Nor am I attempting to be anywhere near close. I am just attempting, trying my best, and possibly failing horribly. And have I been wholly accurate in my chronology and timeline with respect to the advent of all these different kinds of literature? Hell no! Once again, I am not even close, and not even trying to be.
At this point of the essay, I feel that it is time to bring an end to the first part of Indian literature, the old and ancient part. I refuse to embarrass myself even more by attempting to write more in detail on this ancient part of which I know almost nothing. I refuse to look like the fool who thought he knew everything but really knew nothing. And that is a fact. I know nothing much about ancient Indian literature. But I tried. I had to.
I believe we must now move on to the so-called modern Indian literature, of which, also, I probably know nothing much.
The year 1947 was an eventful year, to say the least. It was the year of independence and partition. Of extreme joy and unimaginable sadness and pain and misery. The subcontinent was divided. The largest human migration in history was triggered by the divide. Communal riots ensued. Millions died. Millions were raped. Millions were left homeless, lost, and forgotten, that too, on the wrong side of the line.
And even though the English had left, their language took over and conquered India and its literature. Thus began the proper advent of Indian-English literature.
Even though Rabindranath Tagore had written many of his works originally in English and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, and the great Sarojini Naidu (the Nightingale of India) wrote her beautiful poems in English well before independence, Indian-English literature actually began to flourish after independence, producing some of the greatest Indian writers in the history of Indian literature.
Writers such as R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Khushwant Singh, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Ruskin Bond, and Arundhati Roy, have left, and continue to leave, a significant body of work in Indian-English literature that has been read and continues to be read internationally, reaching all corners of the world.
As the years pass by, more and more Indian writers prefer to write in English rather than in their native language. This may be due to multiple reasons. One of the main reasons would be that English has now become a common language in India, bridging people from the north, south, east, and west. So much so that young children studying in English schools learn and know the English language even better than their mother tongue. They find it easier to express themselves, verbally as well as through writing, when they use the English language. I must confess, I am one of those children. I am guilty of being more comfortable talking and writing in English than in any other language.
Another reason would be the reach of the English language. English is now, not entirely but very close to being, a universal language. Therefore, writing in English would enable their work to be disseminated across the world, allowing it to thrive and flourish. Obviously, achieving this feat is not as easy when one writes in some other regional language. Problems in translation would inevitably spring up, restricting the worldwide spread of that work no matter how great it is.
Books like Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy have managed to capture the imagination of an international audience, drawing their attention toward Indian literature more than ever before. It is, indeed, a great feat to have achieved.
While, on the other hand, the works of writers like R.K. Narayan (such as Malgudi Days), Ruskin Bond, Khushwant Singh (such as Train to Pakistan), and Rabindranath Tagore, have become staples of Indian-English literature taught in schools and colleges. The works of these great writers have become a part of almost every Indian’s childhood.
Indian literature has not stopped growing yet. Writers such as Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, Manjiri Prabhu, and Vikram Chandra, have become best-selling authors on a scale as never been seen or experienced before in Indian literature. Their works sell into the millions, are made into movies and television shows, and capture the imagination of the youth of India. And that in itself is a major victory, a great achievement, for in a world where mobile phones, TVs, and computers rule supreme, getting children and youth to read books has become an almost impossible task to achieve.
Now, I believe, it is time for me to stop. I cannot pretend any longer to have any substantial knowledge on this subject than I already have. It is time for me to stop before you realize my folly and ignorance. Therefore, I suggest, we must re-assess what we have covered in this essay. Not deeply or honestly but only superficially, as a matter of formality.
Now, have I covered the entire history of Indian literature? No. Not at all. I have not even covered a percentage of it. In fact, I have not even covered a percentage of Indian literature post-independence. And let me explain why.
The Republic of India has 22 officially recognized languages. Mind you, these are only the ones that are recognized. They do not represent the actual number. Not even remotely close, in fact. India is said to have around 121 major languages. And what is the number of other languages, including all the different mother tongues, dialects, etc, you ask? Well, I answer, please do not ask, for they run into the thousands. Thousands! Every statistic, every census, and every research comes out with varying figures. So it is quite possible that no one knows the true number of languages spoken and written in India.
And that, my dear reader, is my absolute defense. I am quite confident that you will understand, as any sane person would and should.