English vinglish

The Karnataka government will be converting the Mysore house where the writer RK Narayan lived into a memorial. Several Kannada writers, among them DA Shankar, G Venkatasubbaiah, M Chidanandamurthy, GS Shivarudrappa, Sumatheendra Nadig and L S Sheshagiri Rao, have objected to this on the basis that Narayan was not a Kannadiga, he did not write in Kannada or translate Kannada writing and lastly, that the government has only created memorials to four Kannada writers so far.

RK Narayan, wrote his first novel in 1930, in English. It was rejected by many publishers. A friend of Narayan’s at Oxford University showed it to writer Graham Greene and that is how Swami and Friends was published. So it continued for a few years until Narayan became justly famous and by the 1950s his books were available in fairly cheap Indian paperback form.

Illustration/ Satish Acharya

That’s how I read my first RK Narayan book, The Guide, whose chalky pink cover had an ABCD chart type illustration of a bharata natyam dancer. I was only nine and didn’t quite get it then, picking up only some thrill of the illicit in the romance with Rosie (sad, but true, since I was used to reading Stardust). It was only with the Doordarshan serial Malgudi Days that I, like many Indians, discovered or rediscovered RK Narayan and his world of ironic comment and droll humour.

The fate of writers who write in English has altered considerably since Narayan first wrote and the English language literary world now boasts money, glamour and a kind of visibility that no one imagined would come to writers at all.

Are all these writers good? Most definitely not. Are they lucky because they write in English, which is both an elite and an aspirational language as opposed to Hindi, Kannada, Dogra, Punjabi, Manipuri, Assomiya, Tamil or any other language written and read in India? Undoubtedly.

Is it wrong that great writers in all languages except English are ignored by the largely ignorant (and I guess what can the ignorant do but ignore?) media in our country and worse, that we have insufficient translation projects that can bring their artistry and insight to other language readers? That’s a no-brainer.

I read in English. But if it had not been for a Hindi series on Doordarshan I may not have learned to like RK Narayan and many other writers from all languages that I came to know of from shows such as Ek Kahani and Katha Sagar. In those stories I learned about other lives and realities or fantasies — but I could also recognize some common cultural ethos which maybe we can call South Asian, which is also I think, what most people feel about Narayan’s work.

There is something to mourn in the fact that we don’t have a strong sense of contemporary writers and artists of diverse regional cultures as a common heritage and lately are making do with Chetan Bhagat and Competition Success Review as literature.

I remember the great Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha telling me in an interview how he loved Tolstoy with all his heart. Might a Kannada speaker — or writer — not love Narayan this way?

Shouldn’t the creation of a memorial to RK Narayan, which acknowledges that we love our writers, be used to demand more attention to the world of letters in Karnataka, and become an opportunity to expand the space instead of narrowing it? Can Kannada writers receive fair honour only if we stamp out the success of Indian English writers? How can these objecting writers forget that artists give us more things to love, not more things to hate!

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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