Chai break

I love this story about Laxman Rao, the tea-vendor with 18 books to his credit, who’s making waves with a novel called Ramdas. Though his book has done well, Rao still lives off his chai-dukan earnings, but there are some interesting aspects to his story.
Like so many Indians, Rao is something of a voluntary exile; the village he writes about in Ramdas is a place he left a long time ago for the city, but that he still remembers with startling immediacy.
He also switched languages, electing to write in Hindi rather than his “native Marathi” in order to “reach other Indians” like himself. Indians who choose to write in English are often lambasted for abandoning their “home languages” in order to reach a more global audience; I find it interesting that Laxman Rao faced a similar choice and made a similar decision in order to reach more readers. For him, as for Indian writers in English, it may not have been a question of abandoning his mother tongue so much as reaching for a language that he could also inhabit with comfort.
And I love the breadth of the reading he claims for himself; though this story doesn’t say so, a friend who’s known Laxman Rao for several years says that the author is just as comfortable with the great classics of Marathi and Hindi literature as he is with translations of Shakespeare’s plays.

This story, on the other hand, had me in fits. Chiefly of laughter, but some of the other kind as well. The Duck has ruffled his feathers already, but here’s my char-anna worth:

“…Hindi’s reach is lengthening. Although it is spoken by half of India’s 1 billion people, its writing is absent in the literary canon of India, which is dominated by exiles such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth.”

No, really? Even in English-speaking circles, you’d be considered illiterate if you hadn’t read Premchand, Shrilal Shukla, Nirmal Verma and company–in translation, at least, even if not in the original. The literary canon of India has been broad and inclusive; any listing of great Indian writers that limited itself to Rushdie and Seth would be risible.

“The biggest-selling newspapers in the country are no longer English-language broadsheets but those printed in Hindi.”

Regional-language newspapers, especially those in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam and similar languages, have always outsold papers in English and had wider readerships.

Mr Verma yearns for the day “when Hindi literature has the same popularity as Russian works or Latin American authors”.

Pawan Verma, who knows the state of literature in India rather better than the author of this article, would almost certainly have added a caveat to the effect that he was speaking of a worldwide popularity. Within India, Hindi literature enjoys a far wider and more involved readership than literature in English; IWE authors number their sales in the thousand, while their more successul counterparts (again, not just in Hindi but in certain other Indian languages) add a couple of zeroes onto those figures.

I have one word for the Guardian writer: research. It can be fun, you know, doing it?


  1. Is it hep these days to join the Hindi Bachaon Andolan? Shall we coin an acronym – HBA (like NBA of the A.Roy fame)? That boorish language deserves a Sophie-Molish funeral…and a thousand pities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s