Speaking Volumes: The English India wants

(I began writing Speaking Volumes around 1996-97. Tony Joseph, who was then the features editor of the Business Standard, suggested a weekly column on books after it became glaringly obvious to the paper that I was challenged, to put it politely, where number-crunching was concerned.
Since then, the column has run without a break for years, except for a week in 2005 when I was travelling in Sri Lanka and had no access to the Net, and a three-month time out in 2008-2009 because of health problems.
It’s been wonderful writing Speaking Volumes, but I’m taking the next six months off to work on a personal project. Thanks for all the mail and all the support over the years, and I hope, when the column comes back, that it will be the better for the break.)

What is your definition of good English? For a certain generation of Indians, Macaulay’s children and grandchildren, “correct” English was defined by clear markers.

The BBC accent and the Oxford accent were prized over an American or a local Indian accent. The Booker Prize was followed with more zeal than the Pulitzer, though Indian interest dropped sharply in years when subcontinental authors didn’t feature on the list. We were supposed to read Nobel-winning literature laureates, Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, and the Latin American authors dominated our imaginations far more strongly than, say, contemporary writing from the US.

And we dreamed about having access to English the way we dreamed about owning real estate. In both cases, the markers for what we wanted would change sharply over time. The yearnings of property owners shifted from the ersatz British country house nestled in a corner of the hills to the defiantly faux-American mansionette in Gurgaon or Ludhiana.

English as a language still stands for many things in the Indian mind—access to more and better jobs, a sign of modernity, a way of announcing one’s aspirations to be a global citizen. But the kind of English we think of as acceptable has changed.

This week, the Vodafone-Crossword book award shortlists were announced. The Crossword is now over a decade old, and has been grappling with the problem of which writers to include in the pantheon of Indian English writing–only Indian citizens or only persons of Indian origin. This year was no exception, as the Prize left out some of the best and most original books of the year, especially in the field of non-fiction—too many good authors were disqualified because they held the wrong passport. This is likely to damage the Crossword in future—no prize can continue to ignore the best literature produced in the year, no matter how pure its motives.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Crossword shortlists was the wide gulf between the literary fiction shortlist, and the popular fiction shortlist. In previous years, the literary and the popular have often overlapped, as when Namita Devidayal’s acclaimed memoir The Music Room won the popular award. This year, the books that featured on the popular award shortlist included works by Ashwin Sanghi, Amish Tripathi, Karan Bajaj—there was absolutely no overlap with the literary fiction list, which included novels by Upamanyu Chatterjee, Omair Ahmad and others.

Tripathi, Sanghi, Bajaj and company are part of a larger trend of home-made bestsellers. The Indian Express dubbed some of this writing “aliterature” in a story the paper did on the success of books like Love Via Telephone Tring Tring and similar works. And the Indian English-language publishing industry, after years of hunting for local crime and pulp fiction bestsellers, is more than a little taken aback at the new wave of writers, for whom a racy plot matters much more than either intelligible story-telling or good grammar.

One way to understand the phenomenon of the new bestsellers is to put them through the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale. The Flesch-Kincaid scale was developed to judge levels of comprehension difficulty, based on factors like word length and sentence length. While not foolproof, the scale provides one way to measure intangibles such as reading ease.
Authors like Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie tend to come in at a Reading Ease of 56 % or lower. If you don’t have a long history as a reader, or you came to English late, in other words, these books might be challenging. Chetan Bhagat and Aravind Adiga weigh in, surprisingly, at similar levels—Bhagat has a reading ease of 86 %, Adiga 76 %.

Unlike more literary authors, Bhagat, Tripathi, Sanghi and other authors use almost no passive sentences in their work, making their books much easier for the reader whose English is a functional, acquired second or third language. The pure pulp bestsellers excoriated by critics, including Love Via Telephone Tring Tring, have an almost uniform reading ease score in the 90th percentile—meaning that they could be read even by those who have very limited English and who experience difficulty with the language.

The Flesch-Kincaid test is only indicative, not definitive. To me, what these scores suggest is the obvious: that we’re producing bestsellers the way the Victorian pulp fiction market once did, to cater to thousands of readers for whom English is a functional, usable but still alien tongue. The Victorian penny dreadfuls were written for readers who had literacy, and who had imagination and a love for storytelling in plenty. What they lacked was a history of reading, and a home-grown canon. In that absence, they turned, as Indian readers are now doing, to pulp fiction as comfort food and junk food, rather than literature. And the gap between them and readers who think of books as literature, rather than a bag of chips, is likely to become even wider over the next decade.





3 responses to “Speaking Volumes: The English India wants”

  1. J. Alfred Prufrock Avatar

    A matter of economics, too. MacDonalds vs fine dining. It bothers me, and it bothers me that it bothers me.Were you referring to this? http://bit.ly/a70WIB

  2. Nila Avatar

    Yes, thanks so much for the link–have included it in the story now.It bothers me that it bothers me, too. I'm not a language purist, and I like the energy of Indian English; but the new writing is illiterate, often poorly imagined and has such a truncated vocabulary. It's like reading very bad Bangla pulp fiction–you're aware that this is just books-as-jhal-muri, but it seems such a waste. Perhaps it's snobbery to ask for better, more challenging pulp fiction, but it's also appalling to think of anybody subsisting on a diet that consists solely of Macburgers.

  3. Mr. D Avatar

    +1 to the it bothers me that it bothers me. But I also imagine it to be part of an growing-up process, which starts around these years and evolves in to something more literate, intelligent and readable. Bollywood, for instance, is diversifying when it comes to plots, themes and narratives – slowly, but one hopes that it's going someplace.

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