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Tower of Babel

MIRRORWORK: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997. Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West . Henry Holt: 554 pp., $15 paper : INDIA: From Midnight to the Millennium. By Shashi Tharoor . Arcade: 392 pp., $27.95

September 14, 1997|SUNIL KHILNANI | Sunil Khilnani is the author of "The Idea of India," forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Modern India is a linguistic Babel, an incorrigibly garrulous society in a constant, many-tongued conversation with itself. Language famously divides Indians--the country has no single "national" language--and the constitution adopted after India won its freedom 50 years ago opted to give equal recognition to more than a dozen "official" languages and willingly accommodate more whenever necessary. Yet this abundant linguistic variety has also united Indians in a common need to translate, to move between and across their linguistic parishes. Part of what it is to be a modern Indian is to exist in a condition of semantic limbo, a space where languages continually collide with and contort one another.

A Shiva-like linguistic multi-dexterity was indeed a defining trait of the Indian nationalism that put an end to the British Raj in 1947. Men like Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, rejected the idea of a single or homogenous Indian culture in favor of a determinedly multilingual and multicultural picture. They moved comfortably between their regional vernaculars (Gujarati and Hindustani, respectively) and languages, such as English or Hindi, that enabled communication with a larger audience.

English entered India's jostling linguistic world in the mid-19th century, imposed by the British as the language of rule and subjection but equally of education and law. In the hands of men like Gandhi and Nehru, it also became the language of subversion, the instrument whereby the empire was made to look tongue-tied. The history of English's introduction and adoption in India has ensured for it a perpetually uneasy place in the country's public life. Increasingly criticized as the language of an alien elite by those who speak for India's largest single language group, the 300 million Hindi-speakers (who nevertheless remain a minority in a country of almost 1 billion), English has become the focus of swirling cultural resentments. It has ceased to be the language of thought and feeling for all but a very small fragment of Indians (at most 3% of the population), and in the mainstream of Indian life, its uses have been reduced to more narrowly utilitarian functions. Yet it still flourishes: It is the language in which many of India's newly released commercial and industrial aspirations are finding expression, and it also has gained a new lease in India's public life as a common language for the governing elite, which is today drawn from a more regionally diverse background than perhaps at any time since the country's independence.

Even more paradoxically, at this moment of cultural constriction, English has suddenly blossomed into an immense, rebellious creativity in the hands of Indian writers, manifest in the explosion of literary talent from the subcontinent over the last 20 years.

"Mirrorwork" at once is a homage to and a product of this explosion. It collects in rather haphazard fashion several generations of Indian writers who have left their mark on the English language. This necessarily makes for uneven, jump-cut reading. The definition of "writing" used to determine the pieces in "Mirrorwork" is odd, at once too loose and too narrow: It incorporates the unforgettably moving cadences of Nehru's "Tryst With Destiny" speech delivered at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947 (the very moment when India gained independence), and the moody, torrential and unrelentingly writerly wordplay of Arundhati Roy's "Abhilash Talkies" excerpted from her novel "The God of Small Things"--the most spectacular example, in 1997, of the empire talking back. But the collection fails to find any room for poetry, drama and other literary forms that have been important for contemporary Indian writers.

Ostensibly, this collection represents Salman Rushdie's contribution to India's celebration of 50 years of independence. But it has been received in India with some indignation and irritation. The provocation lies not in the individual pieces that have been gathered together as representative of Indian writing but rather in Rushdie's introduction. This is without a doubt a heroically self-serving performance, which makes the anthology less a balance sheet of contemporary Indian writing and more a 50th birthday present bestowed by Rushdie upon himself, midnight's perpetual child. Its implicit function, in the Rushdiean scheme of things, is to produce a pop "literary history" of "Indian writing" since 1947, which reveals that it was all leading up to the arrival on the scene of Rushdie himself. Rushdie uses his selections to arrange a preceding sequence of paternity as well as to show off what he now claims as his progeny.

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