[(essay date 2009) In the following essay, Shankar underscores the negotiation between Western and Eastern audiences undertaken by Divakaruni and fellow Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri and questions the obligation of these writers to authentically render their homeland.]
Languages are jealous sovereigns, and passports are rarely allowed for travellers to cross their strictly guarded boundaries.1For a writer of the South Asia diaspora, the habitations that language might provide--whatever the language, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarathi, English--are always conjured up, imaginary shelters that can only be piecemeal. The writer is haunted by the radical nature of dislocation, not singular, but multiple, given the world as it comes to us now [...].2
In his 1912 Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali, W. B. Yeats praised the Bengali poet's work, which had "stirred [his] blood as nothing has for years," as the "work of a supreme culture."3 Yet in 1935, in a letter to their common friend William Rothenstein, Yeats castigated the first Asian Nobel prizewinner for presumptuously writing in English instead of sticking to his native Bangla-bhasha:
Damn Tagore. We got out three good books, Sturge Moore and I, and then, because he thought it more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.4
The questions of whether any Indian-born writer can ever know English, or create "good" literature in the colonial tongue, or if the native language of childhood alone defines authorial identity, and whether writers can ever adequately translate between different cultures to satisfy multiple linguistic audiences--what this volume refers to as the language debates surrounding Indian English and "Other Tongues"--have thus been rampant for at least a century.5 Despite Yeats's vociferous and condescending reprimand of Tagore, he did include seven poems by Tagore in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936). Sixty years later, Salman Rushdie would have vehemently disagreed with Yeats, claiming as he does that the only Indian literature worth reading is in English, and he denounces Indian critics who view the English language as "the bastard child of Empire, sired on India by the departing British."6 Rather absurdly, Rushdie situates only one vernacular Indian writer in translation as "on a par with the Indo-Anglian"--Saadat Hasan Manto. Even Tagore could not meet Rushdie's standards.7
This essay raises questions such as: who writes for whom, in what genres, and which languages? How do writers translate 'native cultures' for their varied audiences--whether domestic or global? How and why do writers claim specific readers? How do authors' locational history and language choices affect their audience, their popularity with non-native reading groups, and, ultimately, their inclusion in academic literary canons? I will not debate whether English is an Indian language,8 or whether writing in English versus what this volume terms...