Where have we heard this before? Last week, after he was chosen for the Jnanpith award, Marathi writer Bhalachandra Nemade took up a pet theme, speaking about the need for “deshivaad (nativism)” in literature. He accused Indian writers in English of “pandering to the West”, and claimed that English was killing other languages in India and elsewhere. One of his targets was Salman Rushdie, who responded by calling Nemade a “grumpy old b…..d”. Back in the 1990s, it was Rushdie who had set off a nativism debate, though from the other end of the spectrum. Introducing an anthology of Indian literature, he had claimed that post-Independence Indian writers in English had created “a stronger and more important body of work” than those writing in the bhashas. Now for a rerun.
Nemade’s argument is that the only authentic experience in literature is that which is rooted in a locale and expressed in the local language. But is indigeneity such a desirable trait in a writer? And is the language of expression the only source of indigeneity? It has been said that Indian writing in English is itself a distinct genre. A pioneer of Indian writing in English, Raja Rao, forged his narrative form by borrowing heavily from an oral tradition that turned every story into mythology. Others, like A.K. Ramanujan, wrote in three languages, including English, refusing to be at home or in exile in any of them.
With migration and exile becoming the dominant states of modern life, the ideas of “mother tongue” and “motherland” need to be reimagined. Nativism, as rootedness in a “local” language, has outlived its relevance even in literary debates.