Christopher Rollason

Unearthing of Indian Writing in English:
A Conversation with
Christopher Rollason and Ludmila Volná

Interview by Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal

Dr. Christopher Rollason is a British national living in France. He obtained his Ph.D. from York University (England), with a dissertation on Edgar Allan Poe. For eight years up to 1987 he was a member of the Department of Anglo-American Studies at the Faculty of Letters of Coimbra University (Portugal). Dr Rollason has worked in recent years in various contexts — institutional contacts, conferences, publications, et cetera, with the following universities: Surrey and Manchester (England), Caen (France), Bologna (Italy), Vigo and Córdoba (Spain), San Marcos (Lima, Peru), and Kakatiya University (Warangal), CIEFL (Hyderabad) and IIT Kanpur, all in India. In March 2006 he was a visiting professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi). He is a member of AEDEAN (the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies). He is also a founding member of the Spanish Association for Interdisciplinary Studies on India (AEEII).

Rollason has published widely on Indian writing in English, on authors such as Raja Rao, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy and Manju Kapur. He has edited and refereed for several Indian journals.

Dr. Ludmila Volná wrote her Ph.D. thesis on the representations of India in Indian writing in English, and she teaches courses on IWE at Charles University in Prague. She conducts her research at IMAGER, a research group of the University of Paris XII, and has published on Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor, Raja Rao, Anita Desai and others and extensively on R.K. Narayan. She has also presented her results at invited lectures and at international conferences in India, in the United States and in a considerable number of European countries.

Dr Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal talks to these two Western scholars of Indian literature in a scholarly way. The interview focuses mainly on the issues of translation, relevance of IWE, the changing phase of English Studies in India, and several other general topics related to literature.

Where does poetry/imaginative literature originate from? Poetry comes as naturally to a poet as leaves to the branches. This instinctive activity cannot be forced on anyone. In a way, creative literature is the outpouring/vomiting of personal emotions. Wordsworth had held the same view: "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Do you agree to this assumption? Or do you consider the role of intellect/ logic in the modification of the literary text more important? Or, should a poet adopt "the middle path," choosing the best of both worlds?

Ludmila Volná: Poetry certainly comes naturally to the poet as an outpouring of his/her emotions, it is a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." But this is not necessarily in contradiction with the workings of intellect. In my opinion, the character of the creation has also much to do with the intellectual background of the creator. But this is not to say that, in the process of creation, the intellect of the author has to be put to work consciously. Rather, an imaginative piece of writing can simply reflect the internal make-up of its author (which includes emotions and intellect) in a less or more complex manner and can be entirely spontaneous.

Christopher Rollason: I suggest the middle path. As I see it, the lyric poem — images, emotions, sensations — emanates from the unconscious. Yet at the same time, the poem is a piece of made work, a construction in language. Edgar Allan Poe highlighted this "madeness" of the poem in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," which explains in rational terms how he wrote went about writing "The Raven," a poem of desire and death steeped in unconscious material. The poet I see, then, as both seer and maker.

If creative literature is the release of the inner emotions, is not Indian Writing in English marred by creative and intellectual dishonesty? Poetry, an instinctive adventure, emerges at the level of highest emotional upsurge. The language of that instinctive pattern cannot be an alien one. I think the deepest emotions are represented in literature of one's native language. If something has touched an author, really, he or she can express it only in his or her first language. A foreign or second language is concerned with our mental well-being; it is not something emotional. Suppose my hand is burned. What will be the medium of my expression? Poetry can flourish in one's language of emotional make-up. So, if an Indian English writer is creating poetry in English, how can it be spontaneous? How can the author claim to be following the tradition of sage Valmiki, in whom poetry emerged without the slightest whiff of artificiality on seeing the killing of the Kraunch birds?

Ludmila Volná: First, let me say that I entirely agree with Raja Rao's statement that the English language is not alien to the Indians. It ceased to be alien as you, Indians, have appropriated it in the same way (and perhaps even more so) as anyone else who is not a native speaker of English and has come to work with/in English. I am persuaded that a second language can become a means of expressions for emotions, even very deep emotions, and I believe that it greatly depends on the individual poet's situation, attitudes and preferences. For example, it may depend on to what kind of experience or feelings the given language is closely related for that person. Here I am speaking from my own experience. Being a Czech native speaker living in France and working in English, I feel as most natural for myself to speak Czech to the Czechs and even to my cats, while when writing poetry (including that about my cats) I can only do it in English, or occasionally in French — when it comes to a phenomenon characteristically related to my life in France. Never in Czech. Apart from that, I would only very reluctantly accept to write a scholarly paper in Czech. I simply do not feel like it. That does not mean that I do not love my mother tongue; on the contrary, I feel most intimate towards it. Nevertheless, I cannot help writing, both creative writing and scholarly papers, almost exclusively in English.

Christopher Rollason: There are IWE writers who have had all of their education in English and who describe English as coming more naturally to them than their native language. Surely, the point is to write in the language one masters best. Then there are also bilingual poets such as Jayanta Mahapatra, who has published in both English and Oriya.

Indian English literature is soaked in Indian myths and traditions. The authors use numberless mythological references. My question is: whom do the Indo-Anglians target as their readers? Due to the overuse of Indian references, sometimes they may become unintelligible to the western readers. How will a westerner understand the allusions from classical Indian mythology and native ethos? I am citing a few verses from Sarojini Naidu's poetry to explicate my point:

To Indra's golden-flowering groves
Where streams immortal flow,
Or to sad Yama's silent Courts
Engulfed in lampless woe,
Where'er thy subtle flute I hear
Beloved, I must go! (qtd. in Iyengar 218)

Even Indians cannot be the primary readers of this type of literature, as most of the Indians are not well-read in the English language. In a way, the readership of Indo-Anglian literature is very limited. It has become a literature of the elite class. It is accessed only by those Indians who are fortunate enough to get an English-language education. So, is not this literature a mere plaything in the hands of the upper-class people, who use it as a thing of fashion or snobbery? Is it not far removed from the masses? Is it not read only by a society of drawing room idlers, casually?

Ludmila Volná: Let me start my answer with a question: do the Indian authors writing in English need to target some particular group of readers? If they use myths while writing in English, it is perhaps because they cannot do otherwise; the myths are a part of their culture. Their works are spontaneous creations which come out of the innermost wells of their beings. That precisely makes the charm of their works, Indianness mediated through the English language! It is the task of the reader to try and understand as much as possible the work he or she is reading, not the task of the writer to make his or her work one hundred percent accessible at all costs. It is an acknowledged fact that the degree of "intelligibility"/understandabilty of a literary work of art depends on the general culture and the education of the reader. And does a good work of fiction or poem not become a means of instruction itself, especially within Indian culture? So the Western reader gets not only entertainment but also information on India, and the Indian reader receives perhaps a stimulus to learn English better. Let then the Western reader become acquainted with Indian culture and the Indian reader become literate in English. And why, after all, should the Indian literary works written in English not be translated into Hindi and Indian regional languages, especially if they are translated into other non-Indian languages?

Christopher Rollason: There can certainly be a problem of accessibility of IWE works to non-Indian readers who are not already immersed in Indian culture. Raja Rao's "The Serpent and the Rope" would not be immediately comprehensible to all and sundry non-Indians. Still, the reader can take a text's Indian cultural references as connoting a general "Indianness" without seeking to know each and every denoted meaning. Meanwhile some Indian classical texts — the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana — and hence some classical references — are much better known abroad than others. In the Sarojini Naidu poem you quote, I myself recognize the Indra and Yama allusions, but admit that not all non-Indian readers will.

Regarding Indian readers of IWE texts in India, let us not forget that English is the only language used in India that is of national reach. A Hindi text risks being understood by few in Tamil Nadu or Kerala. This is less true of an IWE text, since English is more widely understood in those states than Hindi. Nor do I think the pan-Indian English-speaking community is that small: the university-educated are too wide a group to be airbrushed away as "the upper class." It is also the case that an IWE text can be made available to non-English-speaking Indian readers in, say, Marathi or Malayalam translation. Cases in point are — as regards IWE texts translated into various Indian languages — Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.