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Knit India Through Literature

Interview by Vani Viswanathan

[box]India is blessed with a rich linguistic heritage, and it’s no exaggeration to say that each brings with it a treasure trove of literature. However, how much of it do we know, how many of us read literature in our Indian mother tongue, and how much of it is getting lost as we give way to English taking over our lives in more aspects than one? In conversation with popular Tamil author Sivashankari, Vani Viswanathan discusses these questions and also uncovers more on the author’s effort to bring attention to Indian literature, the Knit India through Literature project.[/box] [box type = “bio”]Sivashankari is a prolific Tamil writer, active in the scene for the last four decades. She has written over 36 novels, 48 short novels and 150 short stories, and is also an activist and is known for her especial sensitivity to social issues.[/box] [box] THE KNIT INDIA THROUGH LITERATURE PROJECT Having worked for 14 years, Sivasankari completed her project KNIT INDIA THROUGH LITERATURE,in June 2009. She launched this project with a mission to meet and interview the stalwart writers of all the 18 Indian languages that are approved by the VIIIth Schedule of Indian constitution. These interviews accompanied by a creative work of the respective writer, are published along with her travelogues of the regions, as also an in-depth article by a scholar on the cultural and literary heritage of the various languages. The Tamil and English editions of the first volume the SOUTH, the second volume the EAST, the third volume the WEST and the final volume the NORTH of this project have been published in 1998, 2000, 2004 and 2009 respectively.[/box]

What is your opinion on the scene of vernacular literature in India these days, in terms of the quality of content and the impact it is making on our society?

The Indian vernacular literary scene is very vibrant. Despite the invasion by electronic media, literature in vernacular languages has managed to survive, and healthily at that. In almost all languages, experiments have been conducted in every genre of literature – be it modernism, post-modernism, structuralism or cubism. During the time I was doing my project ‘Knit India Through Literature’, I was fortunate to come across many such experiments in various Indian languages. To give you an example – Mr. Indra Bahadur Rai, a senior writer who writes in Indian Nepali, has experimented with cubism, even as far back as 25-30 years ago. As for the content of our literature, the writers have dealt with every aspect of society, starting from the freedom struggle to the present day problems, very effectively in their novels and short stories. This in turn has definitely influenced the thinking of the reading public.

As a generation, today’s Indian youth are more comfortable and proficient in reading English literature – be it Indian or otherwise – but very few are able to, or do, read in local language literature. Why do you think this is the case?

Yes, it is a sad situation and it pains me to note that we elders have failed to inculcate the pride about our languages in the minds of our younger generation. The reasons for the younger generation preferring to read English literature are many. First and foremost, many families have come to believe that it is fashionable and modern if one speaks only in English. Even at home, parents prefer talking with their children in English, instead of their mother tongue. And, people believe that it increases social status only if you are educated in English and not in any vernacular language. Of course, as an international language, English must be learnt by everybody, but not at the cost of one’s mother tongue. Why youth, I know many elders who would like to carry an English book rather than a vernacular book. Before we blame the youth for what they are today, I personally believe that the elders, who are the role models for the youth, should change their attitude and give up this stigma against their mother tongue.

What do you think about translations of local language literature? Given that few of India’s emerging reading class know to read the local language, would it be a better option to draw them into this world? Besides, we would be getting more audiences – both national and international, wouldn’t we?

I for one strongly believe that in a country like India, where so many languages are spoken, translation is one of the bridges which can keep us united and together. It is impossible even for a linguist to be fluent in all the languages that are spoken in India. If that is the case, what about an ordinary individual who is familiar only with his / her regional language? To provide equal opportunity for every literary lover to read the best literature from other languages, the only means is good translations, or rather, trans-creations. I sincerely hope that the central and state governments come forward to create centres for translations and trans-creations, to help bring in the best literature from other languages into theirs.

Sivasankari Chandrasekaran

Your project KNIT INDIA THROUGH LITERATURE is a fantastic effort to bring into light known and less-known gems within Indian literature. Congratulations for the brilliant job! What made you decide to embark on such a project?

About ten years ago I was in Mysore, to participate in a literary meet that attempted to analyse a novel written by a Black American woman writer. Around twenty writers from different parts of the country had gathered there to analyse the work in minute detail. Dwelling on the discussions on my journey back, I was suddenly struck by the incongruity or irony of the whole situation. While we had sufficient knowledge of world literature – Black, Latin-American or European – to be able to thoroughly analyse it, we were woefully unaware of our very own literary treasures.

Leave alone the people, even our learned writers do not have much of a knowledge of literary works in Indian languages other than their own! What could be the reason for this? The fact that there had not been much effort to translate literary works into other languages could be a possible reason. Was it this thought that sowed the seed for the ‘Knit India through Literature’ project in me? Thinking back, I believe that may well be the case.

On yet another occasion, when I was in Sikkim for a writers’ meet, I found that the writers who had congregated there had heard about Tamil Nadu’s idli/sambar (a traditional breakfast food) and her silks but knew next to nothing about her literature. This had quite an impact on me. There is another aspect to this issue. While it is true that others do not know much about us, isn’t it also a fact that we know hardly anything about them? Calcutta is synonymous with rasagollas, Rajasthan with marble and Kerala with coir. How much do we Indians know about the literature created in States other than our own, and what sort of an effort have we made to get to know their traditions, their customs, their joys and sorrows?

I am not saying that there haven’t been any cultural exchanges amongst us at all. A dweller of Kasi (Varanasi) may name his son ‘Ramnath’ after the presiding deity in the southern temple town of Rameswaram. Or a Tamil girl could be named ‘Vaishnavi’ after the goddess who dwells in the foothills of the Himalayan ranges. Meera bhajans are sung in the South and Kathakali is performed in Delhi. Religious, cultural or even political links have been established over time. But are they sufficient to strengthen the unity and integrity of our nation?

It is probably these questions and thoughts that have nurtured the seed of the ‘Knit India’ project within me. Plagued by all these questions, I continuously wondered if I could do something about it. The end result was my project.

How did you decide on whom to speak to – I’m sure the sheer number of brilliant works in the dozens of languages in India would have made it mindboggling for you to decide!

I think I should elaborate here on the ways and means by which I went about choosing suitable writers in each language. First, I wrote to literary associations and leading magazines asking them to identify prominent writers in each language. From the replies, I picked out the common names, contacted them and followed this up with personal interviews. I can assure you that this literary bridge, built with the help of worthy litterateurs, is truly strong. As far as possible, I have tried to include the views of the younger generation as well.

There would surely have been many a memorable experience as you went through your interviews in the 16 years it took you. Could you please share of them?

Meeting every writer who was / is a stalwart in their respective language, was indeed an eye-opener to me in many ways. I have had beautiful experiences with almost every one of them, and it will be impossible for me to narrate all of them. Hence, I shall share with you one such experience. Dr. Shivarama Karanth, the doyen of Kannada literature, was 91 years old when I met and spent time with him for my interview. During the interview, and even after that when we were having lunch together, we were talking casually about global warming and deterioration of the environment. Dr. Karanth said, “What else can we expect from man, who has been so selfish even from the Vedic days! ‘Sarve Janah Sukhino Bhavantu’ (let all men prosper), a selfish principle, should give way to ‘Sarve Jeeve Sukhino Bhavantu’ (let all living things prosper), broad-minded thinking that will benefit the world.” I was struck by the humility and concern in his statement, and ever since, whenever I pray, it is always ‘Sarve Jeeve Sukhino Bhavanthu’.

What were some of the important things you brought back from these interviews?

Our former president Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said, ‘Indian literature is one written in many languages’. After completing my project, I was moved to realise how truthful his words were! Yes, there are a lot of similarities in the themes, as the way of life in every region is almost similar. But, there were dissimilarities too. For example – people in south India have not experienced the agony and pain that was brought through the Partition in 1947. The writers of Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi languages, who have gone through this tragedy, have recorded them movingly in many of their creations.

What did the whole series tell you about Indian literature and its chances for – if I may use this word – survival? Do you see more people reading local Indian literature, in its original form or translated?

I have expressed my views partially in my previous answers. If the literature of any language, not only Indian, has to survive healthily, it is imperative that a lot of activities continuously take place. As I mentioned earlier – encouraging youngsters to learn to read their language and enjoy literature of other languages through translations; having interactions between writers and readers of various languages; government and literary institutions taking active role in promotion of good literature, are all some of the ways we can help promote the survival of literature healthily in any country.

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  1. Sivasankari’s monumetal work has not been properly and fully recognised and appreciated by central and state govts and literary forums.She has spent solid 16 years with single-minded devotion without expecting any reward.She deserves to be honoured in a big way at national level.Will central and state govts wake up atleast now ?

  2. this is a unique and great attempt by an individual which should have been done by institutions like universities or by sahitya academy;

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