(In 1999, there was neither Dadri nor Narendra Modi phenomenon. But a man like Khushwant Singh truly served as a mirror to the development of Indian English literature.)
Sahitya Akademy is in news for all obvious reasons for about a month now. But amid a thirst for publicity in the garb of protecting India's liberal culture, many writers have returned their awards. BJP president Amit Shah has virtually dismissed the protest saying, "All the writers returning their awards are protesting against Congress and Samajwadi Party governments". His argument being Dadri happened in Samajwadi-ruled Uttar Pradesh and perhaps most awards were given during Congress regime.
For reasons best known to the patrons of Sahitya Akademy, a body formed in 1954 is run by government money, does not pass the test of critical and clinical objectivity.
In an interview given to me (blogger, then a Reporter with Press Trust of India (PTI) in 1999, Khushwant Singh had demanded for abolition of Sahitya Akademi sparking off editorial comments.
Of course, Khushwant Singh is known for his unconventional mannerism. Marxist Ashok Mitra once called him a ‘pretender’ of a writer.
(Excerpts of an interview given by Khushwant Singh to Nirendra Dev, Courtesy PTI Golden Jubilee Souvenir, 1999)
# Tell us about your impression on Indian writing in English in the 20th century?
Khushwant: Well for the first time I think India has emerged on the world writing map. The tremendous contribution made by our writers in English has made it possible for writers outside English speaking countries to earn a niche for themselves. We have produced a stream of first rate writers. They are not only Indian writers but also writers in their own right. Two-three names I can take are Raja Rao, R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and of course Nirad babu (Nirad C Chaudhury)..then comes Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Ruskin Bond…another name Amitava Ghosh.
# Do works of Indian writers in English really reflect the realities of Indian societies? Are they alive to social awakening?
Khushwant Singh: Usually this is the complaint against English writers. But this is never true. Such criticism stems from jealousy than anything else. Because, generally themes of all their works are based in India. And they handle both the plot and the theme with greater sensitivity and skill than the writers in other Indian languages – like Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali, of which I mostly read translation works.
I will also say that English writers display a sharper eye and taste for depth and details. They also cover a wider landscape than other Indian languages. ‘Arey yaar’ in Indian languages there is no equivalent for many English phrases and words. To Indian writers birds can only fly in neela asmaan (blue sky). English writers put a lot of research and specify the wide-ranging varieties of birds and animals. Have you seen that ‘Everest Hotel’ by Allen Sealy.
# Tell us something about the success story of Indian writers in English, especially vis-à-vis the flow of money.
Khushwant Singh: Well that is the cause of maximum jealousy. Who is that fellow from Sahitya Akademi who often comes out with a crusade against English writing? I don’t understand what’s really wrong if some writers through their works make crores of rupees or works from humble people like me run into publications worth lakhs of rupees. The fact of the matter is that it is the survival of the fittest.
That is why I oppose any kind of patronage. The Sahitya Akademi really does not serve anything purposeful other than ‘thoda paisa de diya..udhar award de diya’...The Akademi should be abolished. Those writers who don’t find publishers let them die. Let us not publish anything just for the sake of it. That is why some publishing houses have come up who charge writers themselves to publish their materials. May be even they consider the stuff bad to be marketed.
# Then how do you visualize the future of Indian writing in future?
Khushwant Singh: There is a bright prospect. Most of the writers who have made a mark in this century (20th century) are young. They can go on for 20 to 30 years more….The positive thing is that none of them played to the audience, which creative people should never do. They have not restricted themselves to or concentrated on a singular theme of joint family and so on. They have shown flexibility to move with time and handled their subjects with great skill and craftsmanship.
# What direction would Indian writing in English take? Will we have more of best sellers?
Khushwant Singh: Why not? It is a good trend. I don’t understand why anybody should object to writers like Arundhati Roy, Shobha De and Vikram Seth making large sums of money. By writing best sellers they have not diluted their quality. Arundhati, I think, writes near classical with a good command over language. Amitava Ghosh and Vikram Seth also handle the language very well and display sensitivity.
# Do you think emergence of digital technology, data system or internet culture could be harmful to a creative art like writing?
Khushwant Singh: I really don’t understand all these. I still (1999) write in long hand. I cannot even type, not to speak about these gadgets. But what’s the problem if some people use laptops.
# As a veteran, what is your advice to young writers…your fans?
Khushwant: That’s something very dangerous. Good writers should never try to emulate anybody. Oh Fans! I also have a large number of detractors. I have the best of friends who tell me on my face that I write absolute filth. There was an editor friend who once said I make an art of bullshit. I said I take it as a compliment.