Thursday, December 27, 2012


I define ‘Indian Literature’ as a network of interliterary processes and communities, against which the individuality of the individual literatures on the sub-continent can be understood. The conventional definitions of the term have often considered it as a ‘category’ or as elusive essence of some abstract quality of‘Indianness’ which seem to reside in the individual literatures. The present working definition avoids the sterile and nationalistic ‘ unity vs. diversity’ debates by contrasting the shared and the overlapping literary elements with those which are distinctly ‘ intra-literary’. The shared or the interliterary processes do not signify a ‘unity’; in fact, they can be understood only in the context of differences and fluid boundaries of linguistic, cultural and artistic processes. The interliterary approach focuses on the literary phenomenon as ‘processes’ rather than as products and hence avoids ‘essentializing’ tendencies of the conventional way of thinking about Indian literature.

The need to study Indian literatures in wider comparative framework has often been reiterated by renowned scholars of comparative literature like Sisir Kumar Das, Amiya Dev , GN Devy, Chandra Mohan and AK Singh. However, an elaborate theoretical framework for analysis of interliterary relationships in the Indian context which accounts for parallels, affinities and divergences is missing. I propose that the theoretical notion of interliterariness as elaborated by the renowned Slovak comparativist Dionyz Durisin (1984) which highlights the interconnectedness and interactional relationships between multiple literary, cultural and social processes is of significant theoretical utility in comprehension of the most of the important literary phenomena on the Indian subcontinent. The notion can be understood as being dialectically related to the notion of ‘intra-literary’ processes. It provides a comparative framework to analyze literary texts, movements, literary cultures in India by focusing on the complex historical interplay of diverse literary, artistic and intellectual traditions which often collide, overlap, blend and give rise to hybrid aesthetics and heterogeneous cultural formations which cannot be understood in isolation or as monolith belonging simply to a single literary tradition or language.

Dioynz Durisin in Theory of Literary Comparatistics (1984), defines 'literary process' as the " inner laws of development of literature." He elaborates upon the goal of literary studies,and comparative literature is" to comprehend the literary phenomenon means not merely to describe its constituents, or to point out their mutual affinity and interdependence within the work of literature, but to reveal the multifarious affinities of the literary phenomenon and the individual procedures with the social, cultural, artistic and literary background in the widest sense of the word". (p. 11).  He distinguishes interliterary relationships into two interconnected and overlapping fields: those resemblances caused by genetic (contactual) relationships and literary resemblances (analogies) brought about by typological affinities. The genetic ( contactual) relationship in his theory does not imply the search for ‘origins’ and ‘influences’, but describes ‘ the coherence of the work of literature with preceding tradition…i.e. the relationships which one way or another participated in bringing it into being” (105).”  He notes, “Contactual study takes into consideration various forms of literary reception, while in typological study, we speak of literary analogies, affinities or inaffinities. While the forms of literary reception express a certain degree of direct contact, the typological analogies represent a considerably freer similarity, not determined by direct contact or genetically” ( 193).

He further distinguishes two forms of ‘contactual/genetic’ relationships into external contactual and internal contactual relationships. The external contactual relations would include things like “various reports and mention of the literature of other countries, actual contacts between writers and persons of letters, literary critical and literary historical studies of phenomena of foreign literatures and so forth’, while the ‘internal contactual relationships’ are ‘immediate’ and find their reflection and application in the actual structure of the literary phenomenon. One can discern a greater degree of involvement of foreign values in literary phenomenon like the works or literary movements.This distinction of contactual relationship is crucial for Durisin because ,” it is not only important as regards the degree to which foreign literary values participate in the formation of the developmental processes of the recipient literature, but also from that of the definition of the inner potentialities of the giving phenomenon for taking effect within the bounds of the native land” The internal contacts have received substantial attention from the scholars of comparative literature, however, according to Durisin there is always a danger of being mechanistic and  positivistic in the search for influences. Durisin lays stress on the historical , social  and cultural contexts and reciprocality of these literary resemblances, which in his view, eliminates the danger of being a ‘influence” hunter. (107). Durisin also points out the very crucial role of the recipient literature and resulting selective standpoint which determines and shapes the ‘internal contactual’ relationships. With regards to the relationship between the recipient milieu and the giving phenomena, he proceeds to make another significant distinction between ‘ direct’ or immediate contact or ‘intermediated’ contact. The direct contact reflect “ an immediate relationship to the literary values of other national literature and assume direct contact with the original work”, while in the mediated contact, the role of mediators and modes of mediation ( like informatory reports, news items and translation) is of great importance. If the intermediatory link belongs to a third national literature, the examination of its role becomes the part of the study of what Durisin calls the processes of world literature. ( 124-125) Durisin further differentiates the typological resemblances as being brought about by social, literary and psychological conditionalities. The socio-typological analogies for Durisin mean “general social conditionality of literary typological affinities, the roots of which lie in ideological factors relating to social ideas. Although this appears throughout the structure of the work of art, it is usually most intense in the intellectual constituents, reflecting the philosophy of the times and the artists’ Weltanschauung. We can include here those phenomena which reflect the individual forms of social consciousness and which find a specific application in literature.”(197).

Durisin (273-275) also provides an interesting theorization of the notion of ‘interliterary communities’, the communities which share interliterary processes and the communities which are related in an interlitrary way. He classifies various types of interliterary communities like those communities which are ‘ethnically related national wholes, living in a single state unit’ and those communities which are ethnically kindered nations which do not share co-existence in a common constitutional unit. The communities in a state, like various linguistic groups belonging to the nation India, form a relations of kinship by common political and social destiny. Durisin also notes how certain communities having no social or ethical bond become interliterary due to  history and form a common constitutinal unit. The example can be of the colonial the colonized relationship between the United Kingdom and India.

This theoretical schema can be usefully deployed in analysis of most of the significant literary phenomena on the subcontinent. For instance, the Bhakti movement which contributed immensely to the development of the modern Indian languages and literatures can be fruitfully viewed as an interliterary phenomenon. Many of the Bhakti texts bear an intertextual relationship with the pan-Indian sanskrtitic heritage consisting of important cultural texts like the vedic texts, the puranas, the epics and the classical Kavya literature. Important themes, motifs, metaphors and symbols from this heritage are integral to the structure of Bhakti poetry. This ‘internal contactual relationship’ of the Bhakti poetry in the modern Indian languages with the Sanskritic heritage is a typical case.  At the same time, what Durisin terms as ‘external contactual relationships’ proliferated owing to the fact that the Bhakti composers were pilgrims and wandered far and wide on the subcontinent. The Marathi Bhakti poet Namdeo left his mark not just on the Sikh scriptures in Panjab, but also seems to have contributed to Gujarati Vaishanava Bhakti as can be discerned in the use of Marathi lexical items and inflections in the works of Narsinh Mehta. Narsinh’s famous composition ‘Jala Kamal Chandi Ja Ne Bala’ uses the word ‘bala’ for affectionately addressing the child Krishna. The Marathi inflection ‘ cha’ in the signature line of Narsinh Mehta’s poetry as ‘ Narsaiya-cha swami’ is another illustration of the contactual relationship between Gujarati and Marathi. Another example can be of Kabir who is a major presence on the Bhakti poetry in most of the Indian languages. The social typological affinity lies in the politics of caste which is pervasive on the subcontinent and the Bhakti movement often rebelled against the caste, class and gender discrimination. The literary analogies can be found in similar literary devices and genres of the oral tradition of the Bhakti poetry. Durisin’s notion of interliterary communities can provide us a dynamic model to map the shifting linguistic and cultural communities funtioning in an interliterary modes in the pre-colonial times.

The colonial encounter was a distinctive type of interliterary ‘contact’ which is studied at length by the postcolonial theorists. This contact was both ‘external’ as well as ‘internal’ and the politically unequal relationship between the giving phenomena and the receiving phenomena was both ‘ direct’ and ‘mediated’. This contact resulted not just in new literary forms but also newer forms of social, cultural and intellectual life on the subcontinent. The ‘modern’ literary forms like the novel, the short story or the modern drama emerged out of this ‘colonial contact’. These newer literary forms were not derivative or slavishly imitative as some people would believe . As Durisin stresses the significance of the recipient literature and resulting selective standpoint which determines and shapes the ‘internal contactual’ relationships. Which means the native literary traditions and the ‘intraliterary’ processes play a crucial role in determining the reception of the foreign forms and shapes them in a distinctive manner? The analysis and description of the emergence of the modern novel in Indian languages by Meenakshi Mukherjee in her Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India (1985) can be seen as an interliterary account of the rise of a literary form in India. The account does not uses Durisin’s schema but does depict how the native narrative traditions combined with the foreign ones to produce works like Indulekha which were also at times superior to the novels they claimed to be inspired by. The problem with the ‘influence’ theory of ‘cause-effect’ explanation of this interliterary transaction is that it automatically privileges the ‘ influencer’, which in this case, is not surprisingly the cultural form of the colonizer over the ‘influenced’ which happens to be the colonized. Durisin’s model which stresses the historical and social contexts of this interliterary interaction which enables us a better understanding of the processes.

One can also analyze the phenomenon of ‘modernism’ in Indian literatures as an example of interliterary phenomena. Bholabhai Patel (1989: 251-261) has discussed how Baudelaire and Tagore were major influences on the emergence of the modern Gujarati poetry. He also notes how translations of Baudelaire, Eliot and Rilke and the poems on the Western poets and the Greek myths were common in both the languages. The western avant-garde modernist literature combined with the avant-garde literature in other Indian languages overlapped to produce the Indian version of the international modernist movement. Howerver, the literary resemblances were not merely due to ‘contactual’ relationships but also due to ‘analogical and typological parrallels in many social processes like urbanization, industrialization and the global catastrophic events like the world war II. The distinctive history of the subcontinent also created a ground for the reception of the international modernist movement. As Patel notes, “Independence uncovered us totally, without reservation. Independence and Partition, and with that urbanization and industrialization, shook the creative sensibility of the poet to the roots; and it became urgent for him to explore new poetic  techniques to express his new and sharpened mental states…..he was in tune with Baudelaire’s urban consciousness..(257)”. Almost similar stories can be narrated about the rise of the modernist literatures in other Indian languages like Marathi where the modernist poets like BS Mardhekar, Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar wrote in the similar contexts.  The interliterary relationships with the western poetic and intellectual movements like Imagism, surrealism, Dadaism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and phenomenology is commonplace in most of the Indian literatures after Independence.  Calling these relationships as ‘influences’ hardly helps us to analyze the specifics and the concrete manifestations of the hybrid and heterogeneous poetics and politics of the period. The analysis of the external contactual relationships like the visits of the Indian writers and intellectuals to the west ( like Mardhekar’s visit to England, or Dilip Chitre’s visit to Iowa Creative Writing Program) and the foreign writer’s visit to India( like Allen Ginsberg’s visit to India and his contact with many Indian writers during the sixties) or the correspondence between writers can help us to understand the phenomenon of the modernism in a more useful way. The analysis of distinctive typological inaffinites and divergences at social and historical level can help us to understand the differences in production, consumption and circulation of modernist discourses in various Indian languages. It can explain the reasons behind Bholabhai Patel’s observation that modernism in Gujarati was a late arrival compared to Bengali. It can also help us to comprehend the affinities and divergences between the little magazine movements in Indian languages like Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali.  The social typological affinities and convergences in modernism owes a lot to the similar interliterary and interlingual history of the languages. The overlapping histories of colonialism, nationalism, the rise of linguistic chauvinism leading to the linguistic formation of the states, the impact of partition, the so called ‘ Green Revolution’ , caste-based social and electoral politics, the impact of Indo-China war etc can help us understand the convergences and divergences of modernism in various Indian languages in a more comprehensive way. The view  of ‘ Indian Literature’ as consisting of a groups of of ‘interliterary communities’ living under the state unit and sharing similar political and social destiny can help us to map the concrete dynamics of the significant interliterary procesess ( like modernism, dalit and the feminist literatures).

This framework can also help us to analyze the later interliterary movements like the Dalit movements, nativisms, feminism by focuses in various kinds of contactual relationships between literatures and various kinds of typological analogies conditioned by social and cultural similarities and differences. The framework can help us to focus on the concrete contacts and analogies instead of the vague ‘cause effect’ theorization of ‘influences’. It can help us to overcome the implicit hierarchization in the discussion of ‘influence’ and concentrate on actual events, texts and interactions rather than impressionistic narrative of influence studies. Durisin’s theorization of the notion of interliterary communities is also of significant utility to study the interliterary relationships on the subcontinent and also to map historical shifts and mutations of the dynamic interliterary processes on the subcontinent. This sort of historical mapping of the warps and wefts of literary procesess will take us step closer in writing a comprehensive history of Indian literatures.


Abhai Maurya. Confluence: Historico-Comparative and Other Literary Studies. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd.,1988

Amiya Dev and Sisir Kumar Das (ed.) Comparative Literature: Theory and Practice, IIAS, Shimla and Allied Publications, 1989

Bholabhai Patel,’The Emergence of Modernity in Gujarati and Bengali Poetry” Dev and Das eds. 1989, 251-262

Dionyz Durisin, Theory of Literary Comparatistics, Veda, House of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislavia, 1984, Trans. Jessie Jocmanova

Marian Galik, “ Interliterariness as a Concept in Comparative Literature”, CLC Web: Comparative Literature and Culture, ISSN 1481-4374, 2000

____________“ East-West Interliterariness: A Theoretical and a Historical Overview” in Dev and Das eds. 1989, 116-128

Meenakshi Mukherjee in her Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India (1985)

Sisir Kumar Das, “Why Comparative Indian Literature”, in Dev and Das ed. 1989,94-105

( Published in Sahitya Vithika, Praveshank, Ardhavaarshik Antarrashtriya Shodh Patrika, Varsh: 1, Ank: 1, Decemeber 2012, Peer Reviewed Bilingual Bi-Annual Research Journal, Vallabh Vidya Nagar, Ed. Dr. Dilip Mehra, ISSN: 2319-6513)

Translating Creative and Critical Texts: Theorizing the Difference

As a practicing poet, critic and translator, I feel that though these are distinct activities, all of them have elements of creativity, critical thinking and intercultural aspects common to them. These elements of course vary in proportion. Creative writing involves critical labour, as Eliot pointed out. Critical writings involve creativity of reading and creativity of presentation. Both these activities have intercultural dimensions. Translation involves a high degree of creativity, critical sense and intercultural awareness, probably more than the other two activities. However, this does not mean that they are indistinct or homogenous activities. I think of them, in Wittgensteinian way, as being different ‘language games’ with only a faint ‘family resemblance’ to one another.

As a translator of Gujarati literature, I have translated short stories of noted writers like Nazir Mansuri and Mona Patrawalla and poetry of Narsinh Mehta apart from the contemporary poets like Mangal Rathod, Rajesh Pandya, Rajendra Patel and Jaidev Shukla. I have translated a good amount of contemporary Marathi poetry.

However, my experience of translating critical prose is fairly limited. Thanks to persuasion of Prof Rakesh Desai, I translated two articles on Narmad by Bhagwatikumar Sharma and Gulabdas Broker. I have also translated an essay by Ashok Vajpai into Marathi titled ‘Kavita Main Kya Hota hai’. In short I have some experience of translating both the kinds of texts: creative and critical texts.

Whether translation of critical prose differs substantially from creative writing ultimately depends upon whether you conceive of critical writing as being distinct from creative one. What I have to say here is in no way new or original. In fact, for many who are not conversant with the implications of literary theories, what I say may sound obvious. However, the postmodern theory has radically questioned what we have taken for granted or taken for obvious and hence, I have framed this discussion around the theoretically assumptions of poststructuralist theory. 

In the present paper, I argue that the abstract postmodernist and poststructuralist theories of literature which seek to erase the distinction between the literary and the non-literary or critical are of little use to me as a translator working with concrete texts. It is ironical how often the poststructuralist theoreticians who celebrate contradiction and difference are only too willing to erase the distinction between the artistic and the non-artistic. This impulse probably owes something to the postmodern condition which has played a crucial role in establishment of poststructuralist theory.

The formalist view of literary text as self-referential and autonomous, and the poststructuralist view texts as essentially intertextual seem theoretically irreconcilable. One is left in a theoretical aporia as the literary text seems to be paradoxically both: a self referential and autonomous order, AND an intextual entity.

However, I believe that this paradoxical and self-contradictory nature of the literary texts sets it apart from the non-literary ones.  This means though the literary texts are intertextual, they are primarily self-referential and self-sufficient. They are primarily about themselves. On the other hand critical texts are primarily about other texts. This is other way of saying what is traditionally believed of the difference between literature and criticism: literature is ‘autotelic’ and autonomous, criticism is parasitic, depending on literary texts for sustenance.

However, though the distinction is theoretically a contentious one, it is still a useful one empirically.  At least, in the context of the texts I have translated.

Consider, for instance a passage from Mona Patrawalla short story ‘The Clasps’:

It was not yet midnight; even then the village was dead silent. In the dark and cold Margshirsh night, the village stood as if, frozen, amid the dense sag, mahuda and bamboo forest. On the Valsad-Billimora highway, trucks laden with timber stolen from the outskirts of the village droned occasionally, honking and quaking the whole village. After they were gone and there was the immense silence again. Plains surrounded the village and then the Sahyadri valleys and mountains enfolded it.  These hills seemed to embrace the village full of small mud huts with their roofs of paddy straw. Bamboo groves surrounded the entire village as if they were ubiquitous bhungara cacti. It was a large village. Soon after nightfall, the village guards would light and hang up the lanterns on the poles. Then the whole village fell silent.  If one had not seen the lanterns hanging or bells ringing behind the chippa carts bound to the hatwada, he would be terrified to death at the sight of lone lantern approaching in the night. Besides, there was the crematory near the river Kavery behind the village. Many people lost their lives by drowning in the depths of this river. So the horror of ghosts, spirits or chudels would make the villagers peer into the darkness.  The needle of suspicion, however, would all the time point towards Kanta, the witch.

In spite of intertextual allusions to things like Margashirsh and stories of ghosts, the passage is designed to create a self sufficient world in which the narrative occurs. The primary purpose of such a passage is to evoke an aesthetic response to a sinister and dark world of Kanta.

On the other hand consider a critical text on Narmad by Bhagwatikumar Sharma:

The disposition for social reformation and for combating social evils of the age was so deeply ingrained and powerful in the poet Narmad that he could not remain content with literary compositions, essays and lectures. Hence it was inevitable that he would enter the field of journalism. In fact, it would have been surprising had Narmad not turned out to be a journalist.

The germs of journalistic temperament are extensively found in Narmad’s nature, in his activities and in his prose style. He was by nature a person of ‘Josso’- the irrepressible spirit. He was by innate nature given to opposing social evils and to promoting social reforms. He was often impulsive, impatient, decisive and completely unafraid. These are considered to be essential qualifications of a true journalist and so these traits molded the journalist in him.

Though there is a narrative side to this discourse, the intention is not to create a seemingly autonomous world as can been found in the earlier discourse.

Even when there is quaint sort of archaic rhetoric in Gulabdas Broker’s essay ‘Narmad: The Renaissance Man’, the rhetoric is not exactly ‘poetic’:

Narmad was undoubtedly a poet. He might not have polished much of his writing, but even then he was a poet. There wasn’t much possibility of doing so in those times. Though many of his poems are definitely uncouth, there can be no denying the fact that he was a poet.

He was a dauntless man- though he may have been conceited at times, and often he might have fought the battles which were not his, yet one cannot deny the fact that whenever time came to fight, he was not the one to run away.

Though he might not be much of a scholar in the true sense of the word, but he was unquestionably a complete connoisseur of knowledge. As he was working with scarce resources of his times, it was difficult to do sound scholarly work in the up-coming field of literary studies.  Yet whatever work that he did, like preparing the dictionary, writing about prosody, studying the  folklore, researching the old poetry, reflecting upon history and so on, it was not possible to do these things without deep interest, passion and understanding of these subjects.

One notices that the literary and the critical are two distinctive discourses, differing in the form, content and function from each other and can be marked by distinct rhetorical strategies. The translator has to be aware of the distinct nature of rhetoricity of two kinds of discourses. The literary texts are far more artistically complex and self-sufficient than the critical ones. In Jakobson’s terminology (1960), the critical discourses privilege the ‘referential function’ of language while the poetic use of language focuses on ‘the message for its own sake’.

Having said this let me add that there are many kinds of creative texts and there are many kinds of critical texts and translator has to be aware of these differences within the categories. There is no need to point out that translating a Ulysses or Finnegan’s’ Wake is more difficult than translating Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy, or that translating Harold Bloom or Jacques Derrida would be obviously more difficult than translating Gulabdas Broker or Bhagwatikumar Sharma. The strategies and devices of the translator also vary from text to text.

My personal belief is that the translators of literary texts have to be creative writers in the first place. Though this may sound dogmatic, very often, the translator who has no experience of creative writing has no idea why and how literary devices are employed and what is the significance of those devices. The non-literary translator may not need to know how symbolism, archetypal patterns, or metaphors function in poetry or how narrative techniques of flashback or  foreshadowing function in fictional work or what is the significance of such devices in the totality of the literary text. However, such a knowledge is prerequisite for the literary translators. Hence, one can expect a bilingual short story writer to translate short story more effectively than the translator who has no experience in writing short stories. One can expect a bilingual poet to be a better translator of poetry than a person who has no experience of writing poetry.

This means a literary translator ought to have literary competence, that is, not just the knowledge of literary devices, their function and significance in the totality of a text but also the knowledge of how to use them in an appropriate ways. After all, he is writing a new short story, novel or a poem. It implies that the literary translator ought to be much more than a critic.

The theoretical question whether the literary and the non-literary discourses and consequently the literary and the non-literary translation are essentially different can be conceived of in a Wittgensteinian way. The literary and the critical discourses may not be ‘essentially’ different from each other, but are two different ‘language games’. The similarity within the categories of the literary and the non-literary can be explained in the terms of ‘family resemblances’ (Wittgenstein, 1958:31) rather than essences.  

If literary and non-literary translations are two different language games, it means that there is an element of dexterity and skill involved in playing those games and some players are more skilled than others.


Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigation. Trans. GEM Anscombe, 2nd ed, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1958
Roman Jakobson Closing statements: Linguistics and Poetics, Style in language, T.A. Sebeok, New-York, 1960.
T.A. Sebeok.  Style in language, New-York, 1960.

(Published in 'Between the Self and the Other: Translation as Praxis' ed. Rakesh Desai, New Delhi: Saroop Book Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2013)