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Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Is the best South Asian literature in English?

Over recent years, South Asian writing has taken the English literary world by storm.

South Asia
The successes and controversies surrounding Salman Rushdie have been followed by plaudits for Michael Ondaatje and Arundathi Roy.

But is the best South Asian literature really written in English or is good or even better work being written in the local languages, like Marathi or Sinhala?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.


Your reaction


South Asian literature would be lacking if we missed either the English component or regional language component

Vikram, USA/ India
South Asian English literature has a more cosmopolitan nature with its tighter integration with world English literature. On the other hand regional language literature has not been static in South Asia. There is a lot of creativity and experimentation going on. Authors in regional languages seem to have much more connection to the local experience and many of their writings have been very rich and unique. South Asian literature would be lacking if we missed either the English component or regional language component.
Vikram, USA/ India

The validity of a piece of literature does not depend on the language in which it is written. But by never writing in, or translating into, English, the writer deprives a world-wide audience of their work.
Adam, Ireland

I feel that literature written in local languages has more power of expression to convey the real meaning the writer wants to put forth. South Asian literature is no exception. At the same time, the efforts of South Asian writers cannot be belittled in advancing English literature. Whereas writers from the West have woven their plots around the significant events of the Raj, the authors in Asia have picked plots from the ordinary life around them and definitely given a new dimension to English literature and its following in South Asia.
Sohaib Talal, Pakistan

It is better to live in a world with a cacophony of languages and scriptures rather than in one where everyone is monotonous and ideas flow in the same direction.
Mowgli Shah, India


Translations lose a lot of the original flavour due to cultural differences

Rajesh Rao, India
Comparisons of literature in English and local languages can be done ONLY by people who understand both languages. This is because translations lose a lot of the original flavour due to cultural differences. For example, Ashok and Meenakshi are common Indian names but if translated, 'One Who Is Not Sad' and 'One Whose Eyes Are Shaped Like A Fish' can sound quite different to the Western reader.
Rajesh Rao, India

Although many Asian writers have adopted English to attain global readership, there are still writers, both famous and upcoming, who use local languages and are successful. It cannot be said that English has taken the place of good literature. Local languages have produced a vast amount of literature that has become world famous even when not being written in English.
Anitha Issac, India

Literature is a reflection of oneself - culture, religion and tradition. These things can be best expressed in the writer's own language whether it be Urdu, Sanskrit, Marathi etc.
Murtaza Jamal, USA

It is wonderful to see South Asian writers from a variety of backgrounds write so successfully in English. At the same time, it would be a serious mistake to think that the current writing in English is all there is to South Asian literature. I do not know about the native languages of parts now in Pakistan, but regional languages in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh have seen some phenomenal developments.
Prem Shukla, USA

It's doesn't matter if South Asian writers write in English or their local language because they have already got a reputation as some of the most successful writers in the world. But it's always better if they write in their own language and translate into English.
Sureshkumar Johnpillai, Sri Lanka/ Norway


Regional literatures of the world have to break the language barrier sooner or later

Agha Ata, USA
Regional literatures of the world have to break the language barrier sooner or later. Very successful attempts have been made by Ondaatji, Roy, Seth and others. Old literature like that of Kalidas was written for the people of its own region, and thus profound appreciation could only be possible from those who read it. However, similar literature written for a trans-cultural readership is indeed a very great achievement.
Agha Ata, USA

It is good to write in English to make the world to understand what is happening in developing countries like India or Sri Lanka. However, it is not going to do any good for the local population. Firstly, the local underprivileged people will not have the money to buy the book. Secondly, they cannot read English. In my opinion, if any book is intend to do good for local people it should be written in a local language. If you write a local story or an issue in English, it is only for the privileged population.
Vendhan, UK

The English literature written in South Asia is mostly related to Western thoughts and ideas or targeted at audiences with a Western mentality. The few that I have read, give me the impression that we are still living in the colonial era - pleasing the "Engraz" is what we want to do. Languages have their own cultures and laws of expression. I believe that literature in the native languages of South Asia truly expresses the feelings of the region's people!
Muhammad Ahmad, Pakistan/ USA

While Indian authors writing in English are winning accolades in the Western world, it is wrong to presume that the quality of local literature is in any way inferior to that produced in English. In fact, some of the best works that I have read are written by contemporary Hindi authors. Sanskrit and Urdu are languages which lend themselves to poetry .The only difference is that works in English have good financial backing thanks to the West while local literature does not.
Biju Rao, India

I strongly believe that the Sub-continent has some of the best literature in the world. Poetry in Urdu is so classical and rhythmic that you will ruin it if you try to translate it into English. India and Pakistan is the home of great poets like Ghalib, Iqbal, Mir and many more. No question American literature has won more Nobel prizes but Indo-Pakistani literature does not needs a noble prize to be acclaimed.
Mat Chaudhry, USA

The works of writers like OV Vijayan and MT Vasudevan Nair are in a class of their own. They have never been threatened nor have their novels been made into English films. So they remain unknown outside South Asia.
Jayakrishnan, India


The "best" South Asian literature does not seem to be the monopoly of any particular language

Prasanta K. Pattanaik, USA
I believe that the debate about whether the best South Asian literature is in English is a little pointless. South Asian writers writing in English have produced some outstanding works (mostly novels and short stories). At the same time, a large number of writers writing in South Asian languages have produced outstanding works too. The "best" South Asian literature does not seem to be the monopoly of any particular language.
Prasanta K. Pattanaik, USA

The English language connection in Indian literary circles has been in existence for centuries for obvious historical reasons. The great contemporary Indian writers such as Roy, Rushdie and Seth have managed to effectively display the unique Indian cultural nuances, using the English language as an instrument of communication. Others have stuck to their regional dialect with equal effect, notably the greatest of them all: Rabindranath Tagore. In a nutshell, I believe that the totally Indian mode of expression can be made independently of any particular language.
Rahul Mahajan, UK

The best South Asian literature is in Sanskrit.
Ajay K, India

The best Indian literature is definitely found in the local languages and Indian English literature cannot hold a handle to what is being achieved in local languages. My own familiarity is with Malayalam literature but I am sure the same is true of other South Indian languages as well.
Anil Das, India


Good literature is good literature regardless of what language it is written in

Chitra, India
I think that by publishing in English these writers and many like them are able to take South Asian culture and traditions to a broader audience! Good literature is good literature regardless of what language it is written in. Judging by the works of Rushdie, Ondaatje, Roy, Seth, etc, I don't think anything is lost in penning their works in English. These authors capture the essence and psyche of South Asians so well, that though you might be reading English, you find yourself drawn into a world where the thoughts become Hindi, Bengali or Sinhala!
Chitra, India

Since the introduction of English in South Asia, some of the more affluent classes have taken to the language and expressed their thoughts in lucid prose and poetry in that language. But it must be realised that even now, a vast majority of South Asians compose prose and poetry in their own language(s). The writers in English merely reach a more global audience and hence seem to suggest to this audience that English is the sole medium of expression in South Asia whereas the truth is, English is just another language South Asians use to write and compose in.
Srinivas Rangaraj, Canada

Literary works in English by South Asian writers have value for their target audience - the Western English-speaking people and the cosmopolitan, relatively privileged people of the subcontinent, especially the elites. As far as the huge majority (probably 95%) of the various peoples of the subcontinent are concerned, the literary output of the well-known writers in question is pretty much irrelevant. This literature has very little direct relevance to and impact on the very people it portrays.
Bulaka Singh, Punjab/ USA

While Indian authors writing in English are winning accolades in the Western world, it is wrong to presume that the quality of local literature is in any way inferior to that produced in English. In fact, some of the best works that I have read are written by contemporary Hindi authors. Sanskrit and Urdu are languages which lend themselves to poetry .The only difference is that works in English have a good financial backing thanks to the West while local literature does not.
Harish, India

Some writers writing in English may have gained prominence overseas, but I still think that the best literature written in South Asia is still in the local languages. But they are not promoted by foreign media, for reasons best known to them.
Ahmad R. Shahid, Pakistan


Modern literature in South Asian languages is still good but the decline in the last few decades is evident

Srikanth Ranganathan, USA/ India
Existing literature in South Asian languages (Indo-Aryan or Dravidian) are very advanced and stylistic. They express the literary genius so peculiar to South Asians much better. However, due to the impact of English-based education native languages inevitably suffer. Modern literature in South Asian languages is still good but the decline in the last few decades is evident. In the future, more and more writers are going to express themselves in English and this is a very sad development.
Srikanth Ranganathan, USA/ India

I think the reason South Asian literature in English is making waves in the Western world is because of hard work, perseverance, dedication and creativity.
Mohammed Najmuddin, India

South Asia does not need the West's approval about their literature. As it is the West has always discriminated against it.
Richard, USA

South Asian writers are inclined to write artistically due to the complexity and artistic tone in the local and regional languages pertaining to that region. It gives English literature a different flavour without compromising language structure or grammar. It helps portray the sociological psyche that people from different backgrounds carry with them.
Guru Shenoy, USA

English is not the natural language of South Asia though it is popular here. The best south Indian literature can be found in Sanskrit. You can never find a match of Kalidasa's literature in any other language of the world.
Raju, India

Roy, M.R. Ananda, Rushdie, Ondaatji of India or Laxmi Prasad Devkota of Nepal have produced excellent volumes in English that stand on their own. However, the works of Devkota (who was the first Nepali writer to write an epic and many other poems originally in English) in Nepali or most works of Panta, Prasad and Nirala in Hindi have a distinct flavour that distinguish them from the current writings in English.
Aruna Kandel-Pandey, Nepal

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14 Apr 00 | South Asia
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29 Jul 99 | South Asia
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