An Irish paradigm for Indian authors


It was only after having been to Ireland that I discovered the distinctive parallels we Indians have with the Irish. We shared a common colonial past, do have the same love and hate relationship with the British nation, faced the similar trauma of partition and no where it is most discernible than in the unique heritage of the English language. The language of Irish is Gaelic but they are more at ease with the colonial implant of English, a bit like their Indian brethrens. Though indentation of English is not that formidable in India as it is in Ireland but still it is a language that matters, at both the places.

For such a relatively small country like Ireland, to produce a gallery of so many superlative writers and poets is indeed exemplary.  What other country the size of Ireland can claim four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature? And that so in a language that is not theirs from the start. Though W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney have been Nobel laureates, Ireland has even more world-famous literary names in Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Oscar Wilde. Each one markedly changed the cultural landscape of the world, and continues to touch the chord, entertain, and inform readers of today.

The stamp of Irish on English language has been so strong to make Joyce say "In spite of everything, Ireland remains the brain of the United Kingdom. The English, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget — the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilized nations. The result is then called English literature.”

Ireland has been the longest-held colony of the Empire and its history has been inextricably wound up around that of United Kingdom, but in spite of that it has inspired the most passionate nationalism from its writers. They have written in a most obsessive way to depict the life in it and with a command over the language that is without parallel. In Ulysses, one of the finest novels of the century, Joyce celebrates the Dublin wanderings of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom on a single day of June 16 1904. The date is now celebrated in the city every year as Bloomsday. In fact he went on to say that in case Dublin is obliterated from the face of earth, it can again be reconstructed piece by piece from the pages of Ulysses. Perhaps because of  a similar colonial past and the guilt of canonizing an alien language, we Indians somehow can relate to Stephen Dedalus when he laments  …writing in a language that "is his before it is mine," that "will always be for me an acquired speech,", yet simultaneously acknowledging that "when it comes to it, Irish is not my language," A review of Irish literature can throw up the best the English language has to offer and can make us better understand the dilemma, Indian writing in English would always face.

English writing in both India and Ireland was because of the influence of England. The greater the influence from England, the more literature was written in English. Going through the works from the likes of Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahari, or V. S. Naipaul, one can almost feel the strong semblance that Indian writers have with their Irish counterparts and the predicaments they share with them. Whether its an almost pictorial illustration of backwaters of Kerala in ‘The God of Small Things’, or the images of Dublin in Ulysses, the command over the language that is ‘not mine’ is incontestable.  Vikram Seth wrote verses in ‘The Golden Gate’ with the same ease and rhyme as Yeats did all his life. Upamanyu Chatterjee could invoke sprightly, profane, irreverent, erotic and wicked breed of humour in ‘English August’, that has been the hallmark of one and only Oscar Wilde. The Fire and the Rain by Girish Karnad has shades of same genius as did most plays of Shaw. The list can go on and on till you begin to feel that the literary landscape of today’s India is nothing short of a flashback from the era of great Irish writers.

The similar experience of Raj, the comparable calamity of partition where too Irish have a parallel in Northern Ireland that still reels under British suzerainty and the urge to compete with the best had made English writers in India embrace an unfamiliar language that became their medium of interaction with the wider world. The torrent from their writings has thickened now to make them successfully take over the mantle of writing the best in English from the Irish. An Indian psyche that has been through diverse stages of   opulence, magnificence, glory on one end and has experienced intense thrashing and pulverization on the other extreme do make them the best candidate for the job. The awareness of having been subjugated and realization of the fact that they never left their pride, possibly have given the writings from Indian authors the same degree of spontaneity and sublimity that their Irish counterparts have always felt. It’s all too palpable in the erudition of Nirad C. Chaudhary, sensitivities of R.K Narayanan, intellect of Naipaul or story-telling aptitude of irrepressible Khushwant Singh.

The great Irish migration that ultimately resulted in the mighty USA and self-assured Australia also finds an analogous in burgeoning Indian Diaspora that is as much cosseted in the roots as Irish has always been and that is aptly reflected in the writings of Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, Bharti Mukherjee or Bapsi Sidhwa. Remember that, Joyce have written zealously about the land and its people while being unable to tolerate actually living in Ireland, he lived most of his life in Paris. Most of the famous names of Indian literary canon like Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, also reside outside India but have always written avidly about the Indian landscape and dreams of its people.

But in spite of these parallels there is one perceptible difference in the Irish situation. Unlike India, English in Ireland has of late, been a language of masses, encompassing all the shades of everyday life. In India only the creamy layer understands it and even fewer could write it. And also, unlike Gaelic the local vernaculars of India have a long tradition of literary excellence. But nonetheless, increasing love of English language among educated Indians bordered by a strong dose of liberalization and the disparity in size of two countries perhaps neutralizes that disadvantage. And the steady stream of eminent writers pouring out of India makes it all the more apparent to all and sundry.   

One can only make a conjecture at this stage, whether the Indian writers would ever be held in the same esteem that their Irish counterparts have always been. But one thing is for sure that it would take the hardest of toils and extraordinary talent from the current crop of Indian writers to fit in the shoes of the likes of Yeats, Joyce, and Heaney. They would fare better if they would give heed to the words from Irish Nobel laureate; Samuel Beckett "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better".

Tarun Rattan

This entry was posted in Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.