FEATURE

Continental Drift

What does an increasingly globalized world mean for Indian writers?

Published Winter 2014-15
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A poster in Paris advertising the festival. / Photograph by Jack Llewellyn-KarskiThe horizon ahead was silhouetted by a weird golden mist out of which emerged the two huge yellow arches of a McDonald’s.

I don’t like visiting Lonavala and the desecration of my childhood, but I was thrilled to read recently about a group of digital marketers who had gone there “to enjoy nature and fresh air.” One of them was in the garden of his hotel siphoning the scenery into his iPhone for future Facebooking when an enormous red-and-black-striped centipede rushed up and fastened its fangs in his calf.

O glorious invertebrate!

I never imagined I could feel such pure, intense joy as when I learned that Scolopendra hardwickei survives in my beloved hills, venomous and bad-tempered as ever.

A branch of the global bank HSBC in South Mumbai. / © Andrew Holbrooke / Corbis


Sudeep Sen

Over the past thirty years, writes my friend Olu Oguibe, a Nigerian-born American poet, painter, and academic, “globalization has left a signature imprint on architecture in poor and developing nations.” Structural security fixtures such as steel bars across doorways and windows have proliferated, he says, as have high walls, tall metal gates, and barbed or razor wire around businesses and residences. These fixtures have sprung up in response to a rise in crime that has followed spikes in unemployment, inflation, and cost of living brought on by the IMF and World Bank development-loan programs of the 1980s and 1990s.

In literature too, the impact of globalization has been mixed. One of the most obvious impacts has been in the area of mainstream multinational publishing and distribution, which is increasingly in the hands of very few houses — with various imprints and publishing arms fused and owned by a clutch of holding companies — who are increasingly the kingmakers of the literary scene. This has, in many cases, led to homogenization and a narrowing of publishing plans for the sake of profit. We all know there are various shades and kinds of hierarchies here: popular or genre fiction versus literary fiction, self-help and cookbooks versus serious non-fiction, with drama and poetry being the poor cousins.

The area of translation in world literature has suffered the most. Most contemporary non-English literatures (barring those of a few major world languages) hardly cross the linguistic boundaries within which they are written. Only after a major lifetime prize like the Nobel does a Jose Saramago or a Wislawa Szymborska get any global attention, translation, and there-fore wider readership. This is not how things would be in an ideal world; but the world, as we know, is not ideal or democratic or a level playing field. In this profit-driven environment, it is the smaller, local, “glocal” players that have the courage to experiment and encourage new writing, and still continue to publish experimental and cutting-edge writers.

On the other hand, by removing boundaries of geography, globalization has enhanced the flow of world literature — thereby enriching the literary world. Today it is not unusual to find Indian writers on European shelves and Afro-Caribbean writers on Indian shelves. Writers of merit now have the opportunity to access a world audience. And as writers, we have the opportunity to inhabit different landscapes without really being affected by access to the traditional literary cosmopolitan centers — I myself have lived for long periods of time in New York, and London, and also Dhaka and Delhi — and the literature that is being produced in these different places is creating subgenres of its own.

Novelist Akhil Sharma speaks at the World Writers’ Festival. / Photograph by Jack Llewellyn-KarskiWe also need to give credit to the liberation provided by one of the biggest drivers of globalization itself: the Internet. These are the days of high-speed broadband access to information — albeit mostly an overload of binary slush. Still, widespread Internet access has made literary reading, writing, and sharing more democratic. High-quality publications are now unlocked from the constraints of the print media. Of course, not everything out there makes the grade, but the floodgates are open, and that can only be good.

There will be arguments for and against globalization; our perceptions of its impact will change color and texture over time. What will remain unchanged, however, is the ability of literature and poetry to enrich, inspire, and create joy in the quietest, most passionate, and most intimate ways.

 

Sudeep Sen ’89JRN is a poet, translator, artist, documentary film director, and editor living in New Delhi and London. He has written, edited, and translated more than thirty books and chapbooks.


Salma

Tamil is among the oldest Indian languages. Poems and epics that are considered the zenith of traditional literature have been written in it. Tirukkural in particular can be celebrated as a scripture for the whole world for the way it presents a comprehensive code for living.

Globalization is a term that we hear often in third-world countries, particularly in countries like India that are home to such ancient traditions. But while people often complain about how globalization is transforming or destroying our culture, there is another side of the issue.

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