Delhi World Book Fair: Hindi Mahotsav

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I had to choose between two countries: Russia and India.

In high school Russian culture ignited what were already hot, burning adolescent questions about the nature of religion, morality, and the universe. I was particularly impressed by the monologues of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and the Napoleonic assertions of Raskonlnikov, both of whom challenged commonsensical notions about rationality, faith, and morality–many of which remain extant to this day. The first time I studied world religions at my Catholic high school I was similarly intellectually liberated by my discovery of the many complimentary and contending truths of other religious traditions. The universe didn’t have to be the sole property of a single infallible God. This revelation, for a boy who had attended private catholic school since he was six, was nothing short of a revolution. 

In college I strove to increase my knowledge of Russia and India to widen my understanding of what exactly our world is and how its philosophical currents are perceived from other cultural eyes. To this end I relied heavily on literature, loaded up on Russian and Hindi language classes, and stuffed my “general requirements” with whatever classes happened to overlap with East European and South Asian Studies.

This schedule  led to long, sleepless, coffee fueled nights in my dorm room.(As you can probably imagine, learning several languages at once is not easy). I eventually had to abandon Russian: not for lack of ambition, but because I had to confront the reality that time and energy are not infinite.

One of my saddest memories of college was the look on my Russian professor’s face when I sat down in her office to inform her that I would have to terminate my Russian studies. Ah, Professor Sofianovna! There was a woman who had pride her country’s language and literature. There was a woman who dedicated her life to igniting her flame for Russia custom and tradition in the hearts of her students.

I have often wondered, as I progressed with my Hindi studies, whether I made the right decision. If you are following this blog, it is apparent I chose India. But why? It is with a certain amount of relief can I can report that my twenty-year-old rationale is slowly coming to fruition.

In “The Dream of Hindi at the Jaipur Literary Festival,” I quoted Jim Crace as saying that literature transcends the nation in which it was placed to transform our understanding of that country. In a time when our mass media sensationalizes stories and shuns proper research to “break the news” and when our governments feed media outlets with narratives about other nations as they would like them to be seen, I believe that literature and translation plays a vital role in instilling tolerance and building understanding between peoples. There are international relations of governments, but we must also never forget that there are also international relations between publics.

It is for this reason that I was so inspired after witnessing the “book diplomacy” conducted at the Kolkata and Delhi Book Fairs. The Indian national and state governments had hosted “focus” countries for the purpose of improving international relations through the power of books. What a novel idea. Although publics might be hindered from communicating because of a variance in habits, customs, and languages, they are nevertheless similar to one another in their love and pride for their traditions. If art and language alone makes us human, then literature can help bridge these differences by bringing us together into a mutual celebration of our multitudinous humanity.

And yet the structural power imbalances between nations and our inability to escape our own communal and historical prejudices can obstruct us from taking full advantage of this inter-cultural exchange. Confronted with the choice of Russia or India, I chose India because I thought America knew less about it. I was in love at that time with the Russian nineteenth century classics. But so, too, were all of my friends. So, too, were many of my professors. So too, was the academy. Introduction to Russian was taught in two classes by two TAs. Introduction to Hindi / Urdu was administered by only one lecturer, already bogged down with many other department responsibilities.

One might argue that there is plenty of Indian English fiction stacking the shelves of our bookstores. Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy aren’t hurting for international prestige, after all. And yet a nagging question remains: what kinds of Indian authors are these? India is such a diverse, multilingual country, might it not be true that Indian English fiction is only a single branch of a much larger tree thriving with life?  Is it possible that English Indian fiction misses many Indian realities, given English’s postcolonial legacy, authors’ diasporic backgrounds, and a publishing market that adopts texts on the basis of their cultural digestibility for audiences in the West?

My journey into Hindi literature has not been a long one, and yet Hindi has already opened windows into Indian realities that have remained untranslated in English. In this way, I feel tremendously lucky that I have been given an opportunity to explore a world that is only now being given attention in the West. I feel tremendously lucky that I have been given the opportunity to help translate this world to you.

At the Delhi World Book Fair I have been requested by Vani Prakashan to cover the Hindi Mahotsav (The Hindi Festival) on my blog. The Hindi Mahotsav includes a series of panel discussions on a range of themes similar to the panel discussions at the Jaipur Literature Festival. But the issues being discussed in the Hindi Mahotsav are predominantly those raised in the literary world of Hindi, by intellectuals, writers, readers, publishers, and journalists preoccupied with Hindi’s own history, Hindi’s own modernity, and Hindi’s own future.

If you are curious about the “truths” of other countries, or are interested in expanding the boundaries of your literary and conceptual universe, I will be covering the Hindi Mohatsav this week. By following, you will be giving me the opportunity to perform the same miracle my Russian professor performs for students in the US: revolutionizing perceptions of a country through language and literature.

Give me that chance for Hindi.

Thank you,

John Vater

Post Script:

(You can be sure that I will be asking questions as well. To watch me question panelists at the Jaipur Literature Festival, click the links below.)

“Aakrosh”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlQNHGqPXNI

(See 55:15)

“Ek Vachan, Bahu Vachan”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcRkP19WeB4

(See 43:25)

“Geographies of Readers”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqMWu2SiUDU

(See 53:13)

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