Amitav Ghosh winning the Jnanpith Award, the first ever such recognition for an Indian author writing in English, should go down as one of the biggest stories of the year. Constituted in 1961 by the Bharatiya Jnanpith, an orgainsation founded by Sahu Shanti Prasad Jain and Rama Jain in 1944, to honour the best creative literary writing in any of the 22 ‘scheduled languages’, according to the Constitution, is considered among the highest honour for Indian writers. Interestingly enough, the award came into existence around the same time the English language became the unofficial official language for most Indians.
The Constitution had designated Hindi written in the Devnagri script and English as the official languages and put in a provision stating if the Parliament decided otherwise the use of the latter for official purposes was to cease 15 years from the time the Constitution came into effect. But in the mid-1960s, when the time came closer nearly every major non-Hindi speaking state opposed the change. Slowly, English ended up as one of the ties that bind 1.3 billion Indians and while its ‘use’ came to be seen as a given, the disdain towards English in mainstream Indian literature also became prominent.
Maybe this could be the reason why an award such as the Jnanpith chose to focus on honouring writers in languages, which would feel pressured by the growing market of English. It’s intriguing how some of the most prolific English writers in India such as Raja Rao, RK Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, and Khushwant Singh had already written a few of their greatest works before the Jnanpith Award came into existence or the whole English-versus-the-rest debate gained momentum in the 1960s. Rao’s Kanthapura came out in 1938, Narayan’s Swami and Friends was published in 1935, Anand’s early works, including the seminal Across the Black Waters, had established his reputation before the 1940s and after having written Train to Pakistan (1956), Singh had been editing Yojana for a better part of the 1960s.
More than English literature originating within India by the end-1960s and a better part of the 1970s, it was the soaring popularity of English-language weeklies like The Illustrated Weekly that bumped up the popularity of the language. In Martin Scorsese’s film Casino, the lead Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein compares a gangster-run casino to a morality carwash where all sins are washed away. In some ways, would the Bharatiya Jnanpith’s decision to not include English appear similar to some? It gives a sense of keeping ‘Indian’ culture intact by keeping the ones which threaten it at bay.
Pathbreaking as it may be, honouring English as ‘literature’ in India today is perhaps the definition of equality, the embodiment of freedom of expression et al for a whole lot of people. Would Ghosh’s win open up the Jnanpith Award for more English writers in India? On the face of it, there is no reason to believe otherwise. The government-backed Sahitya Akademi Award has been honouring Indian authors who write in English since 1960. The final frontier in terms of awards honouring writers in India, in the manner of speaking, has been breached by English. So, have the cows finally come home?
Gautam Chintamani, Film historian and bestselling author firstname.lastname@example.org