Not merely for the west

by Irfan Chowdhury

For generations growing up in post-independent Bangladesh during the 1970s-80s, before the age of the internet, the alluring West was largely confined to Hollywood, pop and rock music, jeans, T-shirts, and burgers– novelties mostly exclusive to elites, the wealthy or successful, or those fortunate to have been abroad.

Middle class boys (girls were mostly destined for suitable marriage, deprived of higher education or career opportunities, let alone dreaming to be overseas alone) without English-medium education or western travel experience, had relied on hearsay and gossip, often exaggerated by narrators for emphasis, about life in the west. Elseways, they read novels and news articles, usually those translated in Bengali (Sheba Prokashoni deserves a special credit for making foreign-language classics available to many), which described life, events, history, and cultures in developed regions, far away (and perhaps unreachable) from their worlds.

The 1970s-80s saw novelists form ex-colonies — much like their sporting teams, film-directors, musicians, actors, academics, and professionals — which started to emerge in the wider world. Naipaul, Achebe, Ondaatje, or Rushdie came to their prominence, were recognized (and accepted) by the west in its own language and literature.

English language authors of the sub-continental origin such as Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikas Swarup, Aravind Adiga, Mohsin Hamid, Deepti Kapoor, and many more today, are continuing to grow notably since then.

Though they mostly describe scenes and tales of their countries, their expression, style, tone and connotations have struck a chord in the English speaking world. Their work coincided with a surge in immigrants from developing places, raising myriads of social and political issues which needed attention: equal opportunities at work places, migrant settlement programs, multi-faith co-education, working, and living.

Naturally, the west — its governments and societies — has been, albeit gradually, welcoming of the new voices. Some of the authors have been living in the west, have western-born partners or spouses.

However, back home, at times, they are, and have been, criticized as “writing for the west” at the expense of their motherlands’ misfortunes, beibg considered to have opted for hassle-free, comfortable life and living, with no genuine intent to sacrifice to improve their motherlands. Their interviews, thinking and expressions tend to align with western liberal virtues, chiefly enjoyed by well-offs, exercising freedom to do what one likes, free of social, cultural, or regional inhibitations.

They seldom have to consider the consequences of their words, expressions, or messages that many continuing to write in native languages and live in their homelands. Much of the non-western world, including the subcontinent, has been under exceedingly harsh nm freedom of expression rules, with authors and creative artists needing to self-censor, to be very careful and cautious with their words and arts.

This sentiment has not been limited to established novelists, but extended to casual opinion writers or researchers. The criticisms seem fair. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index report for 2022, “more than a third of people worldwide still live under authoritarian rule and less than half live in a democracy.

Criticism, however, has not held back the growth of authors in English from the sub-continent, Africa, and other previously colonized places. Like the writers, an increasing number of English language newspapers and media outlets have been providing more space in English. Further, English as a medium of education and a common business language (at least in written form) increased significantly in recent decades, and this trend is likely to continue.

This uptake can be misunderstood, however. Some of the middle class boys and girls of the post-independent generations, now living in the west, occasionally offer opinions in English, such as this one.

Who are they writing for? Why are they writing it in English, in spite of English not being their first language? 

As in the case of established novelists, the answers vary, depending on individual’s — there are many reasons for writers who are penning their pieces, from instigating social changes to researching history — goals. Maybe they are opining in English as their everyday language of work. Large, diverse places such as India and even the European Union, where for the majority of the population English is not their first language, have been using it as the medium of communication and have developed reputable English language media outlets.

It has to do with quality. Consider so many classics or modern novels, scientific discoveries, or rapportage which have been made universally accessible via English. Some local reporters, journalists, or writers are stringers for international English medium outlets. 

Writers are also known to switch between languages. Following the footsteps of Conrad, Jhumpa Lahiri, for example, having established her craft in the English language, has tried Italian as her medium. Then there are journalists-turned-writers such as Salil Tripathi, who mostly writes in English, who has been pursuing writing projects in his mother tongue Gujarati.  

This perhaps explains why authors — aspiring, established, casual — choose to write in English. What proportion of the population (in their homelands) does this reach, though? Surely, not many.

In particular, in broadly monolingual regions such as Bangladesh? (They have many sub-regional languages and dialects, but the vast majority of populations in such places use a single local language.) What role do English newspapers and literary works play there?

Potentially, quite a bit. Take the newspapers. There was a time, again back in the 1970s-80s, when their audience were mainly the western diplomatic circuit and educated elites, which is about the same today. However, local audiences have grown. Granted they still remain a significantly smaller proportion, and still to an extent of privileged class, there are some emerging, thriving middle- and low-income families who access news and literature in English, explaining the growth of media and literary festivals in English and in bilingual formats.

Yet, the criticism persists. Speaking, writing, expressing in English rather than the mother tongue, even in India where it is fairly widely used, at least in big cities, could be misunderstood as a way of the privileged showing off (to the underprivileged). Not only are they pretending to be superior (like the foreign colonial masters of the past) but also insulting their own motherland, its languages, and cultures. Only ask a seasoned politician from these places.

This is a misplaced fallacy. If some English language authors and columnists from these places are choosing a medium out of their proclivity for the west and its values, their annotations of situations, descriptions of life events, reporting and analysis of political or economic conditions are not. Much of their works are informed by local collaboration and understanding of local circumstances.

Another reason for the use of English is the ability to reach a wider audience, internationally, which can be especially important for voices that are marginalized, given the overall deterioration of liberty to express opinions, across the world.   

Critics, in their fulminations, perhaps miss an important point: being involved about any country, regardless of the language it is written in, stem from indomitable concerns, wishes and love for that country. 

The internet and unprecedented technological advancement have changed the current generation’s reading habit. Many do not read for pleasure in general, let alone in a foreign language, falling for ubiquitous social media, games or TikToks. Circulation data of many world class newspapers and magazines would attest this.

That there are attempts to express opinions, thoughts, and stories from the current generation is something to celebrate, and not to be chided.

Irfan Chowdhury is an opinion writer.

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