Let’s Bring the Elephant

Contrary to the metaphorical idiom “The Elephant in the Room,” the presence of an elephant in Indian culture is considered auspicious, and it is welcomed everywhere in the country. An Elephant, in Indian culture symbolizes power, strength and good fortune, as well as wisdom and intellect. From this perspective, Indian literature can be metaphorically compared to a majestic elephant, that is worth inviting in a room to study, and in this process dispel some myths, and establish a few important facts about Indian literature.

Indian literature, rich in history, has greatly contributed to the world literature from the very beginning of civilization. The Rigveda, a book of hymns, is the oldest Indian text, written in Sanskrit in around 1500 BC. And even though, the oral use of Sanskrit later became limited, the language is still used in India and other parts of the world to perform social and religious rites in everyday life. Sanskrit is taught at universities worldwide, and literature in Sanskrit is still written, and is an important part of the Contemporary Indian Literature.

A person not familiar with the cultural diversity of India, or aware of the languages spoken there, may only get a narrow sense of what is being written in Indian literature. The languages and dialects spoken in India have originated from many different language families. There are well over a hundred and twenty major languages in India, and over fifteen hundred Indian dialects. Twenty two languages are officially recognized in the Indian constitution, with a possibility of adding more to this list in the future. Ganesh Devy, a former professor of English, and the Chairman of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, in reference to Indian languages remarks that – he had heard that the languages are disappearing all over the world, but what he has found in India is a very rich, very appealing and very enticing forest of languages…. Many languages of India are still hidden in the forest Devy evokes here. But they may probably be extinct someday, if we do not identify and preserve them. In this edition of Life and Legends, we are thrilled to bring the readers poetry from twelve major Indian languages. They are Bengali, Hindi, Kashmiri, Maithili, Marathi, Malayalam, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, as well as English, which is recognized as an official foreign language in the Indian constitution.

Indian English, which is different from American English in its idiomatic usages, spelling, and grammar, is closer to British English, and often influenced by the idiomatic usage and expressions found in the native Indian languages, spoken by the writers. We also note, that there is a scarcity of good English translations of Indian literature, and regrettably, a lack of interest in publishers from the West in publishing translations from non-European languages. One also finds a subtle resistance among English readers to reading translations, for a number of reasons. The most common among these reasons is their unfamiliarity with foreign languages. In the West (with an exception of a few European countries, from which increasingly more translations are being published), it is convenient to accept that what is being written in English by the Indian writers, best represents Indian literature. But to know the Elephant of Indian literature, we can no longer pretend, not to see, that one part of the elephant’s body is not at all the entire elephant.

Keeping in mind the challenges mentioned above, it was to be expected, that presenting the Contemporary Indian Poetry edition of Life and Legends was not going to be an easy task; yet we have accomplished it now. In this regard, I must recognize the efforts of Steffen Horstmann for making this task easier, by accepting the role of our Cultural Ambassador to India, and sharing our mission with the Indian and non-Indian writers, who have been working on producing Indian literature in different countries. I’m indebted to Steffen, for taking much of the work load off my shoulders, and providing his moral support throughout in putting this edition together. I also must thank Varsha Singh for networking among the Indian authors, and Robbi Nester for providing editorial suggestions.

Hope you enjoy reading this edition of Life and Legends, “From the Cradle of Civilization: Contemporary Indian Poetry”, which brings the work of many important Indian writers of our time along with some important conversations with them. We hope that this edition provides a wider perspective on Indian literature, that takes us on a journey that began with the first verse of the four Vedas, and continues till this day. We also hope with this edition to continue our dialogue on the need of publishing more translations from other languages, and bringing the world a step closer every time, by building bridges between languages and cultures.

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis
Editor-in-Chief – Life and Legends
January 15th, 2018