Why are vernacular languages treated as second cousins, springing from a particularly impoverished wing of the extended family of languages? The ones, who if one were to use a phrase of the Dickensian era, would be found snuffling around in workhouses, “asking for more!”
There are volumes of screenplays being compiled in Malayalam, which delight as gems of literature. But when you search for English equivalents from other vernaculars, apparently, no publisher commissions such a translation.
In the Literary festival recently, a speaker quoted figures. Of the four crore Hindi speaking populace, 0.01% is the target audience- namely, 40,000. Of these around 4000 reads books, and the literary space is dominated by them. I wonder on the figures for English literature. How many of the best sellers sell more than 4000 copies in India? I can bet that vernacular best sellers, at least in Malayalam, sell in multiples of those numbers. And the ordinary readers decide what/who/how to read.
How do we empower a powerful reading milieu? By indulging in safety zones of comfort literature- like absolute potboilers on love, more love, more and more love? Or, give voice to themes that question our very way of existence? Who decides popularity?
Unless you introduce the readers to literature in various life enhancing hues,( for which always, they had been readers)and unless that culture becomes deep- will not mediocrity, small cliques of publishers, small close circles of critics and intellectuals decide the way we read?
What will come first- chicken or the egg? Will it start with a vision in publishing industry or will they depend on what sells currently to determine the way for future too?
I remember an anecdote told by a teacher who was teaching about Rammohan Roy’s and William Bentick’s efforts on banning Sati. When the protectors of the Sati rite shouted that “this is our way of handling death…,” a nonchalant Bentick apparently erected a gallows next to the burning site and said, “Sure. Go ahead and push the widow into the pyre- then get ready to hang for murder. This is our way of handling death…”. Suffice to say, no woman was burnt that day.
If “our way of life” gets repeated without debate, many life enhancing views will get burnt by the fire of indifference and lack of attention. We need visionary leaders who will also lay down new pathways.
Ultimately, whether in policy making or literature, giving a voice to the voiceless, has always been a hallmark of greatness. Let Oliver Twists in many human languages get his/her due without having to beg for it. The world will be a better place due to that generosity of vision based on equality.