INTRO: We are sitting at Oxford Bookstore where there is a dedicated section for ‘Translations’ albeit only at the end of the store. Amongst the books by Premchand, on Gandhi and others, there are books like Meluha ke Mritunjay, Nagao ka Rehsay, Chanakya Mantra – translations of popular English books Immortals of Meluha, Secret of Nagas, Chanakya’s Chant. The placement of books is a telling sign of the demand of Hindi books: it is enough to find a proper shelf space in a big book store in the capital. But is it enough to keep Hindi Literature alive among the English speaking youth today? To understand the current demand for Hindi books in metros, and to bring out how it can be made more relevant for the young readers, DIVA arranged for a dialogue between two Hindi writers: Ranju Bhatia, who has published two Hindi poetry books (Kuch Meri Kalam Se and Saaya) and has been writing for various newspapers, magazines and blogs for the past ten years and Alexshendra Venus Bakshi, a young writer, who recently released her first book in Hindi ‘Aarambh ki gyarah kahaniya’…
Alexshendra Venus Bakshi (AVB), a bilingual, could have chosen to write her first book in English. A graduate in BA (History) from Gargi College, Delhi, she later studied Law to become an advocate at Supreme Court. Being born and brought up in Lucknow, she decided to write in Hindi as she felt the language gave her a better command than English for expressing her thoughts. She recently released her book Aarambh ki Gyarah Kahaniya, which is based on the social problems in the society. A purist
Ranju Bhatia (RB) began writing when she was 13. A voracious reader, she found inspiration from writers like Amrita Pritam, Harivanshrai Bachchan, Shivani and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and developed an interest in writing poetry. She recently released her second poetry book Kuch Meri Kalam Se after her first book Saaya in 2006. She writes columns and articles for various magazines and newspapers and is an active blogger with an aim to promote Hindi especially among the youth.
DIVA: What do you feel about the current state of Hindi language? Is the English speaking youth of today interested in reading Hindi literature? Have your books reached out to this segment?
AB: You know when I started writing my book, I felt I may not find many readers in metros and they may be confined to Lucknow alone. I was surprised by the reception the book received in Delhi. A lot many people showed interest in the book. It’s too early for me to gauge the audience because the book was released only two months ago; however, what I’m seeing till now is that the readers are mostly middle-aged people with an inherent interest in the language.
As for the youth taking interest in the language, I feel we are embarrassed to talk in Hindi and consider speaking in English as a sign of being modern. That’s largely because of the colonial hangover the country has been living under, which I feel is now slowly receding. The architects of our Constitution predicted that English would soon replace Hindi and other languages in the country. But that did not happen. But people now want to read simple Hindi. ‘Sanskritised’ Hindi is hard to follow. Hindi as spoken by common man is much easier to understand. Harishchandra wrote in Sankritised Hindi to keep its original form intact but if we want to attract more readers, it has to be in simple Hindi.
RB: I agree with you on that. I write short poems in Hindi and the younger in my extended family have trouble following it since they do not read in Hindi at all. But at the same time there are a lot of youngsters, like my daughters’ friends, who share their attempts at Hindi verses to get my feedback. If you look at the broader picture, Hindi has never been short of readers. I see a whole lot of fresh readers as well as writers like you Alexshendra who are interested in reading and writing in Hindi. So that’s an encouraging sign. But that’s only scratching the surface. A lot more needs to be done to keep Hindi literature alive. Hindi or Urdu as a combination is the fourth top-rated language in the world - after Mandarin, English and Spanish. But our publishing industry does not reflect this
AVB: The problem is that the traditional virtue of patience is lost and attention spans are lost. Young readers want everything instantly. Even as they start reading a story they want to know the end.
RB: …Which makes me wonder why pulp fiction died. Smaller towns and cities may still have readers but I remember the time when authors like Dharamvir Bharti, Gulshan Nanda, Dushyant Kumar Premchand, were hugely popular among college students. You know why they were so immensely popular? Because these were pocket-sized books, short stories, available at railway stations, roadside vendors and even grocery stores. Perhaps, the key is better distribution and short format stories.
AVB: I don’t think the amount of words really makes a difference. It is the idea that sells. Ideally speaking, I think we shouldn’t fall prey to what is in demand. We should write what we want to without thinking whether it’ll sell or not.
RB: Absolutely agreed, it should come from within. But, let me ask you… you’re a bilingual and this is your first book. Suppose a publisher approaches you and convinces you that your idea will sell better if you write it in English, would you insist on writing in Hindi because of your love for the language?
AVB: Like I said, idea is more important than the language. When I thought of writing my first book, I thought Hindi should be given its due. English is only a linking language; I feel we can correctly and completely express our emotions through Hindi alone. But if tomorrow if I feel I can express some idea better in English, I might try.
RB: May be you should write in Hinglish. (Laughs). Why, it is after all the ‘common’ language we were talking about. Youngsters relate to it. I recently read this book written in Hinglish by a young boy. Speaking strictly from the point of view of Literature, it may not be the best thing but to look at it differently, it can actually draw young readers who are taking a liking to the new crop of books written using Hindi in English. It’s an attempt by large English publishing houses to attract new readers. So Hindi Literature can follow the model.
AVB: I would disagree with you on that. I feel language should be pure. A mix of other languages would dilute its essence and purity. While I wouldn’t criticise others for doing it, I know I wouldn’t use Hinglish in my work.
RB: But you can’t ignore it; it’s all around you. Bollywood loves Hinglish; media is, in fact, a large promoter or mere reflection of the reality. You have lyricists like Gulzar writing Hinglish songs, admen saying ‘yeh dil maange more’, leading English dailies using Hindi words in headlines and stories, and even telephone operator saying ‘Dial kiya gaya number vyast hai’. It’s everyday common language that we hear on streets. I was surprised when some critics suggested I replace some of the pure Hindi words I used in some of my poems and articles with basic English words to make it interesting. So many writers in the past have done it like you can find Bengali words in Sarat Chandra’s stories.
AVB: You’re right but maybe I am a traditionalist and feel language must remain pure. Simple, non-Sanskritised Hindi, yes but Hinglish is a strict no-no for me.
DIVA: To each his own! But do you think we have enough talent today? As one of you mentioned the phenomena in English writing where many young, new writers have come up to meet the youth's demand for aspirational content. Does Hindi already have or is still waiting for a good crop of new original writers whose books would sell over the counter?
Ranju: You know it’s the readers that make one a great writer! So, if there are enough readers for Alexshendra’s or my work, tomorrow we’d be talked about as great writers of our time. (laughs). Coming to your point, the talent is immense and many are writing. But the problem is that publishers still depend on references and recommendations from various sources to finalise the authors and deserving writers lose out to lesser talented candidates when it comes to getting their work published.
Also, there is a paradigm shift in the writings. The great writers of yesterday wrote about varied topics concerning art and society like Dharamvir Bharti who wrote Suraj ka Satva Ghoda, Amrita Pritam, who wrote novels like Pinjar…Concerns have changed today and so has the writing style. But I feel there is a huge gap in supply of good biographies, autobiographies and travel books.
AVB: I am not much of a reader myself as I feel reading too much influences your original thought process. But I found inspiring books talking about morals are missing in Hindi. And this is what made me write this book. It’s a collection of 11 stories, each with a moral in the end. There is definitely a missing link that needs to be filled. I hope we will see a new breed of writers who are young not age wise but thought wise, bringing in a fresh perspective.
DIVA: What according to you are the problem areas in making Hindi attractive for English speaking youth?
RB: Marketing is the need of the hour. Hindi books and writers need good marketing. It is a huge problem with Hindi books especially poetry books. I find publishers are still promoting short stories but poetry, which one might think would be more popular, is losing out.
AVB: Publishing is made up of the publisher, author, distributor and reader, and all four should benefit and get together to promote Hindi. Government should also take steps. There can be contests and schemes to encourage the use of Hindi language.
I feel after invasion in the country, there was a loss of identity that the country faced. Post-liberalisation, however, there has been a movement towards search of identity. Now, there is a definitive visible revival but what we need is a sense of direction. Trying to fit in to a ‘globalised’ environment, we are ashamed of speaking in Hindi. We immediately become judgmental of people who can’t communicate in English…that is a sad condition. We need to be comfortable with who we are and define our identity. And language plays a big role in defining a nation’s identity. If there is a dedicated momentum, I see things improving in the next 10-15 years.
RB: I’d give it a shorter time. I believe if marketing and distribution is worked upon, Hindi literature will boom. E-commerce should be exploited to reach out to a wider audience. Social media is a great platform where writers can connect with the readers. I use the platform a great deal to know what my readers are thinking, they share their honest feedback with me, and so I get compliments as well as criticism for my work.
AVB: Well, I am not very tech-savvy. In fact, my book isn’t available for purchase online yet, it will be soon. In fact, it was only recently that I even created my Facebook account!
RB: I’d suggest you use the online medium more. It has tremendous potential; it is the medium of the future. I am waiting to see e-books in Hindi. Though I love holding a book in my hand, I am quite used to reading online with mails, blogs, websites – everything in Hindi.
AVB: Actually, I’ve been born and brought up in Lucknow where even today people focus on real and not virtual dialogues and discussions. When I am not occupied with work, I like to spend time with myself rather than connect virtually. But yes, I agree with you that technology cannot be ignored and can be helpful in reaching out.
RB: Yes, contrary to what one might think, Hindi readers are tech-savvy. A growing number of websites in Hindi and number of clicks and comments they get are a proof. The readers are from all over the country. What smaller towns and cities also need is book fairs. The ones held in Delhi also could do with more number of stalls. There are so many halls selling English books while Hindi gets only one.
Neha: There has to be a joint effort on the part of publishers, readers, writers and of course the Government.
Our writers here clearly seem optimistic about the future of Hindi language. Young readers and writers are showing interest but that’s just a minuscule percentage of what may be required to keep it flourishing. Packaging and marketing are still the grey areas that need support from not just publishers’ side but writers as well as the readers’.