On October 8, the Nobel Committee declared the winner of Nobel Prize for Literature for 2020. American poet Louise Gluck was the winner this year. Hearty congratulations to the deserving winner and with this, an uncomfortable question again raises its head: Why after Tagore, that too way back in 1913, no Indian writer/author has ever got the Nobel for Literature despite quite a few great names enriching the landscape of Indian and world literature -- Munshi Premchand, U R Ananthamurthy, Allama Iqbal (considering the fact that he died in undivided India in 1938), among others.
Agreed, the Nobel, like the Oscars, is not the alpha and omega of universal recognition and in all six disciplines (Economics was later introduced in 1968 and is given by the Bank of Sweden), there have been anomalies and aberrations. Its very first recipient, Sully Prudhomme of France, was given preference over Russia's Leo Tolstoy in 1901. But the point is: Was there no one barring Tagore who deserved the Nobel for Literature? In a long informal conversation between A K Ramanujan and V S Naipaul (he didn't get the Nobel at that time) in New York Times, the same question was raised by the Indian polymath Ramanujan. Naipaul was sure of getting Nobel sooner or later, and he got it in 2001!
Naipaul, who never considered himself to be Indian, categorically explained why no Indian ever got the Nobel after Tagore. He didn't even consider Tagore deserving of that because 103 poems of Gitanjali at times, appear embarrassingly influenced by Hafiz Shirazi's (1315-1390) sublime spiritual poetry. But that's off the mark. The reason is: Lack of encompassing scope of varieties, nuances, human and humane issues, profundity and novelty in our collective and cumulative literary works. The first and foremost criterion for awarding the Nobel for Literature is the author's humanitarian ambit. In other words, a corpus of works that not only touches, but delves into issues of humanity at large. 'A positive loftiness in creativity ' (to quote Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott), to be precise. Look at his own work. He got the Nobel in 1992. His works involve human interest. They talk of egalitarianism, equality and pragmatic breadth of vision. His poems make us think and broaden our sensibilities in a way that we not only empathise with his voice, we also experience a kind of at-homeness and oneness with the narrator's narrative.
The limitation of the narrative and its lopsidedness can also be adduced in all our creative endeavours, be it cinema, theatre or literature. R K Narayanan could never break the Malgudi pattern, Munshi Premchand, though very good, had a social vision confined to the pre-Independent village milieu, with the characters grounded, shaped and couched in that set-up. It appealed to a certain group of readers and lacked pan-Indian acceptance, let alone universal recognition. One cannot deny that India's caste and class creed is very much central to our national and social perspective. It doesn't have a wider reach like race, colour and social discrimination faced, felt and fructified by James Baldwin, Tony Morrison, Maya Angelou or Wole Soyinka. The wideness of creative spectrum and incorporation of newfangled ideas did not get internalised in a uniform manner throughout a writer/author's work/s in India.
Remember, the Nobel takes into consideration the uniformity of creative, social, human and universal relevance. A one-off book or an isolated piece of work cannot be the criterion. There must be sustained quality over a period of time to get considered for the Nobel. Naipaul called it 'The Dipping Syndrome.' Just one significant work and then sudden disappearance from the firmament of world literature doesn't help one get the Nobel.
One more reason being linguistic inadequacy. English is a language that has got maximum authors the Nobel, though French, Spanish and Swede are also acceptable. This may sound outright humiliating to today's Anglophile Indians but the truth is that even if our highly-educated writers choose English to express themselves in, it's still not good enough to get one the Nobel. Agreed, in the new millennium, writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Ramchandra Guha and Arundhati Roy have emerged, who can claim with a fair degree of certitude and righteous/linguistic impudence that they think in English. But the same can't be said about most of the writers who're either sciolists or pretenders to knowledge.
Knowledgeable readers know that Joseph Conrad, who won the Nobel for The Heart of Darkness, was Polish and had started learning English at the age of nineteen and mastered it so well that he went on to win the Nobel for his book/s (Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Shadow Line etc.) written in English. His books weren't translated by someone else. They ensued from his pen.
Our best of works by the best of minds written in the vernacular were never adequately translated into major European languages. And if translated, the renditions are humdrum and the essence is compromised. The quintessential example being the entire oeuvre of Kartar Singh Duggal, who wrote in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and English. Since his best works are in Urdu and Punjabi, his literary masterpieces never got the kind of exposure they so richly deserved. Adequate translations of his works could have got him the Nobel in literature.
India's most perceptive English and Marathi critic, Vilas Sarang, believed that Duggal had all the makings and wherewithal to get the Nobel. Alas, how many 'advanced' students of literature, studying at Indian varsities, are even aware of Kartar Singh Duggal's name, let alone his quality works? This widespread apathy among the masses also didn't encourage Indian writers to create and produce their very best.
Lack of epochal significance is one more factor mulcting our authors of Nobel or universal recognition. Matthew Arnold's phrase: Lack of epochal significance applies to the literary works emerging from our soil. They often lack perennial relevance and peter out quickly.
The Nobel committee's bias too cannot be airbrushed. It found Iqbal's oeuvre 'religiously tilted', Ananthamurthy's masterpiece Samskara a 'localised phenomenon', A K Ramanujan's works 'borrowed, if not plagiarised'. The list is endless.
All said and done, our collective literary works produced in the last century and being churned out now still can't be called phenomenal and monumental enough to win the Nobel. But then, truth is always very harsh. Didn't T S Eliot say, 'Humankind cannot bear very much reality'?
The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and cultures.