#INDIAKIDLIT – Does India need its own Literary Canon?

by Maya Thiagarajan

Here’s a question for you: What percentage of recent American college graduates have read the following American classics?

  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • The Great Gatsby

To be honest, I don’t have an accurate answer for you, but I’m willing to guess that the percentage would be quite high. These are books that are part of the American literary canon, and they’re commonly taught in schools and universities across the US. These are books that are well-known enough to bind educated Americans together – they create a shared literary imagination. While Americans may fiercely debate the merits and demerits of particular books, they probably all agree that To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby are a deeply entrenched part of the American literary canon.

The Missing Canon

I’ve been wondering about the Indian literary canon. Does India even have its own canon of literature? Or does every Indian language have its own canon? (There is, I think, a strong Bengali canon, for example.)

One way that a nation builds a well-established canon is by teaching and referencing those books in schools and universities across the nation. However, of the novels prescribed by the CBSE board, a popular national curriculum, not a single one is written by an Indian author.

In a country as linguistically, religiously, and culturally diverse as India, defining a “literary canon” is a challenge. I think that there are very few, if any, Indian literary texts that bind educated Indians together across religious, linguistic, and cultural lines, and serve as common “cultural capital.”

Books That Heal: Why India Needs an Inclusive Literary Canon of Its Own

The idea of a national literary canon may be controversial because canons often reflect power hierarchies and societal biases. The stories of those in power tend to make it into the canon, and the stories of those on the margins tend to be left out. In a country as diverse as India, building an inclusive canon would be extremely important but also very challenging.

Yet, despite these challenges, I would argue that India would benefit from building a diverse and inclusive list of literary works that are widely taught, discussed, and referenced in schools and universities across the nation. Imagine if all high school Indian students had to read and discuss at least two great literary works (ideally secular ones, not religious myths) from India each year – how would that change civil society? How would it impact how young Indians see themselves and each other? My bet is that it would humanize us and create a far more humane and compassionate society.

The World We Found – by Thrity Umrigar (2012)

What if, for example, all high school students in India had to read and discuss The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar. It would open up discussions about classism, religious divides and stereotypes, betrayal, and love, and it would get kids thinking about what it means to be a friend, what is fair and just, what it means to be human, who has privilege in our society and who does not. Perhaps it will help our students empathise with those from different backgrounds. When we read, we’re not hindered by our own class, caste, gender, or religious identity – we are able to fully immerse ourselves in someone else’s story, and this immersion builds empathy.

How Would We Do It?

Defining an Indian literary canon would be a momentous job : at the very least, one would have to first identify all India’s older epics, myths, and classics written in different languages, then go through all the Sahitya Akademi award winners in different languages (the Sahitya Akademi, a national organization set up to actively promote literature in different Indian languages, also recognizes literature for young people and children). Finally, one would have to add all the winners of other Indian literary awards (of which there are more than 50 to sort through).

What I’d like to do here is much more modest – I’d like to create a short and manageable “recommended reading list”that could be used by high school English teachers in schools across India (or any global teacher interested in teaching Indian novels).

Here are some more of my top picks (in English):

Shadow Lines – by Amitav Ghosh (1988) – OR – The Hungry Tide – by Amitav Ghosh (2004)
The Prince, by Samhita Arni (2019) / The White Tiger, by Arvind Adiga (2008)
Malgudi Days – by R.K. Narayan (1943) – OR – Swami and Friends, by R.K. Narayan (1935)
Ahimsaby Supriya Kelkar (2017) / The God of Small Things – by Arundhati Roy (1997)
The Inheritance of Loss – by Kiran Desai (2005) / Rich Like Us – by Nayantara Sahgal (1986)
A Fine Balance – by Rohinton Mistry (1995) – OR – Tales of Ferozeshah Bagh – by Rohinton Mistry (1987)
Fasting, Feasting – by Anita Desai (1999) – OR – Games at Twilight – by Anita Desai (1978)
The Twentieth Wife – by Indu Sundaresan (2002) / An Atlas of Impossible Longing – by Anuradha Roy (2008)
Four Steps to Paradise – by Timeri Murari (2006) – OR –Taj: A Story of Mughal India– by Timeri Murari (1985)
Train to Pakistan – by Khushwant Singh (1956) / Dance Like A Man: A Stage Play in Two Acts – by Mahesh Dattani (2006)
[Sei Samai] Those Days – by Sunil Gangopadhyay, translated by Aruna Chakravarti (1981)/ [Toba Tek Singh] Toba Tek Singh: Stories – by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Khalid Hasan (2008)
Nirmala – by Premchand (1899), translated by Alok Rai /
Short stories (particularly “Kabuliwala”) – by Rabindranath Tagore, e.g., Selected Short Stories (1917) – translated by William Radice
Short stories and novels by Mahashweta Devi, including The Why Why Girl – illustrated by Kanyika Kini (2003) and The Mother of 1084 – translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay (1974)
Poetry by the 15th century poet Kabir, e.g., Kabir: Ecstatic Poems – translated versions by Robert Bly (1976) / Selected plays by Girish Karnad, e.g., Girish Karnad: Three Plays – translated by the author (1994)
Javed Sideeqi’s Hindi/Urdu play Tumhari Amrita, an Indian context adaptation of A. R. Gurney’s American play, Love Letters (1988)

Maya Thiagarajan

A global educator, Maya Thiagarajan has lived and worked in India, Singapore, and the US. She earned a BA in English from Middlebury College and a Masters in Education Policy from Harvard University. Maya is the author of  Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, a book that explores ways to combine Eastern and Western approaches to education and parenting. She was also the inaugural Jury Chair for the Neev Book Award. Maya is currently the founder and head of TREE, an organization that recruits and trains teachers in India.

September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult

2022 GLLI blog editors for #WorldKidLitMonth
  • Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.

  • Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School.  She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.

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