...That is the conundrum for every writer using English as their medium of expression for a story set in a country, climate and culture that is not English. How far do you let common perceptions of the country in question (India, as the example for this article) dictate the reader’s grasp of your narrative? Do you take into account the reader’s likely familiarity or unfamiliarity with cultural conventions and how they are broken, as you gallop along with your tale?
Some years ago I started out very firmly in the ‘Do Not Explain’ camp. If writing about Delhi, for instance, I thought there wasn’t the need for an introduction to the context of the narrative. After all, there have been plenty of novels set in Delhi. Most of them do manage to bring out the peculiarity of the city: the clashes between it being the axis of political power, with the bigwigs moving in their concentric circles, and it being a city ruled by a certain kind of businessman; and also being a centre of higher education. All the oddities and irregularities of life in the city would come out in the wash, so to speak, as the novel progressed. So there was no need to explain. Or that’s what I believed.
Today’s meditation in particular is about inserting phrases in the local language (Hindi, or even Hindi-English slang, as is used in Delhi) and local syntax into an otherwise grammatically impeccable English text. Such phrases occur naturally in dialogue and are therefore logically included when writing about the place. There is an argument that they should be included in such a way. But trouble brews when local words are used in the main narrative. There are many mocking tales about Indian authors who ‘explained’ these ‘foreign’ words, although the actual words were commonplace if you knew a bit about Delhi or even if you ate often in an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world. For instance, an author was lambasted for clarifying the word ‘dal’ (cooked lentils); and here I’m doing it too, just in case, you, dear reader, don’t know what ‘dal’ is. Indian authors have been known to take each other to task (in print) about such elucidations and then commit a similar ‘mistake’ themselves.
Let’s examine both sides of the issue with a cold eye. First, how does this ‘explanation’ work? By repeating the sentence in another way, in English, so that the meaning is made clear. Or by slipping in a definition of the word used. Either way, there is an element of repetition for those who don’t understand the local reference.
If you belong to the ‘do not explain’ camp, this is what you believe: the meaning of the word or phrase will eventually be understood through the context of its usage. True, a reader who doesn’t know this other language will never get the literal meaning, but they should be able to grasp the sense of what was said and why. The reader should be credited with being wholly intelligent. Italicise the word or phrase, or not; that’s your call.
The person who benefits most from this approach is the reader who speaks or understands both languages used – English and the local vernacular. That reader, especially if they share a similar background and sensibility to the author, will get a near-indecent thrill from recognising two languages in one sentence and relishing the allusions made. No explanations required, just the joy of seeing the nail being hit on the head.