Well, not me, and probably not you. But just about everybody in the Indian state of Kerala reads the state’s official language, Malayalam, and Mridula Koshy‘s article “Kerala: mad about books” in Le Monde diplomatique is a fascinating look at the consequences:
Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.
Paul Zacharia, one of the best-known contemporary writers in Malayalam, says: “In the Indian picture, Kerala’s book readers are a record. They are the product both of the literacy movement and the earlier library movement spearheaded by a one-man army called PN Paniker [the founding father of the literacy movement in Kerala]. A whole world of grassroots readers keep emerging from the villages.”…
According to Paul Zacharia, the Malayalam reader is well read in every sense, including in world literature. DC Books’ website offers the reader translations of Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and his The Death of Artemio Cruz. There is Alex Haley’s Malcolm X and Amoz Oz’s Fima. Che Guevara, Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens are all available, as are Junichiro Tanizaki and George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, JM Coetzee and JMG Le Clézio – all of them in Malayalam. (Paul Coelho for some reason is available only in English.) And among the million books on display at the week-long DC book fair, the bestsellers included not only examples of contemporary Malayalam literature, like V Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihasam and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham, but also popular English titles such as Adiga’s The White Tiger.
Writers in Kerala locate themselves in the great confluence of world literature. They are powerfully influenced by both Malayalam and world literature. Zacharia, for instance, says of himself: “I have been bilingual in my formative reading”. But he adds that once they write, “authors are almost entirely focused on the Malayali audience and not on the world”. In the author’s note prefacing his book The Reflections of a Hen in Her Last Hour, Zacharia thanks these readers “who keep a stern eye on writers’ performance and put the fear of God into them”.
I’m heartened to know about this, and I hope other languages that are not thought of as “major” can somehow reach a similar level of achievement. (Thanks for the link, Kári!)