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!)


  1. I like that “Malayalam” is a palindrome.

  2. I certainly do think of Malayalam as major. Why wouldn’t you?

  3. Please, let’s not engage in “more PC than thou” contests. In the first place, I didn’t say I didn’t think of Malayalam as major; I don’t really categorize languages that way. I said it was not thought of as “major,” and I’m quite sure that’s true outside of India. If you go out on the street and stop a hundred people, I put it to you that not more than one or perhaps two will ever have heard of Malayalam (assuming, of course, you don’t live in India), and I further put it to you that of the few people you encounter who have heard of it, exactly zero will say they consider it “major.” There’s no cutoff point for where languages stop being considered major; no one would disagree about English or Chinese, but the farther down the list you go, the less likely it is people will think of it that way. I’m not saying anything about its value as a language, for heaven’s sake; I’m pointing out something about its place in the general consciousness of world languages.

  4. scarabaeus says

    There is big political fight on, whether English should be taught as first Language???

  5. Ransom: I like that “Malayalam” is a palindrome.
    Not in Malayalam it isn’t!
    I’m also quite thrilled with the idea of a 30 millions plus language community that has translations of Le Clézio and not of Coelho.

  6. I wasn’t accusing you of anything, just wondering… I mean, Malayalam isn’t even that far down the list. On the other hand, you’d probably get the same response on your street even for Bengali. Is it because people only have Hindi in mind when talking about Indian languages? The list doesn’t seem to be the definitive criterion.

  7. Well, I’m embarassed to say I knew nothing about Malayalam before this post and I know a fair bit about Bengali, Gujarat, Tamil and Punjabi. I couldn’t even tell you what language family Malayalam belongs to. Happy to have my ignorance somewhat lessened.

  8. marie-lucie says

    I know (or rather knew) three speakers of Malayalam, the official language of Kerala in South India, but I am sorry I don’t know even one word of the language. Ask John Emerson for further information. Kerala is a very interesting state, defying many conventional ideas about “the Third World”.

  9. Bathrobe says

    Vanya! To have been a member of the Languagehat fraternity and not know the name of this major, major Dravidian language! Gasp! (Clutches chest in mock heart attack….)

  10. My personal and biased definition of a “major” language is one studied by lots of non-natives from outside of the local catchment area. So you as a writer in that language can just write whatever you want, and even if you’re just considered a minor, quirky figure in your local literary scene, perhaps your work will pluck the heartstrings of an Amharic/Indonesian/Hungarian-speaker just so, and he’ll fall in love with it so much that he goes back to his country and harangues a publishing house into sponsoring his translation.
    The main point is that there’s no need for your work to be translated first into English, before you have a chance of being noticed and known in foreign countries. Perhaps one day I’ll be browsing in a Tehran bookshop and find a translation into Persian of a Malayalam writer no one in the American Anglophone world has ever heard of. But the more likely route is that a bilingual Keralite will translate a bunch of Malayalam literature into English first, and certain selected items of it will become popular in the wider Anglophone world. And by the time the Persian translation comes out it’s already old news in America …

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    Has The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony been translated into Malayalam yet? If not, hopefully any prospective Italian -> Malayalam translator will check in here first for tips.
    The Keralese diaspora today is such that in many/most large metropolitan areas in North America you can find one or more churches using Malayalam as their usual liturgical language (I believe with some admixture of Syriac loanwords).

  12. scarabaeus says

    Monopoly is bad in any form, Humans are naturally diverse, see how many words can be made 26 letters, in English alone it amounts to a million acceptable words, let alone all the other variations.
    One language alone leads to total corruption and lack of inspirational thought..

  13. ” said it was not thought of as “major,” and I’m quite sure that’s true outside of India.”
    That’s a good test and it also makes your broader point, that being desiganted “major” means nothing really. Outisde of Europe German matters hardly to anyone at all, even to those that have heard of it, but no one would say with a straight face that it hasn’t been an important langauge with an influential literature that matters to just about everybody indirectly.

  14. Malayalam is pretty much the third language of Qatar, after English and Arabic – there are so many Keralan guest workers there. I haven’t seen many Malayalam books for sale there, but there is a daily Malayalam paper I believe.

  15. Christophe Strobbe says

    Thanks for the link. I didn’t know that Le Monde diplomatique was available in 72 international editions in 25 languages. I only knew the French edition. There is no version in Malayalam, though.

  16. I’ve always thought the script was pretty. I should really learn enough to at least sound out the letters, even if I’m only ever able to read the books the article mentions in English translation.

  17. Charles Perry says

    It’s sort of a pretty alphabet, but graceless compared with Kannada or Telugu. Or Oriya, Sinhala, Burmese, etc.

  18. John Emerson says

    As we know, Malayalam was the original pre-Babel language of the Garden of Eden, regardless of what the Tamils say.

  19. Cydonian says

    Ah Kerala, where a routine conversation among drunks outside a toddy shop veers from cricket to post-modernist tendencies in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s movies. Not to mention a state so progressive that they have registered formal hobby-associations in universities for (what can be literally translated as) “iron-rod” movies, movies that _cause_ “iron-rods”, or porno.
    And oh, Kerala’s milleu has always been surprisingly outward-looking; not only do they have the oldest Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities in India, their traditional oral-histories and folk-traditions talk about such decidedly European topics as the reign of Charlemagne (“charlemaan katha”)
    The surge in interest in books may be because of the literacy movement, but the whole globalized-outlook thing has been there for centuries.

  20. The online versions of newspapers don’t seem to get linking, but here is the list of authors on DC Book’s website.
    Has The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony been translated into Malayalam yet?
    I don’t see Calasso on the list. But here is K in Hindi. (Or here with a working image. I’m pretty sure this isn’t Ka, a work of his inspired by India, which was evidently adapted by the Katha Trust.)

  21. It was a Big Deal a couple of years ago when Dutch (the first-world non-major language we are most likely to be found speaking in, say, the hairdressers’) acquired a shiny new unabridged translation of War and Peace. I think it was the first such; certainly the edition on the Countess’s bookshelves is an abridgement that checks in at a mere 400-odd pages.
    And it was also a big deal when one of Kant’s Big Books finally got translated, although we are among those who think that the philosophically-inclined Dutchophones really ought to be reading the original.
    Recently I read a couple of books by Boris Akunin (as the English transliteration has it). They are engaging but undemanding historical Krimi‘s, originally written in Russian, and the indicia is at pains to point out that the translation (into Dutch) was subsidised by some sort of association for subsidising that sort of thing.
    Currently I’m reading a translation into Dutch of a Scandiwegian Krimi, but these have a considerable vogue these days and it seems to have been a purely commercial undertaking.
    I would be particularly curious to know more of the economics behind the Malayalan engagement with world literature, if anyone has any leads?
    I also regret to report that there is entirely too much Coelho available here. And (with a bit less regret) that even provincial train stations have a decent assortment of English-language novels. Bigger bookshops also have a slightly-less decent assortment of untranslated French and German literature, which is nice.
    (Meanwhile, and entirely off-topically, I am currently watching the opening game of the Subway Series in American Stickball on cable TV. But the audio is in English (“American”) and there are not even subtitles.)

  22. Also Kerala is the only state in India where common people (not just the college educated) discuss postmodernism and political philosophy. Foucault, Derrida, Chomsky etc are household names in Kerala. I love Kerala for being what it is. However, Malayalam is not a thriving language in Kerala now, it is dying or evolving very fast.

  23. A point not without significance is that Kerala has emphasized the education of women for a long time (decades), with the result that the female literacy rate is around 88%. In Malayalam, natch.

  24. Not without significance, indeed. Thanks for adding that important additional information. How long will it take for the education of women to be seen as the prime necessity it is in the parts of the world where it lags far behind?

  25. David Marjanović says

    How long will it take for the education of women to be seen as the prime necessity it is in the parts of the world where it lags far behind?

    As an aside, the birthrate in Kerala is 1.9 children per woman. That’s not a typo. The reason is probably the education of women.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Low birthrate in the modern world is usually associated with low child mortality, meaning high child survival. Where there is a very high birth rate there is usually high child mortality. It takes a generation of two of more educated women to lower both the birth rate and the child (and mother) mortality rate. Better fewer children and healthier, better fed children along with their mothers.

  27. I had friends from Poona who were very dismissive of Kerala’s high literacy rate for the stated reason that it was “only in Malayalam”, and that only litercay in English or Hindi counted for anything. Whether they shared this view with their Malayali next door neighbour, I don’t know.

  28. Bathrobe says

    However, Malayalam is not a thriving language in Kerala now, it is dying or evolving very fast.
    Please tell us more….

  29. michael farris says

    Getting here late, but two quick notes:
    1. Malayalam is, IINM, by some degree the least diglossic of the big four Dravidian languages. Diglossia may be a joy and comfort to the users of the languages in question but it’s a big damper on literacy (though to be fair, wide-scale literacy is generally not a priority for the elites in diglossic societies).
    2. The story linked makes me despair because the situation of Malayalam literacy is exceptional, it should be the case for about 16 (give or take a few) languages in India. No one in Europe seriously expects Italians or Latvians or Romanians to become literate in a second language before they’re literate in their own or to cultivate literacy in a foreign language over literacy in the native language (and that Latvians a generation ago were expected to do so is rightly regarded as an abomination). The spirit of linguistic colonialism still thrives and is almost unquestioned, let alone challenged.

  30. How long will it take for the education of women to be seen as the prime necessity it is in the parts of the world where it lags far behind?
    One of the barriers to women’s education internationally is school fees. For example, the principal of a public school might charge each student two dollars or so at the beginning of the semester. For a family with an income of a hundred twenty dollars a month and twelve children, it adds up quickly. The girls are the first to be pulled out of class. Another interesting exercise is to count the girls in a sixth grade class, then count the girls in a twelfth grade or even ninth grade class, then compare that with the official literacy figures. I have very little confidence in such numbers–in any country.

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