The Travails Of Our Post-Colonial Subconscious Or What Does The English Language Have To Do To Be Recognized As An Indian Language?

In Background Materials, Book Responses, Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on April 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

A very curious essay appeared in the recent issue of The Caravan magazine. Written by Nilanjana S. Roy, titled ‘How To Read In Indian‘, it veered uncertainly between discussing the emergence of the phenomenal success of Indian writers writing in English, and a discussion of outsiders writing stories about India. Subtitled The Long History of a Literary Argument That Refuses to Go Away it clearly meant to be a literary discussion, but in fact it quickly diverged into a discussion about the outsider writing about India.

Roy begins by recounting some of the debates at a gathering of Indian writers and intellectuals at Neemrama Fort Palace, and moves towards the criticism that so-called Indian critics have made of those from the so-imagined outside writing about India. Roy mentions Mulk Raj Anand’s criticisms of Salman Rushdie, various criticisms hurled against V.S. Naipual and his works on India, and a strange reference to Pankaj Mishra’s recent critical study of Patrick French’s new book on India. As Roy elaborates:

In a sense, we have always been sensitive as a nation to what is written about us; nonfiction about the US, for instance, seldom draws as many reactions, fuelled equally by anxiety and exasperation. The anxiety comes, in the reading of many, from seeing any narrative that interrupts the neatly seductive story of India Shining; the exasperation comes from a smaller band of Indians who are tired of having what they already know and consider familiar explained to them in exhausting and unnecessary detail.

But somewhere in the middle of the essay, the focus turns to the question of language. The example of Bankim Chatterjee is given – a Bengali writer who made a conscious decision to never writing in English and instead speak ‘to his people’ only in the native language of Bengali. As Roy states, that for Bankim…

…the question of whom he was writing for became urgent in his mind. He could not, he felt, write unless he was addressing his people, his countrymen, in their tongue

It seems to me that this is an entirely different question from the one that was first offered in the essay. One is a question of perspectives on India – the insider vs the outsider. The second is a question of language as a marker of belonging, and ideas of nationhood and community. The first is a criticism about what is said about India and by whom. The second is a question of what means ie language is used to write and whether English (and yes, lets admit that this is about English, about our colonial scars, and about our desperate post-colonial ideas of our indigenous cultures) qualifies as an appropriate language to use to speak about, and to India.

I am willing to admit that there may be overlaps in these discussions, but it seems that to make sense of either we should, to help with the discussion, keep them apart.


The first issue has come up quite bit lately. A certain group of self-appointed guardians of literary India have taken it upon themselves to pillory Europeans who have had the temerity to work in India, say something about her and her culture, and perhaps most egregiously, find a place of celebrity and social and cultural participation in India itself.

This peevish stance was recently seen in Hartosh Singh Bal’s recent tirade against the writer William Dalrymple that appeared in India’s (English language!) Open Magazine under the heading ‘The Literary Raj‘. It made for painful reading, riddled as it was in a language and presumption so provincial that they defied belief. The essay was inspired by Dalrymple’s prominent place in organizing and appearing at the now very popular Jaipur Literary Festival, a fact that seems to have upset Singh Bal’s Indian, and lets admit it, nationalist and cultural sensibilities, leading him to ask:

I have been told that Dalrymple is a personable man, and in my own encounters with him I have indeed found him so, but what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book,’The City of Djinns’, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?

Understandably, William Dalrymple did not take kindly to these suggestions, and fired back with his own piece in the same magazine titled ‘The Piece You Ran Is Blatantly Racist‘. Hartosh Singh Bal’s retort followed in the form of a piece called ‘Does Dalrymple Know What Racism Really Is?‘. as well as one by Pramod Kumar, one of the founders of the Jaipur Literary Festival, entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘.

A similar accusation of ‘how dare you!’ was leveled against – and I say this with no small irony, by Patrick French against the Indian born Pankaj Mishra. Yes, it may seem odd to say this, but that is precisely what happened when Pankaj Misrha wrote a ‘not so enthusiastic’ review of French’s new work on India called India: An Intimate Biography Of 1.2 Billion People.

Mishra’s criticisms, offered in a piece called (provocatively I will admit) ‘A Curzon Without An Empire‘ and published in India’s (English language!) Outlook Magazine, were leveled against French’s truncated understanding of India’s modernity and her economic development. Mishra’s criticisms reflected ideas already raised in many Op-Ed and other pieces he has written about the phenomenon of Shining India and the deep inequalities and injustices it is inflicting upon the majority of her citizens.

French, however, took it personally, and retorted with what can only be described as an attempt to singularly mark Mishra as an ‘outsider’ who pretends to be a ‘insider’. He chose to discredit Mishra in a response, with the rather catty title ‘Cameron’s Cuz Is More The Curzon‘, not by taking on Mishra’s socio-economic arguments, but his ‘outsider’ character:

It is a pity Pankaj did not pursue his burgeoning career as a novelist, or produce the promised short history of modern India. Instead, he has ranged widely, sitting on eminent literary prize committees, popping up as a visiting fellow at assorted foreign universities and jetting about denouncing “business-class lounges” and their elite inhabitants. It is not clear whether Pankaj—travelling the globe for high-paying western publications, while busily condemning “late capitalist society”—ever uses these lounges himself, or whether he prefers to take a downgrade to cattle class. For a long time I have appreciated his chutzpah most of all, though he remains a writer of promise. He has been successful in imparting his “authentic” take on India to the West, and one American intellectual even adjudged our reviewer to be “the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate” after meeting him at “the lower Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine”.

As these debates have raged it seems that we have lost sight of the key issue ie what is being said and not who is saying it. We can see this tendency in Singh Bal’s and French’s reactions. Instead, we have focused on who is saying them.

What should matter is not that Dalrymple or any other writer is an ‘outsider’ or an ‘insider’ but only whether what he says about India is intelligent, insightful, articulate and informative. We have to accept that many Indians have written rubbish works of fiction and non-fiction about their own country, and many foreigners have in fact written some fabulous works in the same categories. It is not the origins of the writers that matter, but the content of their writing. Dalrymple has in fact written some powerful works on Indian history – White Mughals: Love And Betrayal In 18th Century India and The Last Mughal: The Fall Of A Dynasty: Delhi 1857 being two such works.

Dalrymple’s place in India’s literary circles is not the result of a ‘Johnny come lately’ but reflects many decades of passionate engagement with the country and its history. We can’t fault him and others like him for his origins, but have to engage him, and all others, on the basis of their ideas and contributions. Which is what Mishra did when he critiqued French, though French preferred to offer a rebuttal that was if anything petty and venal.

A focus on the ‘what’ vs the ‘who’ helps distance us from debates that can quickly become mired in racist and xenophobic stances. They allow us to remain above the treacherous and slippery terrain of identity politics and nativist generalizations. It allows us to focus on ideas, insights, and information, without coloring our judgments on the basis of color, ethnicity, race, religion and class. Literary and intellectual criticism has to adopt this position if for no other reason than to be consistent and rigorous.


We next turn to the question of Indian writers writing in English. This question became an urgent issue of concern particularly since Salman Rushdie’s set off a fire-storm of indignation when he very careless suggested in the introduction to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing that:

The prose writing–both fiction and nonfiction–created in this period [the fifty years of independence] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India, the so-called “vernacular languages,” during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The True Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.

Few have managed to get past this dismissal of India’s vernacular literature, and many have been fighting tooth and nail to argue for the importance and relevance of India’s so-called ‘vernacular’ languages.

And Roy too can’t get away from speaking about this. What is confusing is that she keeps returning to this question of language, which appears to have been her original motivation for writing the piece, sporadically while focusing far more on the issue of who writes about India. What is perhaps confusing is the underlying privilege she herself grants to Europe, its markets, its audience and its ‘reading’ of India.

What we are all uncomfortable acknowledging is that the West—shorthand for the complex markets and divergent reading tastes of the UK, the US and a large swath of Europe—has a sharply truncated view of Indian writing. Imagine assessing all of European literature by reading only works in Polish, or only works in Italian—that, in the absence of a market for translations of Indian fiction, is the position the West is in when it reads “Indian writing”. And as long as the market is open only, or chiefly, to Indian writing in English, this blindness cannot be overcome. There is also the question of economic power: with access to larger audiences abroad, publishers outside India can and do dictate who has that access, what kind of stories travel from here to there, what books will be considered future Indian classics. There is an inequality in the system, inevitable, inescapable and often resented.

There is just so much wrong in the above paragraph that I do not even know where to begin.

First, it is ridiculous to complain that the West reads only those works that are written or translated into English. I mean, what else would they be able to read? Furthermore, the critic has nothing to say about the fact that the initiative to translate works from various Indian languages into English or other European languages often comes at the behest of European publishing houses. If indigenous Indian writings are to find a global audience, they have to be placed into an Indian publishing structure that makes them i.e translates them, available to a larger audience. I suspect that the answer is not merely about translations though but also about the relevance and resonance of the stories.

Second of all, the statement carried within it an hypocritical thought: that it is Europe that does the reading that actually matters. Despite the writings attempt to complain about the value set on works that are recognized and celebrated in the West, she himself sets Europe up as the audience that actually matters and should in fact be reading India more broadly and in a less truncated way. Their reading us, and all of us, is very important and the determinant of value. She laments their ‘truncated’ reading of us, as if their reading is what really matters. This prioritization of the Western audience underpins all such complaints of ‘truncated’ views, and is the unspoken background prejudice of such critics. A need felt for stories to ‘travel from here to there’ belies a belief that arriving ‘there’ is somehow the achievement that matters. Here she is again:

She also ignores the reality that there are large markets for vernacular literature in India itself. Kerala alone boasts a market of nearly 33 million readers, and all in their native Malayam. As described in a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘Kerala: Mad About Books‘:

Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Returning to the issue at hand, when will we accept that English is an Indian language? How many years, and what history, allows us to call a language ‘Indian’? Is it 10 years, 100 years, 400 years? I would argue that English is fundamentally an Indian language and has as much right to be called that as Urdu, or Tamil or Hindi or any other language that arrived into its present form and place as a result of settlement, communication, commerce, conquest and creativity. In fact, Roy herself admits that:

The Census 2001 figures, released late last year, revealed that English had, effectively, become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns or belong to metropolitan areas that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege…as this generation begins to tell and write its stories, it may not need to beguile the souks of the West with its Indiennisme.

But while doing so, refuses to see that the question of Indians writing in English and Indians not writing in English is only interesting if you privilege and value the judgment and commercial power of the European. An insistence that if it’s not being ‘read’ by Europe than it is being marginalized, ignored and under-valued reflects a very severe post-colonial inferiority complex that holds the European ‘audience’ on a higher scale of value and relevance. The question to ask ourselves is why this is so? Is it simply because they throw more money at it, and can hence create a greater aura of glamour, celebrity and fame around their industry? Is it because their voice continues to matter to us even far above our own? It reminded me of something Partha Chatterjee said, though in a different context, that despite our best efforts our…

…thought accepts and adopts the same essentialist conceptions based on the distinction between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, the same typology created by a transcendent studying subject, and hence the same ‘objectifying’ procedures of knowledge constructed in the post-Enlightenment age…There is consequently, an inherent contradictoriness in…thinking, because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power…thought it seems to repudiate it.

Chatterjee, Partha Nationalist Thought And The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Page 38

What also remains unexplained is that given the growing appetite for Indian writers in Europe and the USA, why there has not been a greater effort from within India to have its many vernacular works translated into languages that can be read by the Europeans and the Americans? This is something yet remains to be understood, and as far as I know has not been sufficiently examined. A part of the answer I believe lies in the point I made earlier: that it is the universality of a story that matters, not merely its translation. I am sure that this is not the whole answer, but we cannot ignore this fact. And the naturalness of it: the European is under no obligation to read our stories and we should expect her to be.

Finally, I would add that the reason why we don’t just read Polish literature to understand Europe is because Poland comes to us not just as a separate language, but also as belonging to a separarte nationalism. The prejudice of Indian nationalism prioritizes her Northern Indian elite and mythologies, complete with its preference for English and its strong historical and cultural links to the West. I need to say more about this, since this may inflame some serious objections, but we cannot ignore the preponderance and unfair weight of North India when it comes to being mistaken for India as a whole. That is why we can assume that an Indian from a narrow, middle-class segment writing in English represents all of India because Indian nationalism itself has been articulated by this class since such nationalisms very inception, if not earlier. A very small elite speaks for the entire region, and many regions are marginalized in the process. This is a broader issue that require more explanation for which I do not have space here.


Underlying all this concern of course are some very nativist ideas of what it means to be Indian, and who can claim that privilege. These ideas are of course inflected by the definition of an Indian nation, cemented by the pillars of official nationalism: borders, states, languages, flags, passports etc. But literature is about ideas, not geography. It is about the human imagination, not cities of birth. The idea of India cannot be confined to within India’s physical borders. Her post-colonial modernity defies such simplistic definitions of what it takes to be Indian. A vast, diverse diaspora is one reality that undermines the country’s geography. The cosmopolitan lives of even so many millions of her resident citizens – lives that see them living, studying, conducting business in a number of different geographic and cultural domains, is another reality that can’t be ignored. Into this modernity of cultural and geographical flows we cannot place rigid and fixed ideas of ‘belonging’ or ‘culture’ or ‘vernacular’ languages.

Our citizen’s lived realities are far more interesting than fixed identities and out-dated ideas of ‘Indian-ness’ require. It is specious, if not a complete waste of time, to argue about whether a certain language is Indian or not. If we keep in mind that it is mere historical fate that Assamese is an ‘Indian’ language and Pushtun is not. It could just as well have been otherwise. And we should not forget that even today people in regions like Kerala and Tamil barely speak Hindi, with many absolutely refusing to do so.

We are better off, whether it is when we discuss fiction or non-fiction, judging a work on the merit of its content and imagination, rather than on merely its mode of communication. We are better off accepting the absolute hybridity of our lives, the many ways in which they are embroiled and mixed with the lives, cultures, histories and intellectual trajectories of societies, peoples and ideas beyond our geographical borders. Today more than ever – in an age of global media, the internet, accessible long-distance travel, inter-connected marketplaces and business, we no longer live and experience this world from within our geographical frontiers. Our imaginations are influenced by things we can’t even really enumerate, and perhaps largely by ideas that come to us from way past our known horizons. We don’t have to like this modernity, but it would be foolish to pretend to ignore its reality. It would be equally foolish to pretend that we can today set a clear definition of what it takes to be considered Indian, and who can claim the right to speak for it, to it and with it.

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