ENGLISH IN AN UNEVEN LAND: DR. MEENAKSHI MUKHERJEE
Meenakshi Mukherjee is an eminent postcolonial critic and theorist
and has received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2004 (Highest
award in literature in India).She has taught in various Indian
universities and her longest spell has been in JNU (Jawaharlal
Nehru University, Delhi). She has also been a visiting professor
in many universities like University of Chicago, Univ. of Texas,
Austin, University of California, Berkeley, to name only a few.
Some of the books written by Meenakshi Mukherjee are The Twice
Born Fiction, Realism and Reality: Novel and Society in India,
Re-reading Jane Austen, and The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English.
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There was a time not so long ago in our
sylvan pre-globalised past when the debate about English in India followed
a predictable trajectory, the tidy binaries English and Indian
languages set sharply against each other. As a language of the
elite, English was seen on the one hand as a tool of empowerment and
on the other as an instrument of alienation from the grass root culture.
The opposite was perceived to be the case with the other Indian languages
which were invariably lumped together as if there was no internal hierarchy
or disparity among them. Use of any of these Indian languages was supposed
to confer authenticity on the user whether the language was deployed
in conversation, in creative writing, in journalism or political discourse.
The nature of the debate has got irrevocably complicated since then.
I am not talking about the obvious changes brought about by globalization;
everybody knows that as the language of commerce and information technology
English has become a highly desired skill, a precondition for economic
and social advancement. My focus here is on the other shifts in perspective
that have gradually crept upon us in recent years. For example the validity
of English vs Mother Tongue as a topic for debate itself
has begun to be questioned because it is difficult to go on pretending
that all mother tongues in India occupy similar space, as
if there is no difference between Marathi and Mizo, between Gujarati
and Garhwali, between Telugu and Tulu. We can no longer avoid recognizing
that a large number of Indians, including many rural children, do not
learn their mother tongues in the classroom, even when they are going
to the local government school, and for a person speaking Mundari at
home, Hindi and English are both second languages. Thus the romantic
notion of the mother tongue being the natural and instinctive medium
of written expression for all Indians evades the ground reality of our
country. The other development that cannot be ignored is that the most
articulate champions of English today are no longer the urban Westernised
sector of society but the Dalits. This takes the radical Indian intellectual
by surprise because Dalit self-expression so far has always been associated
with Indian languages. To take one example at random -- think of the
powerful and searing autobiographies through which a large section of
Indian readers were first introduced to Dalit literature. These were
invariably in Marathi (Daya Pawar, Laxman Mane, Sharan Kumar Limbale),
Hindi (Om Prakash Valmiki) or Tamil (Bama). All these years in discussions
of Indian Writing in English, no reference was ever made to Dalit writing.
It was automatically assumed that Bakha would never have a voice in
English without the mediation of a London-educated Mulk Raj Anand.
The most vivid encapsulation of the new attitude towards English can
be seen in the writings of Chandrabhan Prasad who in his column `Dalit
Diary in The Pioneer proposes iconising English as the goddess
of the Dalits. Goddess English is all about emancipation, Goddess
English is a mass movement. The Reservation Debate in education
that has been agitating the country of late makes us realize that the
question of access to English is one of the unspoken issues. A huge
social divide (also knowledge divide) exists between those have proficiency
in English and those who do not. Given the fact that English today is
the language not only of upward social mobility and outward geographical
mobility, but also a major tool for accessing knowledge, at the higher
and more competitive levels of education, the minority with high proficiency
in English will always have an edge in life. To counteract this asymmetry
Chandrabhan Prasad has been dramatizing through symbols and gestures
this aspiration for English among those who have so far been debarred
from its benefits. One of his actions that has drawn media attention
is his celebration -- for three consecutive years of the birthday
of the much-maligned Lord Macaulay.
The role of Lord Macaulay, traditionally seen as the villain in the
drama of bifurcation that is supposed to have split the country into
English India and indigenous India, is being reassessed from this new
perspective. We are all aware of the infamous sentence of Macaulay that
laid bare the educational agenda of the colonizers: We must at
present do our best to form a class of persons, Indian in blood and
colour and English in taste opinions, in morals and in intellect
(Minute on Education, 1835). Chandrabhan Prasad urges us not to see
this quotation out of context, because the lines preceding this well
known sentence are It is impossible for us with our limited means,
to attempt to educate the [entire] body of the people. What Macaulay
suggested in 1835 was evidently an interim measure: educating a few
in the modern system of knowledge which was at that point of time available
in English. The final aim was that through filtration effect this knowledge
would penetrate to the rest of the people, preferably in their own languages.
The Macaulay-created class of Indians was supposed to bring about this
transformation: To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular
dialects of the country , to enrich those dialects with terms of science
and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge
to the great mass of the population. (Minute on Education,
That this was never going to happen was predicted by another Englishman
, Lord Mayo who did not like either Macaulay or his policy and wrote
in a letter in 1854 : I dislike the filtration theory
we have done nothing toward extending knowledge to the million [s] .
The Babus will never do it. The more education you give them, the more
they will keep it to themselves and make the increased knowledge [a]
means of tyranny.
Whether Lord Mayo was right, whether todays reservation debate
is a long-term fall-out of this centuries long process of denial and
whether Chandrabhan Prasads proposed deification of the language
is likely to rectify the balance of power and smooth out the unevenness
of the land are questions that are bound to enliven the debate on English
in India, a perennial favourite with our intelligentsia. It should be
remembered that todays Dalit emphasis on English goes back to
Ambedkar who insisted on writing in English some seventy years ago.
My own discipline is literature and for decades I have been following
the literary discussion about how Indian writers in English are different
from those who write in their own languages. Initially it was an interesting
dialogue but I must confess for the last couple of decades I had lost
interest in it because most people got congealed in their positions
and kept repeating the same arguments. Those who wrote in English usually
justified their choice by saying this was the language they knew best
and in any case English was also an Indian language. The advocates of
mother tongue writing accused them of not being in touch with the masses
and of selling an exoticised India to foreigners for economic gain.
Gramophone records in an earlier era used to get stuck in a groove like
this. But suddenly the entire frame of reference seems to be changing.
Consider the following statement by a young writer Siddhartha Deb who
has written two excellent novels against the background of the North
East (Point of Return 2003 and Surface 2005). When asked the
inevitable question Why in English? he said As
someone from a lower middle class background , as a child of East Bengali
migrants in the hill area of the North East, I was distanced from the
upper classes, from Kolkata, from my original homeland , and from the
place where we were living. I found in English a vehicle of social mobility,
a way to enter restrictive spaces (The Hindu Literary Review,
Dec 3 2006). For him English is a well-considered strategy rather
than an automatic choice.
Another writer who belongs to an urban upper middle class milieu and
evidently does not share Siddhartha Debs reasons for choosing
to write in English, has come up recently with an entirely different
argument to make the old language debate appear simplistic. This is
Amit Chaudhury who in a recent essay in New Left Review (July-August
2006) dismantles the myth of a composite and homogenous reading community
in any language of the world. Chaudhury wrote this essay in response
to the frequently asked question `For whom do you write? the implied
accusation being that all writing in English is really addressed to
foreigners. It is not easy to summarise the nuanced argument of Chaudhuris
essay. Drawing examples from writers as different as James Joyce, Arun
Kolhatkar and U.R. Anantha Murthy he demonstrates that regardless of
language, a modern writers constituency is necessarily fractured.
The mirage of an organic community held together by language cannot
form the basis of a rational discourse.
There are at least two separate aspects in the discussion on language
literary and pedagogic. How does one gain proficiency in English?
Everyone wants to learn English because it leads to better career options
but there is a gaping chasm between the rural and urban, and between
the privileged and the underprivileged as far as learning opportunities
are concerned. In a promising first novel in English by Rupa Bajwa
(The Sari Shop, 2004) this discrepancy itself is effectively used
as part of the theme. Ramchand, a shop assistant in Sevak Sari Shop
in Amritsar has an ordinary life; his only secret extravagance is buying
books that would help him learn English. He does not know which books
will be useful. He begins with Complete Letter Writer ( Price Rs. 30
) diligently going through every letter written to Peggy by Phyllis
or such people in Kent or Tintern, although he is baffled by their mysterious
references to `jolly motor tours in Wales and `outstanding
subscriptions to tennis clubs. Next book Radiant Essays for Schoolchildren
of All Ages (forty rupees) turns out to be more accessible and he buys
a tattered old copy of Oxford English Dictionary for another forty rupees
to be able to read the essays.
Then he hit upon a new idea
.. if he started
at the beginning of the dictionary , and learnt the meanings of each
and every word , working his way from A to Z , one day he would know
all English, completely and irrevocably (85 ). Next six months
he was working on A.
One day he saw in the book shop a faded book that he was sure
he could get cheap a book called Quotations for All Occasions.
Ramchand had always thought that quotations were something to do with
fixing the price of wholesale fabric, but the book jacket explained
that quotations were things of wit and wisdom said by great people.
He did not know what wit meant but he could do with some wisdom. Another
thing in favour of the book was that the quotations were short
bought the book, haggling till he got it for twenty rupees. Sure that
it would help fill in empty moments with wisdom and with wit, which
he was sure was a desirable thing. Some quotations he wholeheartedly
agreed with and others he vehemently and angrily opposed. While reading
through `Ability he was impressed by this:
Ability is of little account without opportunity
How true that was, Ramchand thought sadly, wondering who Napoleon was.
May be a foreign poet
Ramchand would have gone to an English
medium school if his parents had not died (175).
Rupa Bajwas novel depicts in English the sadness of not knowing
English, something no other writer has ever attempted. Evidently the
`either-or relationship is changing. Perhaps we are at the beginning
of a new configuration in which our languages will be re-aligned through
a pragmatic tolerance, discarding the emotional rhetoric that had set
the tone earlier.
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