Indianising English

Print edition : October 05, 2012

As a literary language in India, English is one of the several languages in which multilingual India expresses itself.

A decade ago, in 2002, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations organised a literary festival at Neemrana (Rajasthan) that witnessed a major debate on the medium of authentic Indian writing. Some of the writers in the languages of Indian origin, who constituted about half of the invitees (the rest having been writers in English living within or outside India), questioned the very possibility of documenting the Indian experience in a foreign tongue like English. The debate became shriller as some journals took it up and sensationalised the issue, rendering implausible any nuanced stand on it. Even sober writers like the Hindi fiction writer the late Nirmal Verma crossed swords with their English coevals, who put up a superfluous defence. But I feel that the question, which in itself may have some value, has so far been posed from false premises, looking at Indian writing in English and the bhashas as oppositional categories rather than as two ways of articulating the same reality. It is time we accepted English as a legitimate language of literary expression in India, as relevant and significant as any Indian language despite its foreign origin, though one can hardly deny its kinship with the languages of the Indo-Aryan group as they come from a common stock of Indo-Germanic tongues.

Even if we choose to ignore this common fact, we cannot write off the two centuries of the presence of English in India. If it was the language of colonial domination, it was also the language of anti-colonial resistance: our national leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar, employed it in the service of the freedom struggle. We may also remember that it was our own decision to retain English as a link language and as a language of intellectual, emotional and imaginative articulation even after the British had left the country. Today, India is the third largest English-using nation in the world; only the United States and the United Kingdom have greater numbers of users of the language. It is used in India by 5 per cent of the population; some of the languages of the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution have far fewer than the 35 million users that English has. English is also the state language of some of the States in the north-eastern region. It is the countrys associate official language and the chief link language for not only international but even inter-regional communication. India has a large network of newspapers and journals in the English language, besides several publishing houses that bring out books only in English. In fact, India today is one of the three largest publishers of books in English. Salman Rushdies Aurora Zogoiby (in The Moors Last Sigh) was not far wrong when he said, Only English brings us together.

Clockwise, from top left: U.R. Ananathamurthy, Raja Rao, Premchand, R.K Narayan, O.V. Vijayan and Mulk Raj Anand. Indian language writing and English writing often share themes and belief systems, as is apparent in comparisons between Ananthamurthy's "Samskara" and Raja Rao's "Kanthapura", Premchand's "Godan" and Mulk Raj Anand's "Coolie", or Vijayan's "The Legends of Khasak" and Narayan's "Malgudi Days".-

More importantly, English is getting absorbed into Indian languages and also enriching itself by assimilating them in turn. It has acquired a specific cultural identity in India and entered Indias linguistic and literary creativity, not to speak of its undeniable presence in the everyday speech of the educated Indian. Several English words have merged indistinguishably with Indian languages that have not even bothered to find indigenous equivalents for them, or even where there are, they seldom care to use them. Words like school, desk, bench, book, party, machine, factory, computer and other modern gadgets and their parts, wine, soap, box, trunk, bus, car, truck, stock, share, godown and scores of other words relating to the modern environment have gone into common speech across classes in the country. Simon Durings observation that the post-colonised can never retrieve the pristine purity of their languages is true in our context.

On the other hand, English has acquired new structures and tonalities in India in the process of adapting it to native use. At a time when we have ceased to speak of the Queens English and speak instead of many Englishes, we need no longer be apologetic about Marathi/Gujarati/Bengali/Tamilian English which carry the tonalities and inflections of these mother tongues. When Vikram Seths novel A Suitable Boy was translated by Gopal Gandhi into Hindi as Ek Accha-sa Ladka, the author saw it as an act of retrieval since the cultural subtext of the original really belonged to the Hindi milieu and some extracts were literally restored to their originals. The late Mulk Raj Anand told me in a conversation in 1992 that he would first think in Punjabi whatever he would later write in, rather translate into, English and that is what gave a Punjabi flavour to his English. Jayanta Mahapatras claim that he is an Oriya poet writing in English can also be seen in this linguistic context, though later the poet began to actually write in Oriya, too.

Sarojini Naidu, one of the first Indian poets to write in English. The kind of high rhetorical flourishes she used were abandoned by later poets.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Indian language writing and English writing share themes, concepts, experiences, world views and belief systems as a comparison might reveal between, say, U.R. Ananathamurthys Samskara and Raja Raos Kanthapura, Premchands Godan and Mulk Raj Anands Coolie, or O.V. Vijayans Khasakkinte Itihasam (The Legends of Khasak) and R.K. Narayans Malgudi Days. There is also a sharing of discoursal devices and indigenous genres. For example, R.K. Narayans Malgudi Days and Raja Raos Kanthapura are sthalapuranas, or local histories; Allan Sealys Trotternama is a nama like the Mughal chronicles; Kiran Nagarkars Cuckold is a kind of hagiography and Vikram Seths The Golden Gate is an epic narrative in verse, a genre very much in the Indian tradition. Agha Shahid Ali and, more recently, Jeet Thayil, have tried ghazals and qasidas in English like Lorca did in Spanish. V.S. Naipaul once claimed that he was inspired by the Indian epics in the writing of A House for Mr. Biswas. Shashi Tharoors The Great Indian Novel also takes off from the Mahabharata in an ironic vein. We may recall Raja Raos comment in his introduction to Kanthapura on the way Indian creative writers should handle English:

One has to convey in a language that is not ones own the spirit that is ones ownWe cannot write like the English, we should not. We can write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. The tempo of Indian life must be infused into our English expression even as the tempo of American or Irish life has gone into the making of theirs and our paths are paths interminablewe tell one interminable tale. This was and still is the ordinary style of our story-telling.

At least from 1960 onwards a distinct Indian idiom has been taking shape in Indian English poetry too. The new poets abandoned the high rhetorical flourishes and colourful overstatements of their predecessors like Sarojini Naidu and Toru Dutt. Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Adil Jussawallah, A.K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra and Arun Kolatkar helped this nativisation in various ways. In his Rough Passage, R. Parthasarathy wondered:

How long can foreign poets Provide the staple of your lines? Turn inward; scrape the bottom of your past.

He stated later that his task was one of acclimatising the English language to an indigenous tradition and initiating a dialogue between myself and my Tamil past.

Indian writing in English often borrows from indigenous genres. Allan Sealy's "Trotternama" is a nama like the Mughal chronicles. Kiran Nagarkar's "Cuckold" is a kind of hagiography. Shashi Tharoor's "The Great Indian Novel" takes off from the Mahabharata in an ironic vein. Vikram Seth's (extreme right) "Golden Gate" is an epic narrative in verse, a genre very much in the Indian tradition.-

Nissim Ezekiel attempted to recreate Indian characters in their natural situations. He employed colloquial speech rhythms and conventional tones in poems like Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S., Hangover and Healers. Here is a sample from his Professor:

Remember me? I am professor Sheth Once I taught you geography Now I am retired though my health is good If you are coming again this side by chance, Visit please my humble residence also I am living just on opposite houses backside.

Several Indian words and expressions such as goonda, guru, mantra, ashram, bhikshuks, chapatti, pan, burkha, Indirabhen and Rama Rajya keep appearing in Ezekiels poems. They illustrate Ayyappa Panikers statement that national sensibilities are based on racial or cultural factors.

Poets in the latter half of the 20th century renounced the colourful overstatements of predecessors such as Sarojini Naidu and Toru Dutt. (Clockwise from above left) Kamala Das, Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawallah, A.K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra and Arun Kolatkar helped this nativisation.-

A.K. Ramanujan began searching for his Tamil and Kannada roots and translating the saint poetry of both the languages at the same time. He declared (in Conventions of Despair):

I must seek and will find my particular hell only in the Hindu mind.

The fabric of A.K. Ramanujans poetry is woven out of myriad threads of Indian myth, history, culture, heritage, topography, and environment. Ramanujans poetry keeps recalling his aunts and uncles and his childhood in Karnataka. He has made an honest statement about the sources of the Indian poet writing in English in his personal context:

Works such as Rukmini Bhaya Nais's "Ayodhya Cantos" demonstrate different ways of being specifically Indian in outlook.-K. PICHUMANI

English and my disciplines give me my outer formslinguistic, metrical, logical and other such ways of the shaping of experience, and my first 30 years in India, my frequent visits and field trips, my personal and professional preoccupations with Kannada, Tamil, the classics and folklore gave me my substance, my inner forms, images and symbols. They are continuous with each other, and I no longer can tell what comes from where.

Several works by Jayanta Mahapatra (e.g., Relationship), Kamala Das (e.g., Anamalai Poems), Rukmini Bhaya Nair (e.g., Ayodhya Cantos), Arun Kolatkar (e.g., Jejuri, Kala Ghoda Poems, Sarpasatra) and others like Dilip Chitre, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Meena Alexander, Arundhati Subrahmaniam, Vijay Nambisan, Ranjit Hoskote, Anand Thakore, Vivek Narayanan and Jeet Thayilto cite just a few examplesdemonstrate different ways of being specifically Indian in outlook, form and idiom. Kamala Das, who also wrote short stories in English in her other incarnation as Madhavikkutty, defended her use of English thus:

Why not let me speak in any language I like? The language I speak Becomes mine, the distortions, the queernesses, All mine, mine alone. It is half-English, half- Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest, It is as human as I am human.

She said it was as natural to her as cawing is to crows or roaring to the lions (from the poem An Introduction).

Arundhati Roy. Her "The God of Small Things" uses Malayalam words directly.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

In their attempt to deal with Indian themes, concerns and contexts like Partition, the search for identity, the changing rural scenario, the complex urban milieu, the reinterpretation of myths and legends, the encounter between the East and the West, the experience of the minorities and the marginalised, the trauma of womanhood, the Emergency, the growth of communal forces and the immigrant experience, Indian English novelists have been confidently bending the language to their will. Mulk Raj Anand was perhaps the first conscious experimenter, followed by Raja Rao and Bhabani Bhattacharya. They, with G.V. Desani, took liberties with diction and syntax. They drew from the resources of Indian languages and infused English with their essence.

Meenakshi Mukherjee in her Twice-born Fiction points to certain linguistic problems that Indian writers in English face: they have to write in English about people who do not normally speak or think in English and they have to write in an acquired language, which is a situation very different from those of American, Australian, Canadian or West Indian writers, who can make use of living speech. (Even some Indian writers have done this, for example, Rahul Bhattacharya in The Sly Company of People Who Care uses the fascinating dialect of Guyana to convey the textures of life there.) But Indians dealing with non-English-speaking people have to convey through English a vast range of expressions, observations and experiences whose natural vehicle is an Indian language. This problem becomes especially acute in writing dialogue, and one reason for drama remaining the poorest genre in English in Indiawith very few exceptions like Asif Karim Bhoy or Mahesh Dattanimay be precisely this difficulty. Indian novelists have used diverse strategies to meet this challenge.

As we have noted, Mulk Raj Anand conveys a Punjabi flavour through most of his writing. In R.K. Narayans fiction one can easily perceive the presence of his region in the customs and manners he deals with and the language he employs, which has Tamil overtones. Raja Raos Kanthapura shows conspicuous use of the nuances of Kannada; Bhabani Bhattacharyas fiction has something Bangla about it; Vikram Seth has Hindi beneath his English; and Arundhati Roys first novel has the flavour of Malayalam. But as Meenakshi Mukherjee rightly notes, this regional dimension is missing in the public school English of the novels of some novelists. This forces many writers to try exotic or Orientalist Indian themes or catchy phrases in order that their works look Indian on the surface.

Salman Rushdie. His English is in continuous conversation with Indian languages.-RAFA RIVAS

Many Indian writers in English experiment with diction, literally translating idioms, or with syntax, transforming the structure of the sentence. The literal translations can be seen mostly in Mulk Raj Anand. Look at some examples: Is this any talk?, Are you talking the true talk?, May I be your sacrifice? There are Punjabi-Hindi expressions like counterfeit luck, swear words and abuses used by peasants in Punjab as also proverbs like Your own calfs teeth seem golden ( The Road, page 24), A goat in hand is better than a buffalo in the distance (ibid, page 22), and The camels are being swept away, the ants say, they float ( The Big Heart, page 206). Khushwant Singh also has a similar flavour to his English: Sardar Saheb, you are a big man and we are but small radishes from an unknown garden ( I Shall Not Hear the Nightingales). Bhabani Bhattacharya translates a Bengali saying: When an ant grows wings and starts flying in the air, it is not far from its doom ( A Goddess Named Gold). Raja Rao uses Kannada figures of speech unobtrusively: You are a Bhatta and your voice is not a sparrow voice in your village and you should speak with your people and organise a Brahmin party. Otherwise, Brahminism is as good as kitchen ashes ( Kanthapura). Arundhati Roy in her The God of Small Things uses Malayalam words directly, at times mixed with English words: Poda, pattee, valare thanks, Thanks, ketto, Naley, Chacko Saar vannu, Veluthe! Ividay!, Mon, Mol, Kochamma, paravan, pulayan. She uses Malayalam words like these in English script and does not care to give a glossary. Her descriptions invoke typical Ayemenem landscapes through the use of pepper vines and tapioca.

In Salman Rushdie, English is in a continuous conversation with Indian languages, as in Midnights Children, his best work so far. Amitav Ghosh has used multilingualism most effectively in his Sea of Poppies and The River of Smoke, though the tendency is evident in his other works such as The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace. In Sea of Poppies he uses the tonal music of Bhojpuri, the language of its woman protagonist, very effectively and even brings in Bhojpuri folk songs; he also uses Hindustani in many forms, at times mixed with English as in the slang used by the crew of the ship Ibis.

There is a self-conscious questioning of the boundaries of language in many of the works I referred to and many I have not; often, they bring languages into comic collision, testing the limits of communication between them. They celebrate Indias linguistic diversity and take over the English language to meet the demands of the Indian context, questioning the unmixed purity of Indian culture in the process. English thus loses its singular authority to become part of Indias rich and creative polyphony.

Amitav Ghosh. He has used multilingualism most effectively in "Sea of Poppies".-P.V. SHIV KUMAR

The constraints that Indian literature in English encounters have best been articulated by one of its living practitioners, Shashi Deshpande, in an article she wrote some time back in The Hindu. One is of course its lack of a long tradition and the assurance that comes from it. There is hardly any archive, cultural register or community memory that it can fall back upon for drawing its images, archetypes and cultural symbols. It tries to make good at times by drawing on the larger Indian mythology and epics or Greek, Roman or Persian traditions, thus making it difficult to assign to it a specific location: this is particularly evident in Indian poetry in English as poetry depends, more than fiction does, on cultural memory to achieve its vertical semantic and associational dimension. The range of verbal associations available to the language poet is also unavailable to the poet writing in English. This may also be why many of them chose to be bilingual, writing also in their mother tongues. English writing also suffers from the potential danger of standardisation of experience as the language flattens regional, linguistic and dialectal differences and annihilates the local colour, tone and texture so prominent in language writing, especially fiction.

English writing in India also, as pointed out by Shashi Deshpande, has a tendency to inflate itself and to exoticise and package India for a foreign audience, as happens mostly with the writers living outside the country. It does not have a close-knit community of readers as language writing has. This amorphous nature of the audience it addresses also leads to an ambivalence in English writing regarding what it can expect from readers. This uncertainty of context is besides the ambiguity about its own historical positioning. One may well ask, as U.R. Ananthamurthy did once, why there are no socio-literary movements, like the Dalit or Adivasi movement for example, in English, but for stray writers like Meena Kandasamy. But looking at the fine contemporary writing from the north-eastern region, one feels it is just a matter of time.

The task of the critic at this juncture is not perhaps to sensationalise the opposition but to look at the texts: their strategies of the absorption and nativisation of experience and the differences at thematic, emotive, signifying, ideological and structural levels with their Indian language counterparts in order to bring out the nuances of their linguistic and existential negotiation. If we need to fight English as a language of power and hegemony in India and a potential threat to the existence and development of Indian languages, it is not by opposing the creative use of English as a literary language where it is like any other Indian languagewith the constraints outlinedbut by reversing the priorities in our system of education; for example, by making the study of at least one Indian language compulsory up to a certain stage after which the students may exercise their choice. As a literary language in India, English needs neither to be privileged nor to be de-privileged: it is just one of the several languages in which multilingual India creativity chooses to express itself.

K. Satchidanandan is a Malayalam poet, translator, academic and bilingual critic and former Secretary, Sahitya Akademi.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×