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English, and our Indian identity

Saturday 21 May 2005, by GHOSE*Bhaskar

Is the English language just a means of communication for the people of India or does it supplant their original heritage?

RECENTLY I was involved with the staging of a remarkable play called Keats Was A Tuber written by that fine playwright Poile Sengupta. Sengupta has written a number of plays, all of them in English, but set in very Indian contexts. Her first play, Mangalam, won an award given by The Hindu for the best play of 1993. She is not, as her name would suggest, a Bengali, but is married to one; she is from Tamil Nadu, and as a consequence, most of her plays are set in contexts relating to that State. Being in English, however, her plays are just as relevant in other States as well - the situations and relationships that develop in the plays would be as credible in Pune, or Jalandhar as in Tiruchi or Madurai. But the fact is that they are set in a specific State, within that State’s cultural and social framework, even though the language is English; I am emphasising this because of the theme she has developed and placed before audiences in Keats Was A Tuber.

The play is set in a college staff room in a small town in Tamil Nadu and the plot unravels in the context of the manner in which English is taught in colleges all over the country - this particular college serving more as an example than anything else. The mechanical memorising of facts, often not the essential ones, is what gives the play its title; students being taught to memorise the line `Keats was a tuberculosis patient’ by breaking it into two meaningless portions, "Keats was a tuber, Keats was a tuber’ and `culosis patient, culosis patient’. The method is painfully familiar to anyone who has taught, or studied, in one of the many colleges in small towns in the country; so is the fact that the line so memorised has little to do with Keats’ claim to renown in the world of literature.

As the human relationships unfold in the play, Sengupta makes brilliant use of the English language as a bridge - different for different characters - between those who teach and those who are taught. And setting this in context is the dilemma voiced by one of the characters, 12 years later and now herself a teacher of English, of all those who use the English language. Is it, she asks, just a means of communication, or does it supplant our original heritage, "leaving us", as she says, "to wander forever homeless?"

This is a dilemma that generations of Indians have faced in different ways. There were those who learnt English, mastered it, and its assonances and relevances, but never lost their own heritage, and were, in fact, equally at home with both. The early part of the 20th century saw many such stalwarts, not only among those who taught English, whether in Presidency College, Kolkota or in Loyola College, Chennai, but among many who made up the educated class in those early years, giving it a lustre and richness that are remembered by some even today.

But as time went by, there were others, who lost themselves in the wonders and delights of English literature, and the language, but in doing so drifted away from their original culture and its richness. They took pleasure in their proficiency in the English language, but were barely able to speak their mother tongue, leave alone read and thereby enter the world of beauty and perception it could have given them. Their moorings lost, they became, as time went by, outcastes; not accepted by the English, except grudgingly, and usually with a measure of condescension, and cut off from their own heritage by their ignorance of it.

Yet even these people, to an extent, lived in some kind of cultural world that gave them a degree of awareness, sensitivity, knowledge and a perception of beauty and significance through the English language, and through it the whole world of ideas that opened out to them. If they were strangers to their own cultural traditions, they lived with that alienation, creating little islands of people who were like them. As long as the British were here, they had a certain locus, but when they left, things changed. They were soon regarded as oddities, people to be pitied, and as there was a resurgence of interest in and a celebration of the Indian heritage, expressed through its many languages and customs and beliefs, they became marginalised, existing on the fringes.

This is, of course, a simplification of the process that took place over the last 70 or 80 years, but most historical accounts are simplifications. English was looked on as a part of the colonial baggage that had to be shed, and vigorous attempts were made to shed it. That it was not is owing to a combination of fortuitous circumstances and the very diversity that was celebrated as a part of our heritage. Unity in diversity became, all too soon, diversity alone.

There was a slow realisation that the language of education had to be English, a realisation fiercely resisted at first by political and other groups, and even today the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its Parivar declare their opposition to the language from time to time. But even they see that it is this language that gets their youth employment; something the Left Front in West Bengal realised some years ago, after they had created a generation of intelligent, educated young men and women who were completely illiterate as far as English was concerned and could find only the most basic of jobs.

TODAY things have changed very radically. There is a scramble to learn English, all over our major cities and towns there are `institutes’ teaching English, and as these proliferate, the language serves as a means of unifying the country, while it transforms itself at the same time into a language that is more suited to our needs. "I have taken from the Englishman what was his," says the young teacher of English in Sengupta’s play, "I have smoothed it and dented it, given it shape, polished it, fashioned it the way I want. And I know I possess it now."

There remains the other, more worrying issue. What of our own heritage, our languages, our poetry, our ideas and knowledge that is a part of it? Sadly, more and more of our young are, it would seem, moving away from all of it, to a new, synthetic culture where the medium of communication is something that one can only call chutneyfied English. This has nothing very seminal to do with unity or gainful employment and everything to do with the global culture that television and films spreads all over. Its links with sensationalism, with what the young see as exciting living, ensure it finds acceptance, and our own traditions, cultural moorings and heritage recede to corners where only a few devoted followers keep them alive.

This is also a shadow that is seen to exist in the play Sengupta has written. It must rank as one of her best, and leaves one slightly disturbed at the end; the resolution is, perhaps, not a resolution after all, and behind it is that shadow that may well engulf us all in future years. The issue is one with which we are all only too familiar, and our response to the play cannot but be very personal, and intimate; Sengupta has depicted what we have seen within us. As the play ends we are only too aware of the fact that the underlying issue is one that persists and will persist for generations.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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