5 Homegrown Writers Who Are Reclaiming The English Language From Its Colonial Legacy
Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (1912) was prefaced with a much-feted introduction by W.B. Yeats who would later go on to rescind his opinion in 1937 about India’s most famous poet, quipping how “No man can think or write with music and vigour except in his mother tongue”. This was rather sanctimonious given the fact that Yeats himself did not compose verse in the language of his boyhood years, Gaelic.
Moreover, many homegrown regional-language writers like Balachandran Nimade or Ashokamitran have dismissed writing in English as a plutocratic, colonialist indulgence that can never encapsulate the authentic Indian experience. Ironically enough, from our ketchup tag-lines to filmi music, the ‘self-generating’ vehicle that is language has turned the wheels of time and lingering cross-cultural descendants like Hinglish or Tanglish have reclaimed our legacy of oppression.
Not only have we ignored the didactic headmaster, who would have stopped us from saying “OK Boss” and appending the “na” after every sentence, our rebelling scribes also milk the hybrid bovine of Indian English for humour and socio-cultural satire. English may not be our mother tongue but we have earned our keep with teaching it our peccadillos and bamboozled our way into speaking it the way we want to.
I. Nissim Ezekiel
With a keen ear for the cadence of Indianness, Nissim Ezekiel flung his literary net far from the early pool of his influences from the likes of T.S. Eliot and aforementioned Yeats, even though writing in English initially shocked his Marathi speaking Bene Israeli Jewish community.
But with colloquialisms like when the narrator of his short poem The Patriot mused, "Why world is fighting fighting … I am simply not understanding", it was hilarious that Ezekiel caught on to how we shuffle the verb with the subject noun or often revert to the continuous tense, following the rhythms of our own native dialects.
Though the use of English for official purposes by the Constitution of India was supposedly discontinued after 1965, any discourse around making Hindi the national language has always been met with fierce opposition in the Parliament, like the most recent condemnation from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin.
However, Ezekiel bore down heavily on embracing the vernacular, especially after the Official Languages Act of 1963. He cavorted with even more incredulous affectations like "Visit please my humble residence also./ I am living just on opposite house's backside," in poems like The Professor. Though a self proclaimed outsider, he still felt very Indian and once described the country as “too large for anyone to be at home in all of it”.
II. Arun Kolatkar
A contemporary of Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar was unmatched in his dystopian eulogising of a temple town beset by the vice of Brahminical superstitions and idol worship in Jejuri, his series of 31 English poems that won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977.
Named after a small pilgrimage town about thirty miles from Pune, this dazzlingly mordant collection set a precedent for his later works like the Kala Ghoda Poems that explored the hollowness of India’s ruthless urbanisation and its hyper-consumerist rush to be seen as a developing country. He bemoans how in a bid to build gleaming skyscrapers and erecting grand statues of black horses, the machinists of our postcolonial identity forgot to fill in the potholes of economic disparity; how they neglected the plight of the slum-dwellers or the girl who looks like “a stick of cinnamon” perched upon a concrete block “as if it were a throne”. His use of the English language served as a ‘defamiliarisation’ to puncture our complacency, demolishing our illusions of big cities like Mumbai being an accurate representation of our whole country, calling our attention to the migrant labourers swelling our ranks and being relegated to the margins.
III. Salman Rushdie
In his widely disputed introduction to the anthology The Vintage Book Of Indian Writing, Salman Rushdie claimed that the still burgeoning Indo-Anglian literature “represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books." While his detractors argue that a lack of translations has rendered regional language masterpieces non-existent in the eyes of the world, Rushdie was essentially referring to the ‘chutnification’ of the English language, a sensorial melange of expressions and experiences that can only come out of hybridity.
Best known for his 1981 magical realist opus Midnight's Children, Rushdie paints the trepidation as “hawkers move through the crowd selling channa and sweetmeats”, preceding one of the darkest moments in our colonial legacy, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. He deftly manages to examine history with an absurdist flair and one of the reasons he is able to do this is because his prose leaps beyond the 'Englishness' of the English language in order to create a multicultural pastiche.
IV. Upamanyu Chatterjee
Comic novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee penned a short story in 2015 titled Othello Sucks about an Indian father wondering about the relevance of Shakespeare in the South Delhi school his daughters attended, rhetorically asking, “Do we want them as adults to speak in iambic pentameter when they apply for internships?” From early on — even in his 1988 debut novel English, August: An Indian Story — the writer’s preoccupation with clash of culture and languages was dealt with a signature drollery that dissected "history’s intricate lessons."
Agastya Sen, the pot smoking nihilistic Holden Caulfield-esque protagonist of English, August does not identify completely with either his name or the dreary government job he is supposed to be thankful for. Posted in the backwaters of small town India, his story exemplifies the urban-rural divide that speaks to the larger issue of uneven development in our country. Finding solace in Bob Dylan and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Agastya is the poster boy for alienation and identity crisis afflicting many a disillusioned member of the English speaking middle class of today.
V. Arunadhati Roy
A week after The God of Small Things (1997) was published, the author was at a book reading in Kolkata when she was challenged by an intrepid albeit belligerent member of the audience: “Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?” Unfazed, Arunadhati Roy simply said, “Nabokov” and the man stormed out of the hall.
She would go on to win the Booker Prize that year for her English language novel about loss and family, redolent of monsoons and houseboats in Kerala, but the virtue signalling she had been subjected to on that fateful evening would stay with her for a long time. “What is the politically correct, culturally apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write?”, she would wonder aloud in a lecture delivered at the British Library almost two decades later. This quandary has troubled many Indian writers since Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable was published in 1935.
As a story about a sweeper named Bakha’s aspirations for upward mobility, Untouchable predicted how the extensive wingspan of British colonialism would sow the seeds of the English language farther than the elite, intellectual milieu of our country. While we may believe that English writers suffer from "a sense of not belonging anywhere" as Tamil novelist Ashokamitran has asserted, we must do well to remember that this disassociation speaks volumes for how severed the average Indians feel from the overarching sociocultural reality outside their privileges.
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