Archive for Indian English

The wealth of nations

Seeing as how people are celebrating Rana Dasgupta’s winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize, perhaps it’s apposite to recollect that another Indian English writer (arguably the best today) turned down this prize in 2001. Here’s his letter explaining why:

18 March 2001
New York

Sandra Vince,
Prizes Manager,
Commonwealth Foundation

Dear Sandra Vince:

I have recently learned that my novel, The Glass Palace, has been named the Eurasia regional winner for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize. I gather that this means that it is also a finalist for the overall contest to be held in April. I am, of course, gratified to know that the jury liked my book. Yet, I must admit that this particular announcement took me by surprise for I was not aware that my book had been submitted for the Commonwealth Prize. I have since discovered that publishers routinely submit books for prizes without expressly consulting their authors.

I have on many occasions publicly stated my objections to the classification of books such as mine under the term “Commonwealth Literature”. Principal among these is that this phrase anchors an area of contemporary writing not within the realities of the present day, nor within the possibilities of the future, but rather within a disputed aspect of the past. In this it is completely unlike any other literary term (would it not surprise us, for instance, if that familiar category “English literature” were to be renamed “the literature of the Norman Conquest”?).

As a grouping of nations collected from the remains of the British Empire, the Commonwealth serves as an umbrella forum in global politics. As a literary or cultural grouping however, it seems to me that “the Commonwealth” can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries (it is surely inconceivable, for example, that athletes would have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games).

So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book’s merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive. That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country’s history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of “the Commonwealth”. I therefore ask that I be permitted to withdraw The Glass Palace from your competition.

I would like to add that I mean no disrespect either to the competition’s judges or to previous winners of the Commonwealth Foundation’s prizes, many of whom are writers I greatly admire. I recognize also that the Commonwealth Foundation supports a number of noteworthy social causes and undertakes many invaluable development initiatives in its member countries. My objections to the term ‘Commonwealth Literature’ are mine alone, and I trust you will understand that I could hardly expect to sustain them if I allowed one of my books to gain an eponymous prize.

Finally, on a note of apology I would like to reiterate that this situation would not have arisen if I had known that my publishers were intending to submit The Glass Palace for the Commonwealth Prize. It is too late unfortunately to amend that oversight; fortunately, it is not too late for you to make other arrangements for the final competition.

Amitav Ghosh


“The awards are not a celebration of colonisation but a celebration of English as a language that binds us together,” said the minister, Shashi Tharoor, who gave away the prizes in New Delhi.  (Tharoor was also a recipient of the prize 20 years ago.)


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Mother tongue, other tongue

Barring a few, most Indian English writers acquire the language they write in and seldom lick it off their mothers’ teats. …. This whole question of multilingualism should be looked at less jingoistically if it is to have any meaning, as I think it does.

(Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” Chandrabhaga, #7, 1982.)

You ask me what I mean

by saying I have lost my tongue.

I ask you, what would you do

if you had two tongues in your mouth,

and lost the first one, the mother tongue,

and could not really know the other,

the foreign tongue.

You could not use them both together

even if you thought that way.

And if you lived in a place you had to

speak a foreign tongue,

your mother tongue would rot,

rot and die in your mouth

until you had to spit it out.

I thought I spit it out

but overnight while I dream,

munay hutoo kay aakhee jeebh aakhee bhasha

may thoonky nakhi chay

parantoo rattray svupnama mari bhasha pachi aavay chay

foolnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh

modhama kheelay chay

fulllnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh

modhama pakay chay

it grows back, a stump of a shoot

grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,

it ties the other tongue in knots,

the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,

it pushes the other tongue aside.

every time I think I’ve forgotten,

I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,

it blossoms out of my mouth.   

                          (Sujata Bhatt, from “Search for My Tongue,”  1991)

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More on English in India

Thanks to a ruptured ear-drum (the left one) I’m convalescing, and reading to keep the  pressure of fretting over the classes I’m losing from rupturing  the other ear-drum as well. So here’s something from the reading—an extract from an essay by Probal Dasgupta* on the “war between the forces favouring the unchecked spread of English, and the forces that strive to maintain cultural plurality”  examined primarily through an analysis of Braj Kachru’s book The Indianization of English: The English Language in India (OUP, N. Delhi: 1983)

I’m posting here just a small bit (for obvious copyright reasons) in response to one of Kachru’s comments, because it links in some way to  my previous post.


In the preceding I have attempted to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. I have argued that a pragmatic or functional view is essential in understanding the uses of English in unEnglish contexts. It is especially true now, since English has already attained the status of a universal language whose functions vary from situation to situation, from one continent to another. (Kachru:237-38)

One would have thought that the descriptive imperative would have led to a comparison with French or Russian, which too are used as major link languages in non-native social contexts. At least French has obviously developed interference varieties; I am less sure about Russian; one would have expected to learn something about these matters from a general chapter such as this.  That one does not is perhaps an indication that the pragmatic attitude K advocates functions as an alibi — an indication that the point is to accept the spread of English as ‘a universal language whose functions vary from situation to situation, from one continent to another’ just as it was once okay to speak in positive terms of ‘the Empire where the sun never sets.’  In those days, liberal thought was in favour of domestication of the imperial system on a country-by-country basis; the system had to operate in a manner suited to the local needs of each area, as befits the grandeur of a benign despotism. Today, the concept of appropriate technology has taken the place of such earlier thinking. ‘Appropriate English’ is one variant of this concept; the metropolitan groups in power get to decide what technology, what religion, or variety of atheism, what economic system, and what language should be imposed on the peripheral regions, and the specifics of this imposition will vary from one place to another so that the domination is locally effective.

I am not proposing a conspiracy theory. Surely only the consent of the governed, and in this case an active and enthusiastic sort of consent on their part, can permit a system of domination to continue. Anyone who suggests that it is the fault of the native speakers of English that English is spreading the way it is must take into account the evident popularity of English as an international medium in many non-English-speaking societies today. However, it is clear that the situation that is emerging is extremely beneficial to the native speakers of English, and gives them a lot of cultural power. Since many native speakers of English also have global power of other sorts, again with the consent of collaborators in a host of satellite nations, and again with much sophisticated defence of the exercise of such power in terms of notions like ‘pragmatism’ and ‘appropriate technology’ it seems natural to link the linguistic dimension of the present imperial power system with other dimensions which have received more attention in Third World intellectual circles. If such a link is deliberately not made, one begins to ask what the function of concepts like ‘pragmatic’ and ‘descriptive’ is.

* Dasgupta, Probal. “On the Sociolinguistics of English in India.” Explorations in Indian Sociolinguistics. Eds. Rajendra Singh, Probal Dasgupta and Jayant K. Lele. Sage Publications. New Delhi: 1995

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The (English) language weapon

Last semester I taught report-writing to a group of M.Tech. students in one of the Science Centres of the university where I teach. A task that proved to be challenging not merely because any additional teaching in Jan–April, the shorter semester of the year, is always difficult. When I volunteered, along with a couple of colleagues, as I always do for work of this kind, I should have asked why they approached the English department (which is primarily a Literature department, where Language teaching is infra dig) and not the cell that does this kind of remedial work across the university. I found out in the first class, when the Director of the Centre announced that he wanted the students to learn from me how to write like Jawaharlal Nehru.

Okay. If you’re done guffawing, let me explain. As part of their course-work, these students are expected to explore a small geographical region in or around Hyderabad, describe its topography, and then tabulate the nature and quantities of naturally occurring mineral ores in the region. Now, while I wasn’t expected to bother with the technical descriptions of the mineral deposits, I was expected to help them with the first part of the report — an evocative depiction of the terrain, poetically describing its natural bounties, and thereby inspiring people who read the reports (presumably bored examiners, for whom marking such reports is a loathsome chore) to leap out of their chairs and take the first means of transport to said region and soak up Nature’s goodness. (Instead of going to the spa they’d probably booked for their end-of-year detox regime.)

Quite apart from the fact that I cannot teach something I’m incapable of (writing like Nehru) or even that Nehru’s writing (nay, the man himself) does not appeal to me as a model, I was surprised that a professor in the Sciences was eschewing the reigning style of scientific discourse — factual, concise, clear and focused — for a literary, ornate, intensely personal style. And then add to this the particular difficulty the students themselves presented — all of them, without exception, needed (and I’m being compassionate here, not condescending) to go back to school. To get them to write simple, grammatically correct sentences in three weeks (which was all the time I had) was going to be Sisyphus-ean enough. To get them to develop a ponderous, literary style — hell, we can’t make postgraduate students in English do that!

The Director’s opinion about what kind of English is desirable just confirms for me the disconnect between the views of the supply and demand sections for English in India. I’ll return to this point, but let me digress for a bit.

The scientific and the literary — these are often spoken of as essentially different, even antithetic, styles. Scientific writing, it is often held, requires a standardized language with every word having just one referent, i.e., unambiguous language, shorn of metaphors. Whatever one may think of such a style, what fascinates me is the manner in which English has been made capable of such a style, so that today it is the undisputed language of science.

In a study+ of scientific language from Newton’s Opticks to the present day, Michael Halliday, a British linguist, describes the evolution of scientific discourse as one in which events are described using nouns rather than verbs. Over the centuries, he says, descriptions of physical phenomena changed from the format

“a happens, so x happens”

to the form

“happening a is the cause of happening x”

Thus events and processes are represented in language as states or things (nouns).  Halliday calls this the “grammatical metaphor.”

This is not merely a stylistic change. Whether an idea or phenomenon is represented as a process (verb) or a thing (noun) reflects different ways of viewing the world. Writers are interested in stories and so they represent the world as consisting of activities, actions.  Scientists, on the other hand, think of the world as consisting of objects of study. Speaking of the world as ‘things’ allows them to objectify the natural world, to present it as consisting of objects ‘out there’, to be studied independent of scientists and their investigations. Hence the frowning upon the use of ‘I’ and the promotion of abstract, logical argument.

Both the Royal Society (established in 1660) and the first English scientific journal Philosophical Transactions (inaugurated in 1665) played key roles in promoting and consolidating this style of writing in English for science, so that English eventually upstaged first Latin and then German as the dominant language of scientific discourse.

Fascinating book. But to get back to what I started out with . . .

I have often felt that one of the best examples of logical thinking and clear writing by an Indian is B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste++.  In fact, I believe the text should be compulsory reading at school to teach our children how to write logically and clearly. But of course our children will only read extracts from Gandhi and Nehru, for ideological reasons, not because stylistic or linguistic skills are anywhere on the agenda for our curriculum designers. (Ambedkar’s writing is rarely, if ever, taught even in postgraduate courses on Indian Writing in English or in supposedly critical courses on Hindu thinkers. So this is a lost cause, I know.)

The disconnect: what we need and what we get. I was reminded of this yet again last week when I was co-opted (how I love the murky sound of this word!) into one of those tiresome industry-academia interface charades that achieve little other than squandering public money. So there I was on the dais,  furtively jotting down ideas that kept cropping up,  (I’d been given just a day’s notice for my presentation) when my ears pricked up at what was being said by the Centre Head of one of the world’s biggest MNCs in Hyderabad. I listened, astounded, as he told the large gathering of college principals and teachers that appending Bonjour/ Guten Morgen/ Danke/ Merci before and after your English sentences is enough to procure business deals. It was certainly news to me that the French and the Germans are such dolts! I’d have thought that a powerful, influential business head would know better than to make such irresponsible statements to a bunch of academics desperate to make their institutions more market-geared.

But this is it. This is the academia-industry divide at its best. Or worst. The academic world is oblivious to, even disdainful of, market needs, strangely unperturbed by the storming of its ivory towers by short-sighted, profit-oriented “training” institutes.

Industry, branding “unemployable” the huge majority of young men and women academia churns out, has its own notions of the “professional needs of business” mass-producing PowePoint-based training programmes, supremely unmindful that language learning is an organic process, and that cross-cultural communication does not mean knowing how to say “Good morning” in a dozen languages.  But since academia simply cannot get its act together, the market seduces.

Every week I make up my mind to quit. But I always wake up the next morning bravely determined to change everything.

+Halliday M.A.K. & Martin J.R. (eds) Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power.  University of Pittsburgh Press. Basingstone, Falmer: 1993.

++ The text of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is available online here and here. If you haven’t already, do read Gandhi’s criticism and Ambedkar’s response. The contrast in thinking is startling.

+++ Some  interesting posts on English in India at kufr: 1, 2, and 3

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Poetry, again

A convalescent week thanks to a freak accident at home afforded the luxury of catching up on reading that I’ve been putting off for a long time. I’m well now, but in memory of this glorious week in bed I’m blogging about something I read: Jameela Nishat’s poems translated by a colleague.*

Writing of Jameela’s poetry in their canonical anthology of women’s writing, Tharu and Lalita say: “Most of her poetry is written in Dakkani, a form of Urdu commonly spoken in and around Hyderabad but looked down upon in literary circles, where the norm is the Urdu of Lucknow or Aligarh.” Disagreeing with this, my colleague says in his preface: “And no, she does not write in Dakkani as a recent anthology of women’s writing erroneously states. She writes as she speaks, she writes as she feels, she writes as she dreams. Her vocabulary is the vocabulary of the household, of the Indian woman, whether Muslim or Hindu; her imagery is that of blood, birth, broken pitcher, desert, caravan, a search for water, a movement away from sterile poetry into the dirt and detritus of our shattered lives, broken loves and unfinished dreams.”

But aren’t they saying the same thing, in a sense? Because the relationship between women’s and men’s poetry is somewhat analogous to that between Dakkani and Urdu: the standard versus the colloquial, the lofty versus the quotidian, the world versus the hearth.

I admit that I always seek l’ecriture feminine in women’s poetry, but I wonder if there can really be a feminine sensibility that is completely devoid of the male? If, for instance, I wanted to write about something central to the life of an ordinary Indian woman, like the kitchen, would I be able to banish the male presence from it? A point made most ingeniously by the Telugu poet Vimala:

My mother was queen of the kitchen,
but the name engraved on the pots and pans
is Father’s.

(From Vantillu (The Kitchen) by Vimala. Trans. BVL Narayana Row)

Perhaps the finest women’s poetry will strive to tease out such subtexts in supposedly female spaces. And Jameela’s poetry does not disappoint either, specially in its use of “vocabulary of the household”.

Consider this:

Kabhi mailé alfaaz ka dhêr
Kamron ke koné mein jama hô jate hai
Kabhi us kamré ka chehra
Saaf shafaaf ban jata hai
Jaise kisi ne istree kiya hô
Chheent ki saree
uska sparsh ban jati hai
har cheez yun hi
kuch na kuch ban jati hai

Sometimes a heap of soiled words
                       gathers in a corner of the room
Sometimes the face of the room looks clean and smooth
                      as if someone had ironed it
My chintz saree feels like somebody’s touch
Everything turns into something or other

Or this:

Paintees zindagiyan
aur paanch ungliyan
meri mutthi mein
thame hue hain
Gobi aalu baigan
Machhli murgh murghan
Jeevan ka ghee
jane kaise tapak raha hai

. . . .

Jasbat ka ghee
Unglyon se meri
kagaz par tapak raha hai
quewate khatoon
kagaz ke ragon mein phaile

Thirty-five years of living
with only five fingers to help out
with my closed fist
I have confined all time and space
Cabbage potato eggplant
Fish chicken a chicken feast
All life’s luxury drips like ghee
                  From my cook’s fingers
. . . .

Feelings slide like butter
Off my fingers
To stain this page
This sheet’s every fiber
Strengthened with the strength of woman

A minor quibble I have with the collection is that the translation doesn’t always convey the cadence of the original.  The blurb claims that the translation is in contemporary idiom. Okay, still . . . While I’m no expert on Indian translation, I do know that there are raging debates between those for whom translation is re-creation (the translated piece being a work of art in its own right) and those who believe in preserving the flavour of the original, even if it means taking awkward liberties with the language of translation. I’m conveniently going to fence-sit on this one; however, there is one poem in the collection where I think the translation captures the taut essence of the original. Of course, this piece probably also struck a chord with me because I recently lost someone very dear . . .

(This was written on her father’s death.)

Main ek ehsaas hoon
mujhe mehsoos karo
lafzon lakeeron mein
na jakdo mujhko
Yun hi rangon mein, shabihon mein
Na dhalo mujh ko
Main ek ehsaas hoon
Bas mujhe mehsoos karo
Dil ke aaine mein
Ek bar mujhe dekh to lo
Ghaas ki mizgaan par
Mujhe aasuon ko chuu lene do
Koi rang na do
Gam ki aahat ko
Koi roop na do
Dard ki cheekh ko
Benaam hi rehne do
Waqt ki sail mein
Ek mauj hoon
Ek aahat hoon suno
Bas mujhe mehsoos karo

I am an emotion
Feel me
Do not imprison me
In lines/in words
Do not cast me
In shape or colours
I’m an emotion/Feel me
See me but once
In your heart’s mirror
Let me touch
The frozen tear on the grass’
Let the fallen flower
Remain colourless
Do not colour that
Let sadness come on soft feet
Give it no shape
And let the pained shriek remain nameless
I’m a wave on Time’s waters
I’m a footfall
Hear me/Feel me

* my life-giving Ganges. Poems of Jameela Nishat. Translated by Hoshang Merchant.  (Sahitya Akademi, 2008)

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Another semester rumbles to a close. It’s been a particularly trying one, because I volunteered to teach undergrad students, along with my usual load of postgraduate-and-above teaching, and was quickly disabused of any vain notions of my abilities in the area. (OK,OK, I’m just trying to say, without loss of face, that I failed miserably. ) And no, this isn’t carefully camouflaged elitism; you know  (nudge nudge, wink  wink) I can only teach at “higher levels.” Not at all. Humble crow has been eaten. I realize that it takes far greater skill to engage hyperactive teenagers fresh out of high school who’d much rather be in their labs than waste time on esoteric subjects like English.

At a workshop for teachers in the Department recently, a young man (who teaches English at an engineering college in Hyd)  had us in splits over the “unlearning”  he does in class, thanks to what his students already come indoctrinated with, or pick up from their “subject teachers” (whatay quaint phrase!): sentences that begin “Suppose if …; quaint phrases like “show put up”; and weird grammar rules like “all two-letter words are prepositions.” I know. Four-letter-word!

Any interest in the cultural connotations of Indian English must vapourize when you spend an entire work-life telling young people that they could very well be accused of lewd innuendo when they say  ‘missionary’ (for machinery) or of confusing horses with people when they say ‘oats’ (for votes).

And yet . . . I don’t know. This business of aspiring to speak “propah English” saddens me immensely. As a teacher of English, I recognize the importance of a standard. (Yes, yes, I’m paid to promote it.) But I also rile against a standard that comes from abroad. While even the likes of David Abercrombie and Daniel Jones have asked the question “RP – RIP?”, we in India are yet to get over our infatuation with speaking la-di-dah. A case in point: During the Chandrayaan launch, there were several snooty comments all over the Indian blogosphere about the thick Malayalam accents of the bigwigs at ISRO. Seriously, what is with these commenters? The men at ISRO are what they are not because of their accents but because of what they’ve achieved.  

But it’s not just the accent  that is sniggered at. There is the matter of “common Indian errors” — a heady mix of half-truths and prejudices.  A senior professor once bristled at what she called the uniquely Indian usage “can able to/cannot able to” as in “I cannot able to understand.”/ “I can able to do it.”

However, this ‘uniquely Indian usage’ was pretty common in 16th century England; you’ll find it in Shakespeare and the King James Bible (no less!). Nor has the usage completely died out. You don’t have to take my word for it; trust David Crystal. (Did I mention that I absolutely adore the man? His work, actually.) He has a fascinating blog post on the phrase, which you can read about here. It is not something we Indians invented because we inflict our cradle tongues on English, or because we’re just too dumb to learn English properly.

 Our variety of English is as much a product of colonial contact as that of the Americans, the Australians or the African-Americans. But while each of these Englishes has acquired the status of a variety because its speakers recognize its link to their culture, their ethos, we remain hopelessly opposed to grooming our own homegrown standard. 

And to make my point, here’s an excerpt from an essay titled Expressive Language by Amiri Baraka, (poet, playwright, and activist) whose work I’ve been reading:

I heard an old Negro street singer last week, Reverend Pearly Brown, singing, “God don’t never change!” This is a precise thing he is singing. He does not mean “God does not ever change.” He means “God don’t never change.” The difference is in the final human reference . . . A man who is rich and famous who sings “God don’t never change.” is confirming his hegemony and good fortune . . . or merely calling the bank. A blind, hopeless black American is saying something very different. He is telling you about the extraordinary order of the world.

 Throughout his career Baraka has, through the powerful use of the black idiom, introduced both blacks and whites to the richness of black culture by exploring the connotations of particular words in black and white English. Those who see nothing but non-standard, ungrammatical, or un-aesthetic English in that double negative are clearly missing a lot. 

When will we take our blinkers off and recognize that the Indian English idiom expresses our culture?  Perhaps never. Because there are many among us who see it as merely hackneyed, clichéd, non-standard and unaesthetic. Because there are many among us still willing and eager to carry the white man’s burden.

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A word on The Last Lear

Kitschy renditions of Shakespearean soliloquies, a meandering, dialogue-heavy script, a Bachchan  who hams, gaps in the narrative, subplots that don’t gel together that’s what every Gita, Sita and Rita will probably see in the film. 

However, I loved it — every minute. And no, I’m not being contemptuous of Gita, Sita and Rita.

Not that I’m a great fan of Rituparno Ghosh (Raincoat, Choker Bali and Antar Mahal were headache-inducing) or of Amitabh. No. The only reason I went to see the film, and dragged the spouse along too, was that it was Indian and in English.

I’m not a film critic and I don’t write on things I’m not knowledgeable about, so this is not a review in any sense.  It is just a record of what I felt after the film.

As we waited for the 10 o’ clock MMTS (that’s Hyderabad’s version of the local/suburban train) at Begumpet, we dissected the film, hubby and I. And the first thing we commented on was how light-headed we felt. Remarkable, considering that an Indian film (Bollywood, Tollywood, Everywood … ) leaves us either with a headache or with a heaviness of breath induced by its unabashed, soul-wrenching melodrama. But here we were, after watching an Indian film, and, well, untouched. Oh we enjoyed it all right, being aficionados of Shakespeare  and of metanarratives on cinema.  But somehow we felt distant, uninvolved. 

Now I’m sure there might be cinematic reasons we felt that way, but I wonder if it had to do with the language. For instance, there was something oddly disconcerting about three women emoting about their men in English. “The language of our intellectual make-up, but not of our emotional make-up,” as Raja Rao famously said?

I’m sure most reviews of the film are/ will be about how there’s nothing in it for the average Indian; “It will leave him untouched.” etc. But what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with watching a film dispassionately, for what it is, a work of art, and coming away light-headed?

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