“Casteing about”

“Before we have less of caste, we evidently must have more of it.”

Himal’s April issue on caste in modern India. Go read, folks.

While I grapple with term papers, assignments, question papers, evaluations and other such April delights…


Comments (3)

And so Hyderabadis watch in horror as the city lurches from one crisis to another. The latest, the communal riots in the ‘old city’, opened up fissures that one thought were buried and gone.  I feel  desperate, drained of hope, and very,very sad. This too shall pass…maybe.

Just thought I’d share this poem here. Did it in class a couple of weeks ago; it was just poetry then. 

The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, he being neither Muslim nor Hindu in India

To be no part of this hate is deprivation.

Never could I claim a circumcised butcher

Mangled a child out of my arms, never rave

At the milk-bibing grass-guzzing hypocrite

Who pulled off my mother’s voluminous

Robes and sliced away at her dugs.

Planets focus their fires

Into a worm of destruction

Edging along the continent. Bodies

Turn ashen and shrivel. I

Only burn my tail.

Gieve Patel

(Patel is a doctor by profession; a Parsi by birth; and a poet, playwright and painter by choice.)

Comments off

When a language (culture) tells its own story …

A few years ago, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge was presented in Madras. Eddie Carbone, the play’s protagonist, is an Italian dock worker. He is a good man, but tragedy is brought about by his incestuous passion for his orphaned niece. He harbours two young illegal Italian immigrants in his house, one of whom falls in love with his niece. Consumed by jealousy, Eddie betrays the immigrants to the authorities, and is killed by one of them.

The audience watching the play in Madras was English educated, familiar with Western literature. Many of them frequently were abroad and had a living contact with the Western way of life. The production was a success. But most of the audience entirely missed the element of incest in the play; rather, they chose to ignore it as an unnecessary adjunct to an otherwise perfectly rational tale. After all, Eddie was his niece’s guardian, a surrogate father. It was only right that he should be interested in her welfare. You certainly could not blame him for trying to safeguard her future. On the contrary, the illegal immigrants emerged as unsympathetic, for they had betrayed their host’s confidence by seducing his niece’s affections.

Even apart from consideration of social roles that led the Madras audience to write its own A View from the Bridge, Eddie Carbone perfectly fits an Indian archetype: the father figure aggressing toward its offspring. Our mythology is replete with parental figures demanding sacrifices from their children—as in my own Yayati; Eddie’s position was not one in which the Indian audience was likely to find any tragic flaw.

(—Girish Karnad. ‘In Search of a New Theatre’, in Carla M. Borden, ed., Contemporary India. OUP, Delhi: 1989)

Cultural associations and achetypes are perhaps not always interpreted the way they’re intended by their producers. While one can concede the chasm between ‘Indian’ and ‘English’ cultures, is there a similar gap between the peoples of different linguistic groups in India? And, not to put too fine a point on it, is there, then, a cultural, perceptual, gap between speakers of different dialects of an Indian language? †Do we all have our own little realities ensconced in our own dialects (idiolects, even), somehow impermeable to speakers of other dialects? Is it even possible to concede “difference” and co-exist?

I’m going to try to look at this question from another angle.

While English and Indian languages are generally considered to inhabit discrete spaces as far as their literatures are concerned, I wonder if we can say the same of Indian languages themselves? What, for instance, is ‘gained’ or ‘lost’ when a Malayali tale is told by a Kannadiga writer in English, titled a ‘modern Indian tale’, and then translated into Malayalam by a Malayali ? Is the Malayalam translation a more authentic representation of the Malayali tale than the English?  How many levels of ‘translation’ are implicit in the English version?   What I’m referring to is Raja Rao’s English novel, The Cat and Shakespeare, a Malayalam tale in English, translated later into Malayalam by Ayyappa Paniker. And these thought-provoking questions are from a paper by a senior colleague, titled “The Cat and Shakespeare and pooccayum shakespearum: A Tale of Modern Indian Translation”. ††

The role of English in “translating” Indian culture/sensibility in Indian Writing in English is widely acknowledged. As my colleague puts it, “When English tells a story of non-English lives and speakers of other languages, its editorial/interpretive function far outweighs its naturally legitimate functions.” (Quite apart from the obvious Malayalam-Kannada layers, The Cat is a rendering of Vedantic philosophy in English, and this entails yet another level of translation, a cultural translation. How meet English is for this purpose is debatable.)

Would the same theory of ‘translating’ hold when a Kannadiga tells a Malayali story? How much “knowledge” can one take for granted? My colleague has had the “privilege” of talking to both Rao and Paniker about The Cat and its translation, and the resulting insights make his paper all the more fascinating: For Rao, the telling of a Malayali tale in English was itself a translation, “written in English, for Indians as well. So where was the need for another one?” At the same time, he approved the translation by Paniker as one by someone who “knew” both him and the tale. Certainly, most of us may have read The Cat (indeed, all of Raja Rao’s work) without knowing any south Indian language. But, as my colleague says, “ it is a story told in the language of another.” His thesis is that Paniker’s translation is more of a “narrative restitution” than a translation because it is “a language telling its story by itself” rather than mediated by English/Kannada.

The other insight from the paper I’m truly grateful to my colleague for (especially since I’ve always viewed Raja Rao’s fiction with the jaundiced eye of dislike for its overt upper-caste Hindu ideology) is that the novel asks the crucial question of who we call our neighbours, especially in situations of languages-in-contact: Ramakrishna Pai, the novel’s protagonist, a Konkani living in Trivandrum, is tutored by a Malayali, Govindan Nair, on Vedanta and Shakespeare, and tells his story in English.

Are Malayalam, Kannada, and English equidistant, or does that depend on whether you’re Raja Rao or Paniker? Just how much gap we perceive in those spaces must tell us something about ourselves.

I’m referring in part to the ongoing Telangana agitation; one of the abiding images of the agitation for me is that of the Vijayawada MP Rajagopal sprinting out of Hyderabad’s airport holding aloft the Indian tricolour. Taking recourse to a larger ‘national identity’ seems to be the stock response to sectarian/ linguistic separatist movements in India. A response that is simultaneously a decrement and an accretion of identity.

 †† Comparative Critical Studies. Volume 7, Page 69-81

Comments (5)

peeth kachchap ban jaati hai

There’s work and there’s work. And then there’s thinking about work. Thinking while working.

विचार आते हैं

लिखते समय नहीं

बोझ ढोते वक़्त पीठ पर

सिर पर उठाते समय भार

परिश्रम करते समय

चांद उगता है व

पानी में झलमलाने लगता है

हृदय के पानी में

विचार आते हैं

लिखते समय नहीं

…पत्थर ढोते वक़्त

पीठ पर उठाते वक़्त बोझ

साँप मारते समय पिछवाड़े

बच्चों की नेकर फचीटते वक़्त

पत्थर पहाड़ बन जाते हैं

नक्शे बनते हैं भौगोलिक

पीठ कच्छप बन जाती है

समय पृथ्वी बन जाता है…  

             – Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh

Thoughts arrive

not while writing

while hauling loads on the back

while carrying luggage on the head

While working hard

the moon comes up, and

begins to shimmer in the water

in the heart’s reservoir

Thoughts arrive

not while writing

. . . while heaving stones up

while hauling loads on the back 

while clearing snakes from the backyard

while scrubbing the children’s clothes

Stones turn into mountains

sketch-maps turn geographic

The back becomes a tortoise

Time becomes the Earth . . . .

(Trans. by a friend who’s a poet masquerading  as a tech. writer. )


I reorganize my living room

asking each piece

Where it would like to be placed.

I give a new spot to the sofa and the lamp,

Change the drapes, and

Replace the old rug with a wall-to-wall carpet.

When everything is just right

I begin to wonder:

Where among these

Should I place myself?

(Panna Naik. ‘The Living Room’ Journal of South Asian Literature. Vol 21, No.1, 1986.)

Comments (1)

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)

Comments (8)

Education matters (not?)


The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2009, the largest annual survey of rural children, carried out by Pratham,  is out. 575 districts, 16000 villages, and nearly 7000 children across the country were surveyed.  The report has  very little to be proud of and  plenty to be ashamed of on the eve of the 60th Republic Day.

Some findings that caught my eye:

Enrollments are much higher in government schools than in private schools.  Click here for the data on enrollments.  Not surprising, I suppose, given that it’s rural education the survey focusses on.

Here’s the state-wise performance in math and reading for children in classes I-II and III-V. The figures tell a dismal story. 

Reading ability in English of children in classes III through V is abysmally low, with the national average at 16.7%

The performance in math is reasonably better at 56.3 %, with Madhya Pradesh and some of the North-Eastern states doing surprisingly well.

 26.9% of children take private tuitions —  a matter of shame for teachers I should think. 

And the figures for AP. The percentages for ability in English and arithmetic for classes I through VIII stand at less than 40%. Depressing.  Perhaps those numbers will improve dramatically if the state is broken up into two or more smaller states?

Gah! I’m so not in the mood for dark humour.

Comments (5)


The Wall

I know what should be out

and what should be in.

But then

what’s this window doing here?

– Ismail

(trans. V. Narayana Rao)

(Source: Twentieth Century Telugu Poetry. An Anthology

Ed. & trans. V. Narayana Rao. OUP: 2002)

Leave a Comment

« Newer Posts · Older Posts »