Posts Tagged Indian English poetry

“Whoring after English Gods”

Lovely title, isn’t it? Perfectly describes the English-speaking minority in India. Not my genius – alas! – but that of the poet R. Parthasarathy.  The relevance will become crystal further down.

This is a first … blogging in the space of two days. The reason for this (rather pointless) productivity is that I’m disturbed. I could of course ventilate with the spouse and the kid. But both of them deserve a break from me weekends.  So let me cut a vein open here instead.

Government schools are everyone’s favourite punching bag when it comes to criticizing education in India. Here in Hyderabad there will now be further cause to vilify them. Because government school teachers are all set to create some very serious havoc as they struggle to implement the government’s new dictum  – to adopt the CBSE syllabus (virtually overnight) and to teach it in English. Now, most of these teachers rarely speak English and are understandably nervous about teaching in it. 

I suppose it’s quite useless to ask “Why this obsession with English?”  Because English is today economically important, given our reputation as the world’s best outsourcing outpost!   

Writing and speaking in English seems the most natural (nay, the most sought after) thing to do – look at the scores of talented Indians writing in English whether offline or online. The question “Why am I writing/speaking in English?” is no longer relevant. 

But the irony is that for every Booker-prize-winning author or promising young thing paid obscene amouts for a book not even begun, there are hundreds  struggling to learn enough English to pass a board exam or face an interview.  Like they say, for everything that you can say about India, the opposite is also true.

There was a time when our writers, especially our poets, agonized over this incongruity of using English in India.  Here, for instance, is an extract from R. Parthasarathy’s Rough Passage, describing English as a necessary exile and thereby a route back to one’s roots 

He had spent his youth
Whoring after English Gods.
There is something to be said for exile:

You learn roots are deep,
That language is a tree, loses colour
Under another sky.

The bark disappears with the snow,
And branches become hoarse.

The allegory of English as a whore with whom Indians are infatuated is best developed in Keki Daruwalla’s The Mistress. A long poem, so I’ll just quote some bits here: 

No one believes me when I say
my mistress is half-caste. Perched
on the genealogical tree somewhere
is a Muslim mid-wife and a Goan cook.

But she is more mixed than that.
Down the genetic lane, babus
and professors of English
have also made their one-night contributions.

You can make her out the way she speaks;
her consonants bludgeon you;
her argot is rococo, her latest ‘slang’
is available in classical dictionaries.


 My love for her survives from night to night,
even though each time
I have to wrestle with her in bed.

In the streets she is known.
They hiss when she passes.

Despite this she is vain,
flashes her bangles and her tinsel;
wears heels even though her feet
are smeared up to the ankles with henna.


No she is not Anglo-Indian. The Demellos would
bugger me if they got scent of this…

She is not Goan, not Syrian Christian.
She is Indian English, the language that I use.

(Of course, the inherent sexism in the poem, of viewing English as female and sexual object,  is unmistakable. Nevertheless, the point remains I should think.)

And then there was the inimitable Kamala Das, defending her use of English even while declaring otherwise! 

I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone…

(Source for all three poems: Indian Poetry in English. Ed. M. Paranjape. Macmillan)

These concerns are no longer relevant today, I know.  And maybe rightly so. A whole host of writers from Raja Rao to Rushdie to Arundhati Roy have been telling us that English is now our language, and that we are fashioning it to suit our purpose.

And yes, I am a sucker for their argument too, marvelling as I do at the elegant minimalism of verse like this: 

First thing in the morning
He trips on the one chair in his room.
He opens the window
And a teacup falls like a head axed.
The toothbrush slips from his fingers
And then the newspaper.
Too much gravity in here, he tells his cat,
And lies down on the floor.

(Conformist by C.P. Surendran, from his collection Posthumous Poems; Viking Penguin)

But, and this is the catch, how and when will the rest of English India catch up?

OK, I’m done ventilating. And yes, I feel slightly better. The angst will return when I go to work on Monday. But till then . . .


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