Asian writers and teachers get together in Madurai to find out ways of enriching each other. SUBASH JEYAN

THERE is, of course, more to what we get to study in our classrooms and universities than straightforward questions of a humanist pursuit of knowledge. There’s a conglomerate of issues around the process of learning: who decides what is to be learnt, who controls institutions of learning and while education is apparently openly available to all, how does it actually work on the ground?

Legacy of the past

These questions can take on interesting hues in the context of English studies. It may come as a surprise to many to know that English literature, as a course to be studied in a classroom, was first introduced in Calcutta University in the late 1850s, after the First War of Independence. Surely, neither the place nor the time could be a coincidence? This is not to deny the intrinsic worth of say Shakespeare or Wordsworth but to emphasise that even these writers could not have foreseen an official machinery appropriating their texts for its own purposes.

All this may be passé. After all, one may argue that Indian Writing in English, even if against odds, came to be included in universities and colleges in the late 1970s/ early 1980s. Not really, if you consider the fact that even today there are students in Indian classrooms waxing eloquent over daffodils without ever having seen one in their lives. And in a contemporary twist to a continuing saga, there are language labs across the country teaching students the intricacies of the American accent. But, as with colonial education, this access to multiple worlds enables some while it threatens others. The kind of questions that are raised depends on who is asking them.

Creating content

Meanwhile, is it possible to frame syllabuses independent of the needs of the globalising market? While it is true that more and more Indian texts are getting into the syllabus, it still remains true that we may know more about a Western contemporary writer than someone closer home. Name an Indonesian or Malaysian writer off the top of your head? In the world as a market place, where globalisation boils down to the imposition of a monolithic, standardised identity from elsewhere, perhaps it is important to look more closely at the commonalities, similarities and differences in our lives and our literatures between us and our Asian neighbours, if only to define better to ourselves what makes us Asian, or Indian, for that matter. To broaden and make more complex our notions of our own identities.

It was with this aim in mind that teachers and writers from several Asian countries and India got together at the Study Centre for Indian Literature in English and in Translation (SCILET), at the American College in Madurai recently. Already one of the best resource centres in India for Indian literatures, SCILET is taking the next logical step in trying to include more Asian writers in our syllabuses.

Different experiences

It was a learning experience to hear voices from across Asia talking about their literatures, about how development and globalisation is affecting their societies, particularly the women and how the gendering of development is reflected in their literatures. In China, for instance, there is an apparent equality between men and women with the latter doing most work traditionally done by men. Gender equality is inscribed into the party ideology, with both men and women seen as agents of production. But, modern Chinese women writers tend to feel that it is an equality imposed from above, being forced to wear the pants as it were, not a freedom attained through individual choice and agency. At the other end of the spectrum, coming from a constituency that benefited from colonial education and from globalisation, was the Dalit woman writer P. Sivakami’s refreshingly different take on gender and caste.

While SCILET has made a small beginning by opening up avenues of interaction between Asian writers and traditions, getting these texts into the mainstream consciousness is the bigger challenge ahead.