Language is the house of being: Martin Heidegger
After reading Akshya Saxena’s Vernacular English, we, in postcolonial India, might wonder and say, like indulgent parents who all of a sudden realise the growth of their child, “Oh, so this is how over three hundred years English has grown along with us and shaped our subjectivities!”
English as language and literary studies has been a fertile ground for intellectual investigations. Several works have examined the position and pre-positions of English in South Asia. While continuing different threads of these studies, Saxena’s research raises new questions, puts forward strong arguments and finally, sheds new light on English in India.
Locations of English in India
The author has identified five key locations of English vernacularism in India. They are Law, Dalit Anglophone Writings, Indian Anglophone literature, Voices in Northeast India and Cinematic English. ‘The Preface: On the Ground’, which provides a solid framework to understand the Anglophone in Postcolonial India, reads English in Narendra Modi and Rohit Vemula at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. According to her, ‘in spite of Modi’s agenda to equate Hindu nationalism with Hindi, he cannot resist the allure of English, and he regularly appeals to its symbolic power.’ At Hyderabad Central University, ‘Vemula’s suicide note, an autobiographical narrative in the English language, has been excerpted on posters, woven into poems, adapted into plays and read at protests.’ The point Saxena drives home is that ‘these two figures stand in testimony to how different English looks in India.’
In tune with the subtitle of the book, ‘Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India’, Saxena reads a variety of texts and contexts in order to build her arguments. In the first chapter, which ‘examines the English language in India as an object of democratic promise shaped by the bilingual English-Hindi Indian Constitution’, Saxena makes a simple but illuminating reading of the Indian Constitution as offering an exemplary case of a people speaking English: “We, the people of India.”
The Dalit question
While examining how the wide availability of English shaped the consciousness of Dalit writers from B.R. Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule to recent ones, Saxena explores the Dalit question in the English world. Accordingly, she reads the activism of Kancha Ilaiah, a shudra intellectual, and Chandrabhan Prasad, who built a temple for the Dalit goddess of English, as a subversive space, where ‘English greases caste and class stratifications and it enables mobility that undoes injunctions against touch.’ Two well-known caste-marked characters, Bakha in Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) and Balram Halwai in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) are analysed in order to show how they are portrayed as ‘desiring English and performing Englishness to manipulate the performativity of caste’.
The chapter on Northeast India shows English in India as a sound object. The author uses the 12 Manipuri women raising the English-language slogan against the Indian Army “Indian Army Rape Us/ We are All Manorama’s Mothers” to show how English is part of the global protest vocabulary where it is used to speak back to the Indian state. Exploring Cinematic English, the visual life of English in India, the author shows how two recent films — Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019) stage English as a thing to be seen rather than read.
This is a fascinating study of the social life of English in India, but it speaks more to scholars in comparative and postcolonial literary studies than to the common reader as its register is quite academic. Further, the attempt to redefine the notion of vernacular with reference to English is novel, but it is not embedded in the history of vernaculars in India. Sheldon Pollock’s scholarship, for example, on the cosmopolitan vernacular process in pre-modern India would have further sharpened Saxena’s analysis.
Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India; Akshya Saxena, Princeton University Press, ₹999.
The reviewer teaches literature at Tumkur University.