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Put your coat and tie on: Can the postcolonial reader read in English?

Worthy pursuit: English literature is somehow expected to uplift us.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

The bitter debates about whether the postcolonial writer can write in English that rocked mid-20th-century debates in decolonised nations have, for the most part, been laid to rest — to the resolution “Yes we can!” But a crucial question has escaped attention: Can the postcolonial reader read in English?

Numbers deceive. When it comes to India, small fractions run into hundreds of millions. The size of the English-reading middle class (and above) is larger than the population of most countries in the world. If you doubt this, just take a look at the size of the English-language textbook industry in the country.

English-language textbooks — that’s a good place to begin this conversation. Ever since the Anglicists defeated the Sanskritists in early 19th century debates over education, the craving for English-medium education across India has attained the status of a cliché. People want to function in English — and as the middle class expands, more and more people are able to do this.

Tangible goals

Therein begins the problem for literature. What happens when English is the language of aspiration, power and mobility? These three things have very unpredictable, sometimes impossible relationships with art. Art loves failure and weakness just as much as it loves success and power. Perhaps the former a little bit more than the latter?

It is natural that most people who read English language books in India don’t have time for this irregularity nonsense. They read with tangible and quantifiable goals to improve themselves, to rise through the grades, to crack exams, to get better jobs, to make more money, and the most abstract, to appear smart to the maximum number of people, in the most obvious ways possible. From a book written in English, we want something concrete and directly profitable.

Intensity of truth

There are those books, Virginia Woolf had said, which call upon you to act when you read them to join a club, make a donation, go to a meeting, and then your conscience rests and you are finally ‘done’ with the book. And there are those books which call you to no action but leave you in a state of perpetual, tender unrest, about which you can ‘do’ nothing, and you’re never ‘done’ with that book, never in your life. When it comes to English in India, it is quite understandable that there will be precious few takers for the latter kind.

Of course, you can say, isn’t that true of books in any language, anywhere? Right from the European Renaissance to the Victorian age, books on self-fashioning and self-help have done splendid business, and when did lyric poetry overshadow their bestselling glory? Absolutely true. But it takes on such intensity of truth when the language in question is one of universal aspiration in a deeply stratified, postcolonial nation that its difference from reading in the indigenous languages becomes all too clear.

Personal triumph

A fascinating example is that of the rise of Indian English popular fiction in the 21st century. The novels of Chetan Bhagat, who essentially pioneered the ‘homeward turn’ of Indian-English pop fiction, felt perfectly in sync with the pulse of a hotly aspirational India in the first decade of the 21st century, whether his focus was engineering schools, cricket, or call centres. There was a more personal arc of aspiration often inscribed in a typical Bhagat plot — that of a small-town boy, more comfortable in Hindi than in English, arriving at the big city/ fancy college and realising his dreams in a roundabout way. It often involves bumpy romantic relationships with posh, English-fluent city girls, but that’s a whole other kind of aspiration.

However, it was not just the aspirational plot, but critically the easygoing colloquial language, the now-famous ‘Hinglish’, that made reading these novels a personal triumph for millions of readers in a country where pleasure reading in English was limited to those with an elite and rarefied education. I remember an editor at a publishing house telling me that India abounds in readers for whom reading an English book for pleasure feels like a different kind of achievement altogether, a true personal milestone. It is a perfectly legitimate one, and one worth celebrating.

Legacy of betterment

The far more subtle and far less tangible problem is the diffuse and insidious way such an aspiration translates into the various forms of expectations we bring to literature on the whole.

It is truly difficult for Indians to see the English language as a medium of entertainment or education as separate from a narrative of upward mobility. A legacy of betterment is deeply ingrained in the very colonial legacy of English education. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s vision of a colonial curriculum to create subjects who are brown in flesh but white in spirit was doubtless a masterstroke of the soft power of imperialism, but it was articulated in the language of self-improvement and upward mobility. It is now historically established that a sizeable segment of the colonial bourgeoisie bought that vision, and many of those who couldn’t, longed for the purchasing power to do so. The sale went so well, outdone only by unfulfilled desire for it in those who could not afford it, that an aura of aspiration now permanently colours the act of ‘Indian reading in English,’ including that of imaginative literature. A work in English immediately invites expectations of a kind, many of which wither away when one sits down to read in the local languages.

It is as if our mind puts on a jacket and tie the moment we start to read in English, no matter how faint and invisible that donning is, and no matter how relaxed and pleasure-seeking we imagine ourselves to be. At some level, even for the Indian middle-class English reader, entering an imaginative world created in English is like entering an upscale restaurant. And when in a restaurant, fancy or not, Indians don’t like to eat roti and dal, the everyday home fare, unlike, say, Americans who delight in eating pancakes in a boutique diner.

Reading works in English that merely articulate the quotidian texture of life, with no clear arc of development or progress, is like getting the same old rice and dal, which is okay to expect in indigenous literature, but not in the great Western language. When such things are served in the fancy crockery of English, it leads to a crumbling of expectations that doesn’t make any sense to the secretly aspirational English reader.

English literature is expected to somehow uplift us, and in more worldly ways than what Cassius Longinus imagined as the elevating effect of ‘sublimity’ in literature. To use the language of the great Romantic opium-addict, Thomas de Quincey, imaginative literature in English in this postcolonial nation must always be, on a fundamental level, a literature of knowledge (that has external utility), and far less often, a literature of power, with no reward beyond itself.

The postcolonial writer has written a wide variety of things in English. The postcolonial reader of English, on the other hand, has had sharp and exclusive goals. Their mismatch, in the end, is not one of aptitude, but of expectation from the very act of reading.

The writer’s novels include The Firebird, The Scent of God, and the forthcoming The Middle Finger.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 12:50:52 PM |

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