"Indian English and its Con-texts: Re-presenting India in our Time

                                                                           Plenary Talk


              Mr. Chairman and friends, my purpose in coming to this national seminar is two fold.  First of all, I’ve come because my friend, Dr. Pradeep Trikha, who is also the coordinator of this seminar, invited me personally.  He had organized a seminar a couple of year back, which I could not attend because I was not in the country then.  This time too, for the original dates of the seminar, I could not have been present because I was in Europe.  But, luckily for me—I don’t know if I can say for Pradeep too—the seminar got postponed and, though at very short notice, as you can see, I have managed to come.  As I said before, I am here to support Pradeep in his academic and professional endeavours.  Along with Pradeep, it is also good to meet some other old friends and also to be in the ambiance of the great shrine of Khwaja Bande Nawaz.

              My second reason for coming here has to do with the larger project of which I consider this seminar, and indeed, much of what we do, a part.  The subtitle of the seminar sums it up very well:  this larger project has to do with “mapping Indianness.”  When some theoretically sophisticated friends of mine saw this topic, they immediately reacted:  “What!  Are you people still squabbling over such essentialisms?”  For them “Indianness” is not just an elusive and contested notion as it is to us, but a dangerous chimera.  I agree that debates over “Indianness” have often been counterproductive, even leading sometimes to cultural intolerance.  Such debates are also rather unpleasant, if not outright nasty.  There is lots of name-calling and vituperation involved.  What is more, these debates have occurred in cycles.  Just to mention a few instances, think of the exchange between Buddhadeva Bose and P. Lal in the 1960s.  Bose made the claim that Indians couldn’t really write very well in English.  To prove him wrong P. Lal assembled a formidable phalange of mostly bad poets in his anthology, Modern Indian Poetry in English, thereby almost proving Bose’s point.  Later, the debate took a slightly different turn in the 1970s, with several poet-anthologists thrashing it out over who should be included/excluded from the canon of modern Indian English poetry.  R. Parthasarathy and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra exchanged diatribes through the pages of Chandrabhaga.  Each, in his own anthology, wrote Prefaces justifying his selections and exclusions.  Yet again, in the 1980s and 1990s, there were debates between U. R. Anantha Murthy and Vijay Nambisan, for instance, in which similar issues came up.  For his Vintage book of Indian literature, Salman Rushdie too proclaimed that Indian English writers were far superior to writers in Indian languages.  Now the latest version of this debate can be found in the argument between Meenakshi Mukherjee and Vikram Chandra. 


              It is not my intention to rehearse these debates.  I mention them only to suggest that this debate over “Indianness,” in some form or another, is central to the whole question of Indian literature, especially of Indian English literature.  This is obvious because the Indian English literature will always have to strive to prove its Indian credentials, as it were, just as other literatures in Indian languages have to strive to prove their modernity or internationality.  While the dominance of English as a global languages promises unprecedented reward to its practitioners, it also casts a distorting spell over their creative efforts.  The struggle between the medium and the message, so to speak, has thus not just been an endemic problimatique in the primary and secondary literature of this subject, but is a sort of structural or constitutive contradiction in its very genetic code.  In other words, I believe that it is a great challenge to produce Indian English texts that culturally meaningful and artistically satisfying; while it is not impossible to do so, it is certainly very, very difficult.  In this perpetual struggle of the writer and critic, the question of India can never quite be banished, however blasé we may pretend to be about it.  Even if we wish to avoid the word “Indianness”—which by its very grammatical form suggests an abstract essence—the contentious and vexatious issue of the identity and cultural politics of this literature will not be easily suppressed or ignored.  Where the writers are vernacular, Indian English or diasporic or non-Indian, whether male or female, whether privileged or subaltern, the question of how India is represented in their works cannot be dismissed or ignored easily.  This is how I understand the focal concern of this seminar; to me, mapping Indianness really means trying to understand the cartography or mimetic logic of these writers.  Perhaps, there is also a subtle suggestion in the theme paper that these new writers, though so radically different in style and content from their predecessors, are no less “Indian” or “genuine” than their predecessors.

              Now debates over what constitutes Indianness or on the cultural politics of Indian representations are really a part of what one might call the larger process of Indian self-apprehension and self-awakening.  This process has been underway for several millennia; it is in this sense that we might say that the wonderful thing about India and its traditions is that they are never finished.  Finished both in the sense of being completed and also in the sense of being exhausted, over, and dead.  The recovery of the Indian selves, which is an ongoing process, has had some specific directions in the last two hundred years or so.  This is a huge and ongoing narrative, which we might call “Project India,” of which the constitution of the nation and the horrors of partition are crucial chapters.  This huge story of which all of us are a part, is like a gigantic wave or groundswell.  Its proportions are so immense that it makes us wonder if we’re merely subjects of history or conscious agents of change.  Be our answer as it may, I am convinced that this massive process cannot and is not happening only from the so-called centres of knowledge and power, but from the innumerable smaller nodes of cultural production and dissemination.  Many Indian English novels, unfortunately, depict this process merely in one of its dimensions, that of the movement from the country to the town, and the town to the city.  One such novel of upward mobility is Anuradha Marwah Roy’s The Higher Education of Geetika Mendhiratta.  I think this is a remarkably moving and successful book, especially in is first half, because it manages to invent a new language that will convey the experience of growing up in a town such as Ajmer itself.  I think the book is less successful once it’s protagonist moves to Delhi because the Ajmeri-English of the small town is lost, without quite being replaced by a Delhi English.  Consequently, the representations possibilities, especially their rich comic potential, is somewhat reduced.  But the novel, like several others, serves as a trope for one kind of movement, that towards the metropolis, away from the small town.  Where this movement ends is easy to guess when we look at the physical journeys of several of our most prominent writers.  They all end up the West, at the linguistic and commercial hearts of their creative markets.  In coming to Ajmer from Delhi, I believe I am going contrary to this trend.  This is very important because the cultures of India are being shaped and constituted not only in the metropolitan centres, but also in the villages and towns of this country.  I wouldn’t go to the other extreme of saying that it is only in the villages and towns that the real India lives, but I would certainly say that not just the major cities, but also the villages and towns of India will decide what our Indianness is, who we are, and what we wish to become in the future.  Ajmer, as much as Delhi, must participate in this debate and that is why seminars such as these are so important, and this is the second reason why I am here today.


This talk proposes to examine how Indian identities are constructed in translated texts. I would like to explore the differences between “vernacular” Indias and “English” Indias and especially to focus on the peculiar anxieties of both. Rather than looking merely at the content of the images of India, I wish to examine the processes of medium and mediation through which such imaging takes place.  I am interested primarily in literary texts but do not exclude other forms like film, television, or music from my inquiry. The question of medium and mediation as at least two aspects.  First, are representations in different languages structurally different?  If so, how might these representations be hierarchized or classified?  Are all Indian language representations similar to each other and different from those in English or is there an internal hierarchy of languages?  How does the power play between the source and the target languages affect representation? For instance, do Indian English texts convey a different impression of India as compared to texts written in native Indian languages? Can the same distinction/tension be extended to cinema, TV, music, and so on?  If so, how is the difference between English and vernacular representations to be understood and theorized?  The other aspect of this question concerns what happens when a multilingual culture gets constructed or studied in one language, that is English? What are the advantages and the limitations of such linguistic compression or collapse?  The paper proposes to offer a way of approaching these questions so as to sharpen the issues, positions, and interests at stake in debates on language, representation, and power.




                            I would like to start with a brief review of one of the very minor scenes in Deepa Mehtra’s feature film, Fire (1996).  Not just the choice of the film but the choice of the episode might be suggestive of my larger method.  I choose this film because I think it is as good a representative as any of what may be called “English India,”—or to use an even better phrase from my friend Rakesh Bhatt, India as an “English-sacred” imagined community. In this paper, I endeavour to interrogate the cultural politics of this English-sacred India.  The episode that I have selected should, I hope, show that the politics that I wish to call into question is somewhat different from, but not entirely unrelated to, that which made the film so controversial in India.  To that other politics we can return if we have the time later.  The episode that I shall invoke is, as you will see, very “minor,” even insignificant to the plot and theme of the film, but is crucial, even constitutive, to its representational grammar.  If read in a certain way, I believe it opens up the whole complex range of concerns that govern both cultural production and reception, especially the manner in which the tensions and contradictions between what might be termed location and locution are played out.

              The scene that I refer to occurs in a thirty-second conversation in the film between Mundu, the servant, and an anonymous milkman.  After an exchange of routing pleasantries—or, should I say, unpleasantries—Mundu admonishes the milkman not to add water to the milk.  As I said before, the conversation is totally marginal to the central action or theme of the film, but in its very careless, alsmost absent-minded retention in the movie, exposes a major fault line in its mimetic logic.  I would like to think of it as the inadvertent slip in which the rhetoric of English India betrays itself.  For, the extraordinary thing about this conversation is what might have made it most natural outside the film and has to do with its medium, not content.  This is the only bit of dialogue in the otherwise English movie that takes place in Hindi.  This is, then, the sole occasion on which any two people speak to each other in an Indian language in Fire.  Otherwise, everyone—Radha, Ashok, Sita, Jatin, Ashok’s Guru, and even the servant Mundu, speak only in English. 

              My question to all those who are students of culture, of linguistics, philology, comparative literature, and of South Asia in general, is this:  what do those few lines in Hindi mean to the rest of this film which, as I’ve already said, is entirely in English?  What questions do they raise about both the production and consumption, the source and the target, of images of India?  For instance, do they suggest that Mundu, the poor, uneducated, presumably low-caste servant, actually knows only English and no Hindi at all, except for those two lines that he speaks to the milkman?  Or that he actually knows Hindi, but prefers to speak in English to the rest of the household?  Or that he knows both Hindi and English, but speaks to the milkman in Hindi because the latter knows no English.  Or that Mundu is the only bilingual character in the film who knows both Hindi and English, while the milkman is a monolingual speaker of Hindi in contrast to all the rest of the characters in the film, who are monolingual English speakers.  Or, that the others too know both Hindi and English, but speak only in the latter, even to their servants?  While all these answers are possible, none of them is probable.  The likely answer, instead, is that English that the characters speak is supposed to stand for Hindi.  That is, they would normally speak Hindi, being a middle class, business family in one of Delhi’s modest neighbourhoods, Lajpat Nagar, but since the film is in English, they must all speak it.  In other words, both the actors and the audience are expected to imagine that Hindi is spoken when the characters are speaking English.

              This metonymic substitution is also suggested by several other devices in the film.  For instance, the very Indian, even Punjabi accent of Radha’s husband, Ashok underlines his traditional, even patriarchal values.  The use of different accents, plus other linguistic signals such as translation, code-switching, code-mixing, use of collocations, norm-deviant syntax, diction, and so on, further reinforce the idea that the speakers are not monolingual.  So we might say that the movie only asks us, as indeed all art does, to suspend our disbelief in its own particular way and thereby to consent to imagine that Hindi is spoken when we hear English.  But is the problem so simple?  What about the dialogue between Jatin and his Chinese girlfriend or between the latter’s father and Jatin?  It is clear, even in the film, that they speak English—because neither the girl nor her father is shown as knowing any Hindi.  This raises the interesting question:  when does English stand for Hindi and when is it merely itself?  The filmmaker, unfortunately, does not help us by clearly signaling when the shifts are supposed to occur, nor does she make any attempt to offer us different varieties of English, apart from the various accents that I’ve already noted, that may suggest different social or linguistic registers. We know, for instance, that Indian English writers will frequently resort to standard English to indicate that the characters are upper class and/or actually conversing in English, shifting to “Indian English” to indicate that the speaker is a lower class or non-English speaking person.  Even at the risk of anticipating myself, let me point out that this very strategy is not devoid of the subordination of the bhashas and the entire cultural space that they occupy to the imperial domination of english.  To return to the film, I would argue that the problem of the cultural and linguistic dissonance that I’ve identified is compounded by the fact that Radha and Sita, both shown to be suppressed and traditional wives, speak in a more Anglicised accent than Ashok, the husband.  In Jatin, the same Anglicised accent serves to emphasize his modern ways as opposed to his brother’s, but in Radha’s and Sita’s cases, the incongruity of supposedly oppressed, house and tradition-bound behenjis speaking like foreign-returned or convent-educated memsahibs is not lost on an audience that would instantly associate that kind of accent with a class that is exclusive and powerful, not powerless or deprived—at least in India.

              Speaking of the response of the audience, that little conversation in Hindi poses its own problems.  To those who don’t know Hindi and know only English, it can be viewed as a part of the cultural background of the film, like the qu’walis or Hindi songs; it serves only to authenticate the setting and establish the film’s cultural credentials.  As far as the film’s plot is concerned, it may be safely ignored, the assurance being that everything of importance will take place in English in any case.  It’s sort of like the habit of several Indian English authors to put bits of hindi (or some other Indian language) into their texts, only to translate them into English in the very next breath.  But to those who know Hindi too, the dialogue poses problems similar to the ones I’ve already listed.  Like the characters in film, are we, the audience, supposed to pretend that we know no Hindi or that because we know both Hindi and English, we will immediately and automatically translate back or assume that the English dialogue is actually taking place in Hindi so as to savour it the more?  But if that is the case, then when do we know which bits to translate back and which one to enjoy in the original English?

              The problems that I have been describing at some length are not just about the difficulty of containing, confining, or reducing the multiculturalism and multilingualism of India into the restricted, simplified, and flattened monolingualism of English.  Sometimes, something that is simpler may indeed be made to stand for something rather more complex.  A textbook case of how this near impossible task may be managed is offered in a wonderful short story of R.K. Narayan’s called “A Horse and Two Goats.”  The story may be read as a trope for the possibilities and limitations of all cross-cultural attempst at communication.  In case you aren’t familiar with the story, let me recount it’s main events.  An American tourist encounters a poor Tamil goatherd in a remote village where his station wagon runs out of gas.  The goatherd is resting under an ancient statue of a man on a horse.  The American wants to buy the statue from the goatherd, thinking that the latter owns it.  The goatherd has no idea of what the American wants, but is grateful to get a free cigarette from the latter.  They conduct a long conversation in which neither understands a word of the other.  The American tells him why he wants the statue, how he will transport it, where he will keep it, and so on.  The goatherd tells him about his life in the village, his past, and, inevitably, about Karma and Dharma.  In the end, the American gives the goatherd one hundred rupees; the goatherd believes that it is a very good price for his two skinny goats.  He thinks he’s at last understood the American.  Leaving the goats with the latter, he goes home with the money.  The American thinks that he’s really made a good bargain, a “steal.” He stops a passing truck, pays them for both gas and help in putting the statue into his station wagon, and leaves.  The story ends on an uncertain note when the two goats find their way home.  The bewildered goatherd is berated by his wife for being straddled with his ill-gotten hundred rupees.

              The story merely hints at issues of cultural inequality and plunder, but is more properly about a mutually unintelligible conversation between an English speaker and a Tamil speaker.  The whole story is, of course, written in English, though more that one half of it is supposed to occur in Tamil.  In this case, however, the reader is never in any doubt which is which because both are marked so clearly.  What is more, this partially successful, partially failed conversation shows a modest and self-conscious admission on the author’s part of the limits and dangers not only of cross cultural communication, but of cross-cultural translation and representation.  The economic asymmetry and its effects suggest that what has occurred is a post, if not neo-colonial transaction.  The well-intentioned American has actually appropriated a defining cultural artifact of the village without the villegers’ consent or knowledge.  The statue doesn’t even belong to the goatherd in the first place, so how could he “sell” it?  The American, in effect, “buys” what is not for sale. The miscommunication suggests that power will distort communication regardless of how well-intentioned the participants are.  The windfall that the impecunious goatherd receives also bewilders and injures him in the end to the extent that his wife thinks he’s stolen the money.  This is a sort of tragi-comedy because like their mutually unintelligible languages, the value systems of the two interlocutors are also incommensurable.  Narayan seems to point to the futility of translating across cultures in certain circumstances even as his own choice of the Enlglish medium belies the story’s message.  Thus, the story paradoxically succeeds in showing that cross-cultural communication is possible by the very act of demonstrating the failure of such an attempt.  It’s like saying that I’ve managed to communicate the impossibility of communication across cultures. 

              Narayan, in my opinion, succeeds where Mehta fails because of this liminality that he manages to enact.  Narayan’s grammar of representation makes provisions for the kinds of problems and pitfalls inherent in his project while Mehta neglects to acknowledge them.  Instead, she arrogantly assumes the the position of someone who sets out to “demystify India,” as she says in her official website.   She believes that somehow she has both the ability and the authority to make such an intervention on behalf of modernity against the multifarious ills of tradition.  What happens in Mehta’s text, then, is that the complex, heterogeneous, and multifaceted identities are collapsed into simplistic, homogenized, stereotypes (like the milkman who adds milk to water).  The fact that most people in Delhi, let alone Lajpat Nagar, get milk from the mechanized booth of a state-run cooperative and not from milkmen is conveniently forgotten.  What happens is that the complexity and variety of India are sacrificed to serve her larger ideological project.  Armed with “superior cognition” and representational power, she unleashes an epistemic violence on her dumb (Biji) and monolingualized subjects, thereby dehumanizing them.  Though Narayan writes in English, he vernacularizes it to suggest the kind of bilingualism that can accommodate the reality of the marginalized subaltern, ho is both economically and linguistically underprivileged (he is deprived of English), and yet manages not to rob him of his dignity.  Mehta, on the other hand, armed with her zeal for reform, actually insults and tramples upon those on whose behalf her text seems to act.  Even her much touted and controversial advocacy of lesbianism is politically incorrect:  the women turn to each other only because they are deprived of heterosexual love by their husbands.

              In contrast, Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Lajja (2001), though a typical Bollywood blockbuster manages to make some pretty bold statements on behalf of women.  The film vernacularizes English which, along with computers and modern education, is seen as the carrier of modern values.  Beginning and ending in New York, it suggests both continuities and discontinuities between the diaspora and the homeland in a manner which is at once critical and sophisticated, and conventional and stereotypical.  There are four “Sitas” in the film, each with her own struggle against patriarchical norms.  The women are neither defeminized nor forced to turn lesbian, but each is shown to resist a major aspect of oppressive tradition.  The film is a powerful satire on the double standards and economic cruelties of arranged marriages.  It also questions every patriarchical assumtion about a woman’s place in a male-dominated society.  Throughout the film, the agency and the worth of women are emphasized, sometimes in predictable and at other times in unusual ways.  Control over one’s own biology, sexual and reproductive freedom, female desire rather than male control, and liberation from caste oppression are all played out in the movie.  In one of its most effective scenes, Janaki, played by Madhuri Dixit, rewrites the famous Agni Pariksha scene of the Ramayana.  I mention this because Fire, indeed the title of the film itself, makes much of this episode and its symbolic significance.  In Lajja, Sita counter-questions Rama, “How do we know that you remained pure during our separation?  Why don’t you join me in this agnipariksha?”  To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that such a question has been asked in any reenactment of the thousands of versions of the Ramayana.  Of course, in this scene, Janaki improvises the dialogue, deviating totally from the script.  The irate audience sets fire to the theatre.  Janaki, thus endures her own agnipariksha as the actress who dared to change the script of the Ramayana.  What is more interesting to me, however, is that the anticipated reaction was not replicated by Indian audiences.  The same audiences which reacted to Mehta’s film accepted the rethinking of tradition that Santoshi offered. 


Let me now sum up the remainder of my argument:


  • Films like Fire represent a kind of neo-Orientalism. 
  • A more complex understanding of Indian identities is required.
  • Vernacularization is the way.
  • Translation is the means.
  •  I would like to begin with a few words of thanks, not only to Tony and Pat who invited me to make a presentation in the Faculty/Student Forum, but also to Paul Raniari and Patti White, the former and present Chairs of the Department, to Webster, Lauren and Rai, and several other friends for making me feel welcome here, and above all to Joe Trimmer, who has gone out of his way to make my visit not just possible, but also comfortable and productive.  These and several other debts that I have incurred cannot be repaid except, perhaps, intellectually—the only currency I have recourse to to express my appreciation.  I hope that this talk is considered a very small part payment or down payment, if you will, towards the immense debt of gratitude that I owe to the English department of Ball State U.
  • If I were offering a learned paper I would have liked to initiate what follows in my paper with the following epigraph from one of the most gifted of the Indian English writers, Amitav Ghosh:


“You mean,” he said in rising disbelief, “there are people in your country who are not circumcised?”


In Arabic the word “circumcised” derives from a root that means “to purify”:  to say of someone that they are “uncircumcised” is more or less to call them impure.


“Yes,” I answered, “yes, many people in my country are ‘impure.’”  I had no alternatives; I was trapped by language.


Ghosh, Amitav.  In An Antique Land.  New York:  Knopf, 1993.  62.


You can guess by this quotation that what I am trying to suggest for the Indian context is the manner in which language serves as a place, a location, that the linguoscape if you will is tantamount to an ethnoscape and a ideoscape.  So that linguistic positions, not just historical or geographic, caste, or gender locations are important determinants in the problimatique of representing India.

  • This, of course, is a fragment of a larger project that has to do with the nature of postcolonial cultures or more specifically the effects of what might be called partial or arrested decolonization.  To explore these effects is at once to be implicated in very large global systems of power, world systems if you will, that are not only economic or political, but also cultural.  You will agree that recent events have only served to underscore for those who were already aware and to painfully awaken those who weren’t that mythologies of isolationism or exceptionalism are simply no longer tenable in our world.  I am saying this just to clarify that though my focus this afternoon is going to be mostly on India, I’d like to believe that my ideas will have a larger field of resonance and relevance.
  • Before we proceed, I would like to notice how we are now witnessing a variety of ways in which not just Orientalism, but the very idea of postcolonial studies is under attack.  The attack is from a variety of sources and positions. We have those who seek to erase the difference between the colonized and the colonizers, resorting to various ideas of indeterminacy and ambiguity.  Then there are those such as David Cannadine who argue that the British Empire was merely about class, the celebration of hierarchies and privileges, the recreation of a British rural order overseas.  Then, in the wake of recent attacks, we have heard from those who wish to discredit poco because they believe that the dominance of the West is both deserved and natural (see Edward Rothstein’s “Attacks on U.S. Challenge Postmodern True Believers” The New York Times, September 22, 2001).  It seems to me that these attempts are not just dangerous, but ultimately harmful to any movement towards a more just world order.  And yet, it is easy to see how my paper may itself be seen as an attempt to weaken the Orientalist thesis by trying to interrogate how one group of Indians represents another.  My paper, then, is not about Western representations of its Others, but about certain newer ways in which older oppressions seem to re-work their way into our world through newer proponents.
  • Let me, without further delay, identify some of the main strands of my argument. The first of these is what may be called “neo-Orientalism.” Edward Saïd's pathbreaking work alerts us to the alliance between power and knowledge in the manner in which the Orient has been traditionally constructed by the West. But if we examine the cultural politics and dynamics of such representations in the present, in our so-called post-colonial times, we will be struck not so much by how these representations continue, but how they are now generated by those who come from among the colonized peoples themselves.  We might be able to discern these patterns if we contrast how India is portrayed in the works, not of Western, but various kinds of "Indian" writers. Is there a difference in how India is seen from afar by writers located in the metropolitan centres in the West and those who live and work in India? Furthermore, is there a further difference between those who write in English and those who do so in the native languages of India? It is my hypothesis that, on the one hand, the slot partially vacated by Western orientalists is now occupied by those of Indian origin. But, on the other hand, such an "occupation" is not merely a modification or rupture, but is also a "preoccupation" in that it continues the older discourse of Orientalism. In other words, the site of representational conflict has shifted, as have the agents of the struggle for dominance, but the rules of the game are still similar. My broader project ventures certain constructive generalizations might be advanced to explain, define, and challenges these shifts and continuities.
  • The second main strand of my talk has to do with question of identity.  How Indian identities are constructed through translated texts? I would like to explore the differences between “vernacular” Indias and “English” Indias and especially to focus on the peculiar anxieties of both. Rather than looking merely at the content of the images of India, I wish to examine the processes of medium and mediation through which such imaging takes place.  I am interested primarily in literary texts but do not exclude other forms like film, television, or music from my inquiry. The question of medium and mediation as at least two aspects.  First, are representations in different languages structurally different?  If so, how might these representations be hierarchized or classified?  Are all Indian language representations similar to each other and different from those in English or is there an internal hierarchy of languages?  How does the power play between the source and the target languages affect representation? For instance, do Indian English texts convey a different impression of India as compared to texts written in native Indian languages? Can the same distinction/tension be extended to cinema, TV, music, and so on?  If so, how is the difference between English and vernacular representations to be understood and theorized?  The other aspect of this question concerns what happens when a multilingual culture gets constructed or studied in one language, that is English? What are the advantages and the limitations of such linguistic compression or collapse? Questions such as these only sever to sharpen the debates on the location of culture, the issues, positions, and interests at stake in contests over language, representation, and power.
  • The third and perhaps key strand of my argument has to do with what I call “vernacularization,” the strategy to resist the power of neo-Orientalism and neo-colonialism.  I shall have occasion to come to this in greater detail later, but at present let me say that vernacularization involves a process of realignment whereby the more privileged show their responsibility and commitment to the interests of the less privileged through the cultural politics of what might be termed compassionate service.  It is my contention that vernacularization contains the possibilities of constructing alternate postcolonial cultures that are more viable, more equitable, and certainly less-violent.
  • The third and final strand of my presentation has to do with translation because I believe that it is this process that holds the key to the process of vernacularization, at least in the Indian context.  Again, I hope to revert to this theme later, towards the end of my presentation.
  • Now that I’ve briefly outlined my argument, I think that, perhaps, this might be a good time to unpack some of the implications of my the title of my talk, “Postcolonial Prepositions and the Cultural Logic of Vernacular India.”  Indeed, as Pat and Tony will remember, we did go back and forth over various possibilities before fixing on this one.  The first and most obvious component of the topic is that terribly embattled and contested word, postcolonial.  The unease that we all feel over this word has to do only partly with the deep seated ambivalence inherent in the entire postal ladascape.  The other and what is perhaps more compelling reason for our unease is fact that the sign of post at once seeks to span and coalesce totally divergent and contradictory significations.  On closer examination we can discern how it has been ideolgically construted and its surface neutrality is neither choronolically nor politically innocent, but hides deep divisions and tensions. To put it plainly, the term “post” is expected at once to stand in for both “neo” and “anti” at the same time.  To take the example of postcolonialism, we realize that what goes by that name can be both neo-colonial or anti-colonial, sometimes even at the same time!  That is why those of us who are committed to decolonization will do well to interrogate and call into question that term and its entire ideological terrain and to try to drive a wedge at all times between the neo-colonial and the anti-colonial.  It is this imperative that might give a sharp edge to our work as academics and teachers.
  • The next word, “prepositions” is entirely of my own choosing and, hence, does not come with the kind of contested history that the word “postcolonial” entails.  Prepositions, as we know, are linking words which connect one word or part of the syntactic structure of a sentence with another.  In my larger argument, then, it would be translation that serves as the best pre-position, linking not just the source language with the target language, but, in some ways, making the one accountable to the other.  If translation is the key to vernacularization, then it is the preposition that hold the key to creation of the kind of postcoloniality that I wold like to endorse. But “preposition” also has another sense that I would like to exploit today.  Etymologically, the word is a combination of pre-, or before, which is the suffix, and position, in other words, to place before.  A preposition, in other words, is also a pre-position, like a prejudice or the other Greek word from the Latin form is said to have derived and, in fact, translated—prothesis.  In grammar, prothesis refers to the addition of a syllable or phoneme to the beginning of a word, but here I’d like to think of it more as a pre-thesis, a pre-disposition, a pre-possession even.  As I suggested earlier, when an Indian English writer sits down to write a book about India, he or she, in many ways, is seeking to occupy a territory that is already occupied. So this writing is a kind of preoccupation that rehearses older discursive and ideological patterns of representation and meaning.  As I have shown in an earlier paper, the Indo-Anglian is a sort of variation of Anglo-Indian.  The same tropes of the exotic, inscrutable, or impossible Orient are repeated, with crucial variations, of course.  Whether it is the primordialist neo-Orientalist or the constructionist neo-Subaltern, what we get in the text is a totemic coalescence of Indian identities that invariably does violence to what is represented.  To insert another syllable or phoneme, in the fashion of a prothesis, into what you will agree is by now an already overburdened word, I would suggest that these prepositions are akin to presuppositions.  What I am trying to suggest, then, is to use the first sense of the word against its second, to offer the preposition of “translation” to counter the pre-positions with which these texts are burdened.


I don’t think I have the time to explain all the ramifications of this here, but I have tried to do so in a short monograph called Towards a Poetics of the Indian English Novel which was published last year by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.  In it I try to provide a typology of Indian English novels from the very beginning of the genre in the 1850s to the present day.  I argue that very few Indian English novels manage to engage directly with major social issues in the manner of, say, the great “realistic” novels of the 19th century.  More likely, Indian English novels are formalistic in their orientation, offering verbal virtuosity and delight in place of the kind of social action that critics like Lukacs expected from the novel.  The root cause of this might be the distance of English from the actual social life of India.  Except for a small group of English speakers to which no novelists worth their salt would like to confine themselves, writing in English almost invariably involves writing about people who in actuality speak another language and inhabit a social space that is almost inaccessible to English.  In other words, English, to a large extent remains a grapholect, rather than a real language or a dialect.  This class between the sensibility and the medium has been one of the central issues in Indian English—indeed in non-native—creativity.  Let me hasten to add that I am not suggesting that there is possibility of an authentic representation of India in the English language; all I am suggesting is that the space for such representation is rather narrow, restricted, even exceptional, and must be earned with a great deal of effort and education.  In their absence, what we have are predictably stereotypical representations that do considerable violence to the represented.

What happens consistently is that Indian English texts occupy the entire space given to texts from or about India, with the result that Indian English, which is a small part of the total literary output of India, gets substituted for the whole of it.  Such a substitution, unfortunately, produces a false metonymy that allows English India to stand instead of all of India.


I shall now try to tie up the remaining three strands of my argument—identity, vernacularization, and translation, before discussing, very briefly a couple texts, if I have the time.


In the age of “identity politics,” identity used to be thought of as a “master concept.”  Over the years, it seems to have lost much of the explanatory power attributed to it.  Notions of identity and subjectivity have, indeed, been considerably eroded by much of what goes under the sign of the “post.”  But it seems to me that identities persist even in face of increasing plurality, diversity, and overlapping.  Poststructuralist politics, as Stuart Hall puts it, “makes us aware that identities are never completed, never finished; that they are always as subjectivity itself is, in process”  (King 47).  In other words, we need a different sense of identity than the normal, which is also the normative one:  “the concept of identity,” as R. Radhakrishan puts it, “is in fact a normative measure that totalizes heterogeneous ‘selves’ and ‘subjectivities,’” (158), but what we actually need is an intersection of belonging and difference in such a way that “this reciprocal ‘identification’ can, on the one hand, historicize and situate the radical politics of ‘indeterminacy’ while, on the other, situating the politics of empowerment as a transgression of the algorithm of ‘identity.’” (62).


Traditional identity politics has to do with what Halls terms “the constitution of some defensive collective identity” (King 52); it involves “[should be de] re-identification, re-territorialization and re-identification” (53).  But a more complex identity is positional.  It defines itself through difference with that which is being resisted.  And this involves the recovery of lost histories.  “It is the politics of recognizing that all of us are composed of multiple social identities, not of one.  That we are all complexly constructed through different categories, of different antagonisms, and these may have the effect of locating us socially in multiple positions of marginality and subordination, but which do not yet operate on us in exactly the same way.” (57)  This is what I understand by the Gramscian notion of “the struggles of the local as a war of positions.” (ibid). This view is neither one of political guarantees inscribed into the politics of identity or of free-floating space that is ahistorical and self-indulgent.  As Radhakrishnan puts it, “People are not cultural dopes” (58).  That is why we need to resist a politics that involves an easy identification, which substitutes one set of positive images with another set of negative images.


Skip:  As Radhakrishnan argues, “The question of authenticity has to do not just with identity but with a certain attitude to identity.  In other words, authentic identity is a matter of choice, relevance, and a feeling of rightness. …  What I mean by “authenticity” is that critical search for a third space that is complicitous neither with the deracinating imperatives of Westernization nor with the theories of a static, natural, and single-minded autochthony.” (162).


But now, I’d like move forward from the idea of identity to that of “identification” so that I can introduce the idea of vernacularization?  Let’s try to understand how this process works.  I don’t think that identification is as simple as saying that this is the same as that—it is not a simple process of asserting such sameness.  Instead, I think of identification as a process of responsibility, of owning up.  In that sense, it is central to any cultural politics.  So, from this perspective, let me say what the central thrust of this paper is.  Very simply, it wishes to make a case for vernacularization. 


I think we need a few moments to understand this idea because, as far as I know, it hasn’t been widely used in the discourse of humanities or social sciences.  M. N. Srinivas, of course, gave us the concept of Sanskritization and, later, added to it that of Westernization.  Both these, broadly speaking, are processes of upward mobility for people and communities in the South Asian hierarchical social and cultural polity.  I am, instead, advocating a process of downward mobility, so to speak, a movement where elite discourses, knowledge systems, and structures of power, through a process of identification, align themselves with those that constitute the bulk of society, the bahujan samaj, if you will.  In that sense it is a classes to masses movement, the opposite of Sanskritization or Westernization. The idea is neither unusual nor its practice unique when we think that the entire thrust of Gandhian praxis is a kind of vernacularization.  In the discipline of American Studies, for instance, vernacularization would mean the study and promotion of the work of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, women’s writing, and so on.  In studying canonical works, vernaculization would imply paying attention to alternative perspectives so as to challenge the dominant ways in which these texts are read.


But let’s look at the actual term a little more closely.  “Vernacular” refers to the native language of a country or a place, the language commonly spoken by the people as opposed to the literary or the elite dialect.  You will notice how I deliberately use the more pejorative “dialect” for the elite and call the vernacular the language of the people.  The word gained special currency in the early 19th century in India during the debates on which language to use for the East India Company’s proposed move to introduce higher education to its subjects in India.  We will recall that a sum of Rs. 1 lac was set aside for this purpose by an Act of the British parliament in 1813.  Thomas Babbington Macaulay came to India as a Member of the Supreme Council in 1835 and was soon appointed as the President of the Committee of Public Instruction.  The Committee, as we know, was split into two factions, the Orientalists and the Anglicists.  The former were worsted by the latter after Macaulay, in his infamous Minute of 2nd February 1835, forced the issue in favour of English.  On 7th March 1835, Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General, pronounced his judgement in favour of “the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India” through the medium of English.


All this is well-known, but what is not so well known is that the debate was not just between the Orientalists and the Anglicists, as is commonly thought.  It was actually a tripartite debate in which the third position, that of the Vernacularists, was never articulated adequately or given due consideration.  Macaulay’s arguments against Sanskrit and Arabic are too well-known to bear repetition.  His summary dismissal has become an trope of imperial arrogance:  “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.  –But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value.  … I have found none among them [the Orientalists] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”  What is not that readily remembered is that Macaulay considered the case of the vernaculars too, though he gave them even shorter shrift:  “All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India, contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, morever, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.  It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellecutal improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular among them.”  If we look at the cultural history of that time a little more closely, we begin to see that there was a somewhat more subdued, but definite advocacy for the vernaculars too. Rammohun Roy himself not only started newspapers in Bangla, but also wrote a Bangla grammar, and used the language as the medium of instruction in the primary schools that he started.


I was trying to suggest that the word “vernacular” enters public discourse in India from that period.  To go back to the origin of the word itself, it is clear that it showed the stamp of imperialism from its very inceptions in Latin.  Vernaculous means belong to home-born slaves or those who were indigenous.  Verna  itself has been linked to vernsa or the hearth.  In medieval Europe, the local languages of the poor, uneducated masses were pejoratively referred to as the vernaculars, as opposed to Latin, the dominant intellectual language.


Identification is necessarily a process of splitting because the “structure of identification is always constructed through ambivalence.  Always constructed through splitting.” (King 47).  This splitting between the self and the other is always accompanied by the attempt to “expel the other to the other side of the universe” (48).  But this attempt, is also “compounded by relationships of love and desire” (ibid).  So there is both hatred and desire for the other.  Only in translation is it possible to retain the self as one addresses the other.  It is possible to have both repulsion and desire at the same time.


Identities, in other word, don’t exist qua identities, in themselves or as themselves in any pure form, but are activation and interpellated through a process of identification which I would call translation. 


Here is where the link to translation comes in.  Translation or carrying over, bearing or taking across. (translatus as a past participle of transferre, or to ferry across).  I would argue that the goal of vernacularization is best achieved through translation.  This is a dual and dialectical process that involves the vernacularization of English on the one hand, that is the use of English in service of the bahujan samaj, not against it in an exclusionary manner. In other words, English can be legitimated only as one of the vernaculars of India, not as the language of the colonial masters and their descendants, the native bourgeoisie. The other side is for the vernaculars to become available in English, through translation.  My contention is that the rhetoric of vernacular India, as articulated by a very few of the texts in English and by several texts translated from the vernaculars into English is very different from the Rhetoric of English India.




I would like, if I may, to take you back to Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora. The novel, if I remember correctly, was first serialized in Probashi in 1908-1909 and was published in book form in 1910.  An English translation, attributed to W.W.Pearson, came out in 1924, before the Viswa Bharati standard edition of the novel in the 1930s.  In 1997, Sujit Mukherjee published a second English translation for Sahitya Akademi.  Early critics considered it a response to Kipling’s Kim, which also features an Irish foundling, who eventually becomes a loyal and useful member of the English empire.  In Gora, what happens is quite the opposite.  An Irish baby, born of a mother who dies in childbirth and a killed in the Great Revolt of 1857, is raised by a Bengali Hindu Brahmin family in whose cowshed his mother has sought shelter.  Growing up to be a strong and vigorous young man, Gora, which literally means white, becomes a staunch proponent of a narrow form of Hindu nationalism. In his zeal to reform society, Gora often disregards not just his own emotions, but tramples upon the sentiments and feelings of others.


In the penultimate scene of the novel, Gora learns from his dying father that he is  not the biological son of Krishna Dayal and Anandamoyi.  Stripped of all this identity markers, he realizes that he is neither a Bengali, nor a Hindu, nor a Brahman, but that very moment, he also discovers that more than ever before, he is now truly an Indian.  He, Poresh Babu, and Suchorita now leave Calcutta, the scene of a bitter struggle over the identity of modern India, to retreat to Shimla, where, perhaps, the novel suggests, the seeds of a new India may be sown there.

To me, this ending is extremely important because it suggests a curious paradox about the relationship between tradition and modernity, between India and the West. First of all, the conclusion of the novel reinforces the suggestion that the most fanatical element within Hinduism might actually be the least Hindu.  We must remember that Binoy, the real protagonist of the novel, does not share Gora’s puritanical zeal to return to a militant Hindu orthodoxy.  That such an orthodoxy is actually a modern construct is also increasingly clear as the novel progresses.  In other words, under normal circumstances, Hinduism resists fanaticism and militancy, and is able to allow contradictions to coexist.  Binoy, for instance, has no difficulties befriending the Brahmos and the orthodox Hindus.  It is only Gora, who in his missionary zeal, would like to reject all deviations from his brand of exclusionary Hinduism.  But this very tendency is, ultimately, revealed to be of foreign extraction.  In other words, those who seek to semiticise Hinduism actually represent a foreign influence in their reaction to Western colononization.  In present day India, and indeed to all kinds of fundamentalisms, the novel has a powerful message.  The most fanatical is also the least authentic.


Paradoxically, the same foreign influence, shorn of its mistaken self-identification, also becomes the ground for a more liberal future for not just Hinduism, but India.  Gora, from this point of view, is the West’s gift to traditional India, and may actually represent the liberalism of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the rights of all human beings.  Tagore seems to suggest that cultures must partake of a universal civilization in the making, without foregoing their own distinctive culture.  This is possible only through an openness to the Other.  The novel, in other words, proposes that Indian nationalism has two processes of self-constitution.  On the one hand it is inclusive, even cumulative in an arithmetical variety—Punjab, Sind, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravid, Utkal Banga.  But, on the other hand, it can be constituted only through a deconstruction of narrower, primordialist, ethnicist, or caste identities, especially if these are exclusivist and incompatible with a modernist universal.  New identities can be acquired only by shedding or outgrown older ones, or by incorporating the older into the newer, or through a process of dialogic co-existence.  Obsessively puritanical or sharply oppositional identities are seen as both harmful and unstable.  The novel provides models of all these types of identities.  The composite and all inclusive symbolism of nationalism in the novel is, of course, Anandamoyi, Gora’s mother, who is begins as an orthodox Brahmin, but goes beyond every kind of boundary imposed upon her by society. She accepts all those who come to her—Christian, low caste or Brahmin, without any discrimination, loving them equally as a mother would.  In contrast, Gora’s discovery suggests that only that is Indian which is not Bengali, Hindu, Brahmo, or Brahmin.  Binoy, on the other hand, who represents the mainstream of modern, reformed India, can reconcile both the orthodoxy of Gora and the heterodoxy and feminism of his wife Lolita.  It seems to me that Tagore suggests these three models for a new Indian identities.  Nationalism, in Tagore, then calls for the sacrifice of narrower identities and interests in favour of a larger coalitions.  It calls for a radical change in the politics of identity and identification.

              I would like to end my paper with a reading of a more recent Indian novel, this time written not in the Bengali of East India, but in the Malayalam of the South.

When O.V. Vijayan turned to write The Legends of Khasak (or Khasakkinte Itihasam) he was turning away from his project of writing the “revolutionary” novel of the 1950s at the instance of the Comrade-President of the Malabar District Board of Teachers.  The Comrade had urged him to put more “Inquilab” into his next project after expressing mild praise for Vijayan’s already published short stories.  However, something quite eventful happened to intervene between the Comrade-President’s advice and the great revolutionary novel that Vijayan was setting out to write.  This was the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union in 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, and the killing of Imre Nagy in 1958.  A disillusioned Vijayan turned away from the master narrative of universal socialism to the legends of a remote village in Kerala, Thasarak.


What did Thasarak, immortalized as Khasak, offer Ravi, the protagonist of the novel?  An escape from modernity, from the relentless telescope of the Florantine, always turned outward, to those realms of the inner spirit which alone have the key to escape the inexorable cycle of births and deaths?  At any rate, fleeing from the original sin of post-Enlightenment rationality, Ravi finds a magical world in Khasak.  Here the local legends, respected by both Muslims and Hindus, offer a counter to progress or the march of Hegelian History.  If modernity, as Max Weber said, stands for the inevitable disenchantment of the world, Khasak is the place where its relentless logic is circumvented or swallowed up.  Ravi is re-enchanted by Khasak.  Here he atones for his sin of incest, a sin which had dogged him in his previous life and blocked any meaningful relationship or commitment.  The scourge of small pox catches up with him even in remote Khasak, like bad karma from which there is no escape.  But in Khasak, this orphaned child, who becomes the object of his step mother’s desire because his father is a paralysed old man, now finds a whole bevy of mothers, who with their own breast milk heal the scabs of his raging fever.  At last, he mates the houri of Khassak, Maimoona herself, with her translucent skin embroidered with the blue veins.  In the last scene of the novel, Ravi waits to return to the world, as the rain sweeps over him, uniting him with the whole cosmos in its cleansing embrace.  The ending is ambivalent, hinting at both a death and a resurrection.


The ethos of Khasak has been nurtured by the same “tender absurdities” that both Hindus and Muslims share.  Much as mischief makers like the Mulla or Sivaraman Nair try to get them to quarrel, the social fabric of Khasak remains intact and unrent.  This is because “The history of Khasak was the great oral legend; that, and a shared indigence held Khasak together” (96).  The two nation theory is defeated by the dwarf cretin Apu Kili who nonchantly switches from wearing a tuft to a fez, until his hair grows back, and the lice return.  Similarly, Nizam Ali turns away from the Allah Pticha, the Mulla, first to become a capitalist, then a communist, and finally the Khazi of the legendary Sheikh.  As the Khazi, quite in opposition to the Mulla’s madrassa, he encourages the new primary school, which Ravi has come to run as the first modern teacher for Khasak’s first school.  When the Mulla dies, he gives the call to prayer after seven long years.


Ravi’s school is in Sivaraman Nair’s seeding house, the place of love and imagination.  Here the old legends of Khasak and the new narrative of modern education blend to offer at least a temporary hope for the new nation that has emerged from the ashes of colonialism and the carnage of the Partition.  Vijayan’s Khasak thus provides an arresting antidote to grand narrative of nationalism


As you can see, I have been arguing that the cultural logic of vernacular India differs considerably from the rhetoric of English India. Curiously, vernacular texts that are not translated, remain a part of what is pejoratively termed “regional” literature.  Neither are they read by a pan-Indian or international audience, nor are they read in a manner that makes them a part of the kind of larger discourse that I have been elaborating. It is only when they are translated that these texts begin to mean so much more and something quite different. To carry on the metaphor that I have been using, their identity changes in translation.  It gets augmented and amplified in some ways, even as it becomes vulnerable to restriction in others.  Thus, paradoxically, my argument while it advocates the promotion of the vernaculars, also suggests that the real fruition of this effort is not in the original language systems of the vernaculars but through translation into English. Identity is always a part of a narrative, always in part a kind of representation of oneself to Others.  It is in that sense that the destinies of both English and vernacular Indias are closely intertwined, but in ways which involve a radical reordering of their power relations.  This radical reordering is the enabling task, as Walter Benjamin suggested in another context, of all translation.


  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape