Vernacularising the Master Tongue: Indian English and its Con-texts1

Let me begin my paper with this quotation from one of the most gifted of 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.

    (In An Antique Land 62) 

You can guess from 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, a linguascape, if you will, that is tantamount to an ethnoscape and an ideoscape. So that linguistic positions, not just historical or geographic, caste or gender locations, are important determinants in the problematique of representing India, which all Indian literature, must willy-nilly do. What I propose in this paper is to extend the idea that Indian English texts should be read along with texts in native Indian languages. The latter languages used to be called “vernaculars,” a word with pejorative etymological connotations, and touched with the whiff of inferiority. To me vernacularising is an enabling way of righting the asymmetrical balances of power between English and the other Indian languages. This involves a conscious process of intervention which translation enables – translation of English texts into Indian languages, of course, but more importantly, of Indian texts into English so as to vernaculise English itself and its contexts in India.

      Let me begin with meditations and mediations on “Indianness,” which has been at the core of debates on Indian English literature since the very inception of the field. For some theoretically sophisticated friends of mine, “Indianness” is not just an elusive and contested notion, but a dangerous chimera. In an essay written many years ago, I argued that even if “Indianness” is a myth, it is a very real and powerful myth, a shaping force in cultural formation. But, on the whole, I agree that debates over “Indianness” have often been counterproductive, even leading sometimes to cultural intolerance. Sometimes, such debates are also rather unpleasant, if not outright nasty, with name-calling and vituperation. What is more, these debates have occurred in cycles. Just to mention a few instances, think of the exchange between Buddhadev 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 (1997), Salman Rushdie too proclaimed that Indian English writers were far superior to writers in Indian languages. Now the latest but certainly not the last version of this debate can be found in the argument, published in The Hindu, between Meenakshi Mukherjee and Vikram Chandra, which Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan joined later, and in Naipaul’s telling the bhasha writers at the recent International Festival of Indian Literature (2002) that if they could not get readers in their local language, then nobody could help them, and that themes like postcoloniality are at best wearisome and banal in the hands of several Indian writers.

      However it is not my intention to rehearse these debates. As I said earlier, these debates over “Indianness,” in some form or another, are central to the whole question of Indian literature, especially that of Indian English literature. This is obvious because 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 language promises unprecedented rewards 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 problematique 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 are both 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. Whether the writers are vernacular or Indian English, 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 out of hand. This is how I understand the focal concern of theory in an Indian English literary context to be; mapping Indianness really means trying to understand the cartography or mimetic logic of these writers

      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, which I am specially happy to mention in the presence of its author, is Anuradha Marwah Roy’s The Higher Education of Geetika Mendhiratta. I think this is a remarkably moving and successful book, especially in its first half, because it manages to invent a new language to convey the experience of growing up in a town such as Ajmer. I think the book is less successful once its 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 its 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 in the West, at the linguistic and commercial hearts of their creative markets.

      Let me now come to the main point of this paper. As you will have noticed from the title, I try to juxtapose Indian English, that is, not just the language, but the entire range of its literary and cultural production, with its con/texts. By con/texts, let me hasten to clarify, I do not only mean its overall social, economic, and cultural backgrounds and grounds of production, which is of course the normal meaning of the word. These contexts, I might add, need much greater elaboration in our classrooms than we are wont to give them. But for this to happen, we need not only political, but social and cultural histories of our times, an activity that we have lagged behind in. If the contexts of this literature were really to be studied and understood, they would quite naturally lead to the other sense in which I use this word today. One aspect of the broader contexts of Indian English literature is its linguistic placement and location. Here, we are led immediately to the multilingual contexts of this literature, which are at odds, so to speak, with its unilingual representational medium. I shall turn to this problem later, but by hinting at it here I wish also to hint at the special sense in which I use the word con/texts.

      By con/texts I mean a whole range and group of texts, which serve as contrary points of reference. These texts then are the con- or contrary or opposing texts, in conjunction with which this literature needs to be read and understood. As you may have guessed by now, what I am suggesting is that Indian English literature can best be read in conjunction with these counter-texts. What are these con- or counter-texts that I keep referring to? They’re the vernacular literatures of India, in which are contained the con- or contrary portrayals of India, in juxtaposition to which Indian English literature is best understood. In other words, my argument, which is by no means either new or especially novel, holds that the literature of India is complex not only because it is multilingual and multicultural, but because as a cultural system it cannot be contained in one single language. In other words, India, “Indianess,” and Indian literature are not arithmetical and cumulative, the sum total of the literatures in various languages, but something slightly different altogether. That is, the total, in this case is more than a sum of the parts. In a peculiar sense, it is also less than a sum of the parts because every once in a while we may encounter a text, which aims at expressing nothing short of the totality of India, even if it is in only one of its multitudinous languages. So, Indian literature, and by extension, India and “Indianness,” belong to a different dimension than the mere accumulation of texts and tongues. It is somewhat akin to how a translated text is neither the original nor an entirely new text, but a different kind of text, a trans-text, if you will. Translation is, of course, central to my argument, but I can come to it only later. However analogically, let me suggest here that Indian literature is thus not just a literature, but a trans-literature. That is why it is all the more pernicious for Indian English literature to usurp the entire, or at least an overwhelmingly significant part of the space reserved for Indian literatures on the whole, as is increasingly the case. Not only is Indian English literature not the entirety of Indian literature, but any special claims that it might make either in terms of quality or quantity must be rigorously questioned. This is not to question either the validity or the raison d’être of Indian English literature, but to seek to reposition it in the continuum of Indian literatures.

      As you might have guessed from these remarks, I am making a case against any claims to autonomy and self-sufficiency that Indian English literature, or its advocates, might advance. To speak of a tradition of Indian English literature, then, is at best fraught with major problems. To teach this literature in and of itself, as is done in universities all over India, and the world, is even less sustainable. Being a hybrid literature, Indian English demands a dual set of parameters, both national and international. There is, on the one hand, an international tradition of writing in English, described by different names, depending upon the context of its production, of which Indian English literature partakes, but it is also a part of the trans-tradition called Indian literature. So far as its study vis-à-vis India is concerned, therefore, it is best studied along with its con/texts, that is the vernacular literatures of India.

 We must not forget that the current disciplinary structures within which we study Indian English literature are extensions of older colonial ones. Higher education in India, including the study of literature, therefore follows a monolingual medium of instruction, which is not only inadequate, but inappropriate for our need. English in India, consequently, means something quite different from what it might in the UK or USA. Here, English, or better still english, stands for what we might call cultural studies. While smuggling Indian English texts into our curriculum is a victory against the imposition of Western canons upon the colonies, it does not go far enough. The next step, surely, is to study Indian texts in translation alongside Indian English texts, which of late to a certain extent has gained ground in different universities across the country. A further step would be actually to have bilingual and multilingual instruction, as is the case in the area study programmes in the US. I believe a more comprehensive understanding of Indian literature, India, and even “Indianness,” is possible if we do this. In the meanwhile, English, which has the market potential to do so, may serve as the repository of translated Indian texts, which along with original texts written in those languages, could form the core curriculum of a literature course.

      If I were to sum up my argument in one word, I would say that what is needed is a process of vernacularisation. Now, we know that M. N. Srinivas made both Sanskritisation and Westernisation very famous as key concepts in Indian sociology. What we need, to compete the trinity, is this idea of vernacularisation, which, as I see it, has at least two dimensions. On the one hand, it involves going back to vernacular texts, in the manner in which nativists urge us to. The primacy thus accorded to bhasha literature as the main representatives of India, is therefore a corollary of this position. India is best seen, understood, and experienced in the bhasha texts and not so much in Indian English texts. This becomes quite clear to us if we put the two beside each other. For instance, read Arundhati Roy alongside O. V. Vijayan, or read Salman Rushdie along with U. R. Anantha Murthy. We at once begin to see how the vernacular serves as the con/text for the English. The English text is both underlined and undermined by this process. Of course, for this exercise to work, the “right” con/text needs to be found for each text.

      To explain my above assertion I would argue that few Indian English novels manage to engage directly with major social issues of the day in the manner of, say, the great “realistic” novels of the nineteenth century.2 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 enormous chasm 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 no 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.

      Of course, some Indian English texts may actually work better as bhasha or vernacular texts. That is, if they manage to break through the constraints imposed by the linguistic and cultural codes of imperial English. This, then, is the second sense of the term vernacularisation. Vernacularisation is not just a return to native or indigenous texts, but involves the nativisation and indigenisation of English itself. English can best serve the needs of India as one of its bhashas, not as an elite, dominant, or neo-colonial tongue of the rulers and masters of the land. However, we are still a long way from such a re-engineering of this master-language. But, if the logic of this argument is pursued, it is those Indian English texts that best succeed in vernacularising the language that are also the most “Indian.” Examples such as the works of Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, and so on may be provided; even G. V. Desani’s and Salman Rushdie’s hybridisation of the language contributes to its vernacularisation. Indian English literature will best serve our needs when it is also a literature written in Indian English.

      This case for vernacularisation is also a case against the usual use of English for upward mobility. Vernacularisation, unlike either Sanskritisation or Westernisation, is a movement not of upward but of downward mobility. Interestingly, it is also empowering, if for the opposite reasons. Coming closer to the masses is also empowering just as going far away from them might be; but the two kinds of power that accrue are different. Just as the bhakti movement was a towards-the-people movement, I believe that vernacularisation serves a similar purpose. It is a classes-to-masses progression rather than a masses-to-classes one; to that extent, it counter-balances the usual use of English as an elite language in India. The idea is neither unusual nor its practice unique when we see that the entire thrust of Gandhian praxis, for instance, is a kind of vernacularisation.  In studying canonical works, vernaculisation would, at the least, imply paying attention to alternative perspectives so as to challenge the dominant ways in which these texts are read.  But more properly it would mean juxtaposing them with certain con-texts, either from the same language, or as in India, from "vernacular" languages.

      And in all this transgression and transformation, translation has a key role to play. That is because like bi- or multilingualism, translation has the power to take us across one language or culture to another, howsoever imperfectly. If Anuradha’s novel were translated into Hindi and read by college students in Ajmer, it would be a different text than it is right now. Similarly, if it were read in conjunction with a contemporary Hindi text, say something by Alka Saraogi, we might have a different way of reading it. At the same time, vernacular texts, if they remain only within the domains of their own linguistic community, are limited and incomplete. Only through translation can they acquire the kind of attention or understanding that they deserve. To that extent, the translated text might serve as the con/text for the original. When Vijayan’s Legends of Khasak, or Tagore’s Gora, is read in translation, they become a part of national and international narratives in ways in which they cannot be when read merely as Malayalam or Bangla texts.

      It would be interesting here to talk very briefly about how Indian identities are constructed in translated texts. This would inevitably lead to an exploration of the differences between “vernacular” Indias and “English” Indias, and especially focus on the peculiar anxieties of both. Rather than looking merely at the content of the images of India, the emphasis would lie on the processes of medium and mediation through which such imaging takes place. The question of medium and mediation has at least two aspects. First, are representations in different languages structurally different? If so, how might these representations be hierarchised 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 theorised? The other aspect of this question concerns what happens when a multilingual culture gets constructed or studied in one language i.e. English? What are the advantages and the limitations of such linguistic compression or collapse? It is my argument 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. More often than not, 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. Their identity changes in translation and 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 these literary efforts lies not in the original language systems 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. 


                                                                                Works Cited

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

    Lal, P., ed. Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo. 1969. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1971.  

    Mehrotra, A. K., ed. The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1992. 

    Paranjape, Makarand. “Indianness: Essence or Construct? Critiquing a Seminar on ‘Indian Literature: Concept and Problems.’” New Quest 105 (May-June 1994) 155-161. 

    Parthasarathy, R., ed. Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1976. 

    Srinivas, M. N. Caste in Modern India and Other Essays. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1953. See especially "A Note on

          Sanskritization and Westernization” 42-2.    

    Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape