Teaching Literature Today

I deem it a singular honour to be invited to inaugurate this refresher course.  The Department of English of Panjab University has been one of the key centres for English Studies for the last several decades.  It is, moreover, a department with which I have been associated, in one form or another, for several years.  I have known its previous heads since the time of Professors Nirmal Mukherjee and M. L. Raina and can count all the members of the present department among my friends.  It is therefore not just a privilege but a pleasure to be here.  But, more importantly, I consider myself fortune to be asked to speak on topic that though it may seem somewhat commonplace and nondescript at first, actually has a crucial bearing on what we do as teachers of English in India.  I would therefore like to spend a few minutes analysing and explaining what I consider to be the central implications and ramifications of the topic.   This I believe is what may be expected from the inaugural lecture in a Refresher Course.  Later, if I have sufficient time, I should also like to speak on what are some of my own pet projects if not dreams not so much for myself as for this profession.  At any rate, what a topic such as this affords us at the very least is to thoroughly to take stock of our situation and assess the possibilities that lie in store for us in the years ahead.  In the duration of this course, I hope the rest of you will also participate in such an exercise and thereby add your energies to the shaping of our profession.

            What I found most fascinating about this topic is that it nowhere mentions “English.”  What might the implications of such an omission be?  Is it one more proof of the uneasy identity of our discipline?  Is English either understood or placed under erasure?  If so, to what ends?  What, in other words, are the implications of such an omission.  The implications will be clearer if we examined what the problem with English in India is.  The chief problem is that English was an instrument of colonization.  Its study was instituted and later institutionalized by a colonial regime, whose overt aim was to make English an instrument of British rule in India.  Educating the natives was a part of this plan.

But the more covert end, arguably, was to deal a death blow to native cultural traditions.  We know very well now that more than coercion, the empire prevailed through consent.  To earn the consent of the governed, their own culture and values had to be undermined and then supplanted by that of the conquering people.   This purpose was stated overtly by Macaulay in his infamous minute, which though we know quite well, will still bear repeating:

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 read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues.  I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have found none among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. (Tradition, Modernity and Svaraj 1.1: 101).  This part of the conquerors’ intentions is evident in the famous pronouncement of Macaulay that occurs towards the end of his Minute:


We must at present do our best to form a class of persons who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.  (Ibid 107)

To dislodge a cultural elite and to replace it by another of its own making was central to the British design to rule India. As English was instrumental to the success of this design, it has a tainted past, at least in India.  To the extent that it was complicit to imperial designs, English is as both language and cultural system is to be resisted.   This after all is the central argument in Ngugi wa Thiago’s Decolonizing the Mind.  Achebe’s response that English can also be used as an instrument of liberation, however appealing to us in India, cannot really upturn the force of Ngugi’s passionate plea against English.  Of course, Ngugi wrote that plea in English, but henceforth renounced its use has his creative medium. 

            In India, this unease with English has been voiced in a number of ways.  One was to suggest that after independence, English be removed from its exalted status as the official language.  The fate of English was debated on 25th November 1958 in the special Parliamentary Committee that was set up for this purpose.  Prior to this, there had already been a tremendous built up both against and in favour of English.  The chief advocate and champion of the Hindi lobby, Purushottam Das Tandon was sure that he had got his arithmetic right.  But to his great surprise and disappointment, with all the other votes cast and a tie ensuing, the critical vote in favour of English was cast by the then Home Minister and ardent advocate of Hindi, G. P. Pant.  Later Pant is said to have the following explanation, if not mollification, to an outraged Tandon:  “I place India’s unity before Hindi.”

            The point that I’ve tried to make is that if India retained English after independence it was ostensibly with an aim rather different from that which informed its introduction and institutionalization by the British more than a hundred years earlier.  This altered aim was reflected, willy nilly, even at the highest levels at which English was taught in India.   It was, in fact, in the 1950’s that K. R. Srinivasa wrote his first books favouring Indian English literature as a separate and self-sufficient course of study, distinct from British literature.  In the decades that followed, Indian English literature (or Indo-Anglian literatrue as it was formerly known) became an optional paper in many Indian universities.  The decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s also saw the gradual but definite introduction of other literatures in our English curricula, notably American, Canadian, Australian, and other so-called Commonwealth literatures.  These attempts were all sings of our effort to distance ourselves from the colonial heritage of English in India and to replace it with a more broad based curriculum of English Studies.  That these new areas of studies were not introduced innocently, in response to our own needs, but were rather actively promoted by other political and pecuniary considerations is another matter.  The spread of American literature the world over, as we know only too well, was a direct outcome of the ascendancy of the US as a global superpower.  So, from one point of view older patterns of colonialism were not quite overthrown but replaced by newer ones.

            Even so, it was clear that we were moving away from the old Eng. Lit. type of syllabus for good.  The culmination of these efforts, say, in Delhi University, has resulted in a totally different way of studying English at the undergraduate level.  We now have not only Indian English texts, but also other Indian texts in translation, not to speak of other postcolonial literatures as a part of the syllabus. In criticism too, I. A. Richards and F. R. Leaves gave way to more influential psychoanalyst, Marxist, neo-historicist, feminist, poststructuralist, and other similar theoretical influences.   Without question, the discipline of English Studies was altered almost beyond recognition. 

            Even so, I contend, that the unease with the still privileged and neo-colonial role of English remains.  This unease comes from the fact that we, the grandchildren of Macaulay, are an unhappy elite.  Arnold Toyanbee in his Study of History somewhere remarks how the colonized intelligentsia is doomed to be unhappy because it is never trusted by the natives nor is it owned up by its former masters.  I suspect that regardless of what other evil may come out of the present times, one collateral good might be a second wave of decolonization.  In the first wave, the colonizers are removed, but in the second, their representatives, those grandchildren of Macaulay, are displaced from their privileged positions.  My question, therefore, is this:  “Has English in the title of this Refresher Course been erased to hide our affiliation with precisely this class?”

            This may or may not be the case, but at lease one of the implications of the title of the course is clearly to subsume what we do to a broader category of “literature” or to be more specific, “The Teaching of Literature Today.”

            However, even this shift is not without its own consequences and repercussions. That is because the category of “literature” is no less beleaguered, no less under pressure today than that of “English.”  Even if we manage to disassociate ourselves from English with a capital “E,” how can we escape the elitist connotations of “literature,” with its implicit reliance on canons and other protocols of elitism?   Literature, as the very word suggests, is for the literate, for those who can read and write.  In fact, literature, like culture, has connotations of the sort of refinement that would leave out the masses.  The revision of canons puts literature under siege.  Who’s literature, for whom, or by whom are questions on everyone’s lips.  Suddenly, women, blacks, minorities, queers, and other marginalized groups clamour for our attention.  In India too, the upsurge of interest in women’s or dalit writing is nicely complemented by the rise of subaltern studies.  Of course, when literature is dethroned, we also have the study of popular culture, of comics, movies, tv shows, advertising, and so on in the U.S., and of cultural studies, that is of the study of the culture of the working classes in the U.K.  In India, these developments found their answering echo in the increase of interest in folk, oral, Dalit literature as well as in cinema, news, or events like Roop Kanwar’s sati.  It would seem as if the most exciting work in literature these days is not in literature per se at all.

            With the world wide popularity of postcolonial studies in the last decade or so, we in India have witnessed to another major tectonic shift in English Studies: the renewed interest in our so-called vernacular literatures, whether in their original languages or in English translations.  It is now clear that the future of English monolingualism in India is doomed; but this does not mean that the future of English itself is in danger.  Rather, what the writing of the wall tells is that we must be bi- or multi-linguals if we wish to be culturally engaged and relevant.  To include Indian English literature in our syllabi, in other words, is not going far enough. It is important to use our textual skill and critical knowledge also to read other Indian texts.   English may continue to be an intellectual language or the language in which chose to read and critique native texts, but to keep native texts out will prove increasingly difficult.

            The opening gerund in the title, “teaching,” suggests this is an on-going activity.  The pedagogical challenges before us as teachers of English will not vanish.  But as teachers of literature, some of the issues that I have raised will continue to challenge and preoccupy us in the years to come.

            Before I end I would like briefly to identify three key conflicts that confront us were we to take our topic seriously.

            The first of these is what I’d call English vs. Indian.  I’ve already spoken at length about this, but would like to refine that discussion a little.  Whether we mask our identities or openly declare them, we are teachers of English.  As such, sooner or later, we shall have to define our positions vis-?-vis India.  Do we want to be a part of the grand narrative that is India (grand narratives, unfortunately, don’t disappear even if you dislike them)?  Or do we want to be a part of the story of the West, as members of its displaced but dependent servants.  No doubt, there are rewards a plenty even for the latter, but in the long run, such a choice would be not only self-defeating, but perhaps self-annihilating.  Suppose, we decide to be a part of India’s story, then we shall have to do something with out English.  Merely being English in India won’t do.  We’ll also have to be Indian—not that the two are mutually exclusive.  But we shall have to adopt some means to establish our affiliation that does not rely only on the medium of English.  Even moving towards a bilingualism may not be sufficient if it remains an English-dominated bilingualism.  We must craft a bilingualism that does equal justice to things Indian, both culturally and materially.  It must be a responsible and responsive bi-lingualism, responsible and responsive, that is, to India—not a derivative or dependent bilingualism, derivative and dependent on master-sources in the West.

            The second conflict is English vs. english—that is English with a capital E and english with a small e.  The latter may be taken to stand for Indian English, now eminently marketable as an international cultural commodity, a tasty item of global consumption, but still regarded with undisguised scorn or genteel condescension.  As teachers of english, we shall have to over the years find a more humane and direct way of addressing this problem.  It will not do simply to celebrate english as the kalpataru or the kamadhenu or language of Saraswati as some of our famous writers and public figures did—I think it was C. Rajagopalachari who, for instance, likened English to the medium of Saraswati.  Nor will it do to distance it strategically by calling it the step-mother tongue or as my friend Probal Dasgupta does in his book, the auntie tongue.  English is both a world language and our very own patois.  We need both to recognize, define, and redeploy its function and usage in India.  As teachers of English, that is our continuous responsibility.

            The third conflict, which is perhaps, the most serious is that between literature and language. I have alluded to it briefly, but must bring it out into the open here.   You see, we are faced with the curious paradox today that though the demand for English is growing apace, not only in India but in the rest of the world, particularly in Asia, literature as such is pretty much marginalized.  Indeed, most of you who have come to this very refresher course are teachers not of literature but of language.  This raises the serious question of what will happen to the teaching of literature in the future.  Will it lost ground totally to more socially meaningful and economically rewarding courses?  Will our best students turn to writing computer manuals to make a living?  What will happen to the loftier pretentious of latter-day Arnolds and Eliots what wish to study those texts of our culture that embody our greatest intellectual and artistic accomplishments?  Will we literature teachers be thrown into the dusbin of a globalising economy in which higher education will be increasingly privatised?  Imagine a scenario in which departments will have to open language-teaching shops in order to earn the privilege of studying literature.  Indeed, it would not be too dreadful a prospect if the number of literature departments is reduced to a dozen, but they are then equipped to do first rate work.  The other departments may continue to train people to be language teachers.

            These are issues that we cannot afford to neglect or ignore.  Right now, though our clientele consists of language teachers, the power of the discipline is vested in the hands of those who teach literature.  Even among the latter, those who claim to do theory are more privileged than those who simply practice criticism.  What is more, the whole profession is being re-engendered so as to be almost exclusively by and for women.  Here is the other paradox:   while many of the senior professors continue to be men, their junior colleagues and students are mostly women.  Will literature, nay language teaching itself, be the sole preserve of women as school teaching has virtually become?  In fact, will teaching itself be turned into a women’s profession, with men saving or ruining themselves, as your preference may be, with hardware, software, or nowhere as the case may be?  None of these questions is easy to answer, yet I do hope that in the days and weeks to come, you may find your own ways of approaching, if not answering them.

            Before I end, I would like bring to your attention a dream project of mine for our profession.  We should prepare a small book on “English Studies in India.”  This would not be a learned or scholarly tome, but a practical handbook for those who intend to pursue this line professionally.  We should be able to list out and briefly describe the various options available to anyone who intends to take up English at the postgraduate level in India.  We should be able to tell such a person what he or she is in for!  Such a booklet should not only list the major centres of the study of literature, with their faculty strengths, and their admission procedures.  It should also provide an outline of the various options and job possibilities available to anyone who is a postgraduate in English in India, including opportunities for overseas education. 

            I do hope that one of you present here takes up the noble task of writing such a book.  I believe that the profession will owe a great debt of gratitude to the author of such a book—it will indeed be a tract for our times.

            In concluding, may I wish all of you a very fruitful and productive Refresher Course?  Thank you.



  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape