A detailed note to show how the literatures in English, emerging from South Asia, reflect the colonial encounter.

A detailed note to show how the literatures in English, emerging from South Asia, reflect the colonial encounter.

Language is often a central question in postcolonial studies. During colonization, colonizers usually imposed or encouraged the dominance of their native language onto the peoples they colonized, even forbidding natives to speak their mother tongues. Many writers educated under colonization recount how students were demoted, humiliated, or even beaten for speaking their native language in colonial schools. In response to the systematic imposition of colonial languages, some postcolonial writers and activists advocate a complete return to the use of indigenous languages. Others see the language (e.g. English) imposed by the colonizer as a more practical alternative using the colonial language both to enhance inter-nation communication (e.g. people living in Djibouti, Cameroon, Morocco, Haiti, Cambodia, and France can all speak to one another in French) and to counter a colonial past through de-forming a “standard” European tongue and re-forming it in new literary forms.

Most radical among those writers who have chosen to turn away from English, a Gikuyu writer from Kenya, began a successful career writing in English before turning to work entirely in his native language. In Decolonising the Mind, his 1986 “farewell to English,” Ngũgĩ posits that through language people have not only described the world, but also understand themselves by it. For him, English in Africa is a “cultural bomb”  that continues a process of erasing memories of pre-colonial cultures and history and installs the dominance of new, more insidious forms of colonialism. Writing in Gikuyu, then, is Ngũgĩ’s way not only of harkening back to Gikuyu traditions, but also of acknowledging and communicating their continuing presence. Ngũgĩ is concerned primarily not with universality, though models of struggle can always move out and be translated for other cultures, but with preserving the specificity of individual groups. In a general statement, Ngũgĩ points out that language and culture are inseparable, and that therefore the loss of the former results in the loss of the latter:

A specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality, but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.
Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other … Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world … Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.

The theoretical and scholarly debate about language is addressed in detail in The Empire Writes Back (1989). Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin explore the ways in which writers encounter a dominant, colonial language. They describe a two-part process through which writers in the post-colonial world displace a standard language (denoted with the capital “e” in “English”) and replace it with a local variant that does not have the perceived stain of being somehow sub-standard, but rather reflects a distinct cultural outlook through local usage. The terms they give these two processes are “abrogation” and “accommodation”:

Abrogation is a refusal of the categories of the imperial culture, its aesthetic, its illusory standard of normative or “correct” usage, and its assumption of a traditional and fixed meaning “inscribed” in the words.

The authors are careful to point out, however, that abrogation alone, though a vital step in “decolonizing” a dominant language is not sufficient, in that it offers the danger that roles will be reversed and a new set of normative practices will move into place.

Another issue Ashcroft et al. describe is the three types of linguistic communities they identify: the monoglossic, the diglossic, and the polyglossic. Monoglossic communities, corresponding roughly to old settler colonies, are places where “english” (the lower-case “e” in “english” denotes local, non-standard/British usage) is the native tongue. Diglossic communities, by far the most common of the three, occur where”… bilingualism has become an enduring societal arrangement, for example in India, Africa, the South Pacific, for the indigenous populations of settled colonies, and in Canada, where Québecois culture has created an artificially bilingual society”. Finally, polyglossic societies occur principally in the Caribbean, where a multitude of dialects interweave to form a generally comprehensible continuum”

English Studies in Asia has been undergoing significant changes in the last two to three decades. The pace of this change differs from country to country, depending on the situations, the colonial encounter, if they had any, and other variables existing in them. The countries that were under the British imperial rule like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Srilanka had received it as a colonial legacy. The countries that were not under the British colonial rule such as Indonesia or other countries in the Eastern Archipelago had a quite different trajectory of English Studies than the earlier group of countries. However, one common feature that is observed in all of them in contemporary times is a movement away from pure Eng-lit to literatures in English. Academics located in Asian countries started seriously questioning the validity of teaching the literature emanating from Great Britain or the United States of America that were culturally remote and not considered relevant to students’ immediate experiences and their socio-cultural milieu.

Historical Lineage

This was the predominant feeling in a country like India with a history of British colonialism where English Studies as a formal discipline had established itself even before it did so in England or Great Britain. During the course of the paper I will make frequent references to India, because among all the South Asian countries it is in India that English Studies has been fully entrenched for the longest time, and the changes and shifts taking place in India have often its impact in the rest of South Asia.

English Studies was used as an important instrument of acculturation in India and it grew firm roots in the length and breadth of the country. The British administrators viewed English literature as embodying the highest values of the British nation which they wanted to impart to the natives in India. English literature was sought to convey the higher levels of historical progress and moral standard of the English society. In other words, they thought of English literature as constituting the cultural history of the nation, or as Charles Kingley put it in his inaugural lecture at the Queen’s College in London in 1848, English literature was nothing less than “the autobiography of the nation.” The British educational policy makers in India, from 1835 onwards, saw to it that English was taught from the school levels. In his notorious Minute on Education (1835), Charles Babington Macaulay, who was responsible for a paradigm shift in the education policy in India declared:

I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit 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 Sanskrit 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 never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. (Macaulay, 1835)

It is simply breathtaking how Macaulay could dismiss out of hand the rich literary traditions of India and Arabia in a single sentence. It was the arrogance of power that made him pass judgements on the centuries-old civilizations without making the necessary efforts to understand them. This infamous statement of Macaulay has attracted much criticism over the ages. Edward Said, the great postcolonial critic, writes:

Macaulay’s was an ethnocentric opinion with ascertainable results. He was speaking from a position of power where he could translate his opinions into the decision to make an entire subcontinent of natives submit to studying a language not their own. This in fact is what happened. In turn this validated the culture to itself by providing a precedent, and a case, by which superiority and power are lodged both in a rhetoric of belonging, or being “at home”, so to speak, and in a rhetoric of administration: the two become interchangeable.

No wonder that it was institutionalised in India much ahead than in any other country. It did not disappear after the independence of the country. Instead, it consolidated further as it was patronised by the new elite that had made significant investments in ES. English changed from the language of the colonial masters to the language of the privileged in India. It continued to remain the language of power. Of course, there were fierce debates in India about the validity of retaining the coloniser’s language and demands were sporadically made by certain groups to do away with it. However, for a variety of reasons English was retained, and in many cases, it became the medium of Higher Education in colleges and universities in India. From then onwards, it has grown from strength to strength.

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