English in alien attack

July 18, 1997

Radhakrishnan Nayar (THES, June ) seems rather upset by Arundhati Roy, Ian Jack and Salman Rushdie because he suspects that English is an alien medium, and therefore quite incapable of representing the authentic India.

Quite rightly he argues that Indian literature in various vernaculars is largely unknown outside South Asia. However, to turn this into a depressingly political critique of English-medium writing about India is surely a mistake. One wonders, especially with his mealy-mouthed dismissal of The God of Small Things, whether the review is not about the politics of envy rather than the politics of authenticity.

There is little new in such cultural chauvinism. Nayar attacks English as having nothing in common with other South Asian tongues, as being the preserve of a small elite, and as not being the language in which Indians think.

All these are correct up to a point. But the "authenticity" line ignores the substantial ways in which Indian English has become a South Asian medium, incorporating words, phrases, and meanings that resonate in the subcontinent alone. That English is still an elitist tongue cannot be denied, but unlike attempts to hegemonise Hindi as the national tongue (witness political campaigns by the BJP and others), English enables Tamils to speak to Bengalis, Kashmiris to speak to Gujaratis, and so on. English lacks the communal taint sometimes associated with the eager proponents of Hindi.

Finally, although thought does generally tend to be in the first language, I know some Indians in Delhi who confess to thinking in English, often because they are not from the northern Hindi belt, and thus find they use their native tongue infrequently, if at all.

There should indeed be anxieties raised about Western cultural penetration of India, the relative neglect of Indian vernacular literatures (although surely it can be argued that English has now become one of these), and perhaps too of the continuing market for "exotic India" in the West. But all this is no excuse for a poorly executed hatchet job on two mixed collections, and one superb novel.

Alexander Evans

Research scholar

Department of politics

University of Bristol

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