Anita Roy talks to professor of English, Meenakshi Mukherjee (right) about her iconoclastic approach to not-so-sacred texts.
Owls are traditionally associated with wisdom in the west. In Hindu mythology, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi, is carried on an owl and it is therefore thought of as an auspicious bird. It is also a creature of the night, and carries a certain frisson of danger, darkness and the supernatural. At the Delhi home of Meenakshi Mukherjee the bookshelves are crowded with a collection of owls of every shape, size and nationality and cultural persuasion. She quite clearly delights in their significance - as symbols of something or the other, souvenirs given by friends, reminders of other times, other places.
Meenakshi Mukherjee is professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University which she joined in 1986 from the University of Hyderabad. Before that her career had taken her from the State University of New York to the University of Poona and back to teach at JNU's rival establishment in the city, Delhi University. Over the past 30 years, she has seen a profound change - and indeed been a catalyst - in the way the discipline of English literature has been constructed, taught and studied in India. The current vogue in the west for post-colonial theory is given a different spin when looked at from the other (or should that be "Other"?) side.
The teaching of English in India has two faces: the teaching of the language itself, and the study of literary texts - neither of which is value-free or separable from the history and politics of British imperialism in India. Yet, until recently, the ideological difficulties posed were thought irrelevant both to teaching the language and to the pure and aesthetic appreciation of the text. "The original impulse that formulated English studies in British India," as Meenakshi points out, "was the imparting of universal values through durable, authoritative and immutable texts in English." Not only in English, but by British writers. Her very first book, The Twice Born Fiction challenged this notion by concentrating on Indian writers in English. "At that time," she recalls, "people were quite surprised and would say 'why are you wasting your time on such an unimportant subject?'".
Nowadays, thanks to the early campaigns of academics like Meenakshi and the explosion of new, talented Indian writers on to the national and international scene, the likes of Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghose and older writers such Mulk Raj Anand form the core of many literature courses taught throughout the country.
"Once I thought that I would be able to read everything that was published by Indian writers in English, and for years I did. Then in the 1980s things really took off, and there's no way I can keep up now," she said. This phenomenon has gone hand in hand with a boom in the publishing industry, fuelled by, for instance, Penguin India and Ravi Dayal who has built an enviable list in quality fiction and has jjust launched a sort of Indian Granta called Civil Lines. Meenakshi herself is currently preparing a critical edition for Ravi Dayal of the first Indian novel in English, Rajmohan's Wife, written by a fellow Bengali Bankinchandra Chatterji, in 1864.
Mukherjee has been championing the writings of indigenous writers not only in English but most importantly in their own languages, both in her own work and in the classroom. "Initially students were very taken aback to be asked 'what other literature do you read apart from English'? because they had always been told that this was unimportant. Nowadays, you really must be at least bilingual to study literature in India. You must have a point of contrast and comparison with the English texts. When we were students, we did not define ourselves as 'Indians' once we were inside the classroom," she says, "it was a kind of ventriloquism where you were encouraged to pretend that cultural differences didn't matter."
I'm reminded of a passage from Michelle Cliff's novel, Abeng, set in post-colonial Jamaica where Kitty recalls that the only thing she learnt at school was "a silly poem 'Daffodils' which one of the children had coloured a deep red, like a hibiscus. The red of a flame." This "daffodils in the tropics" syndrome still colours many students' readings today, but with the advent of literary theory and cultural studies, the tables are slowly turning.
The flip side to this is that as a young girl, Mukherjee would avidly read books like Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities and The Three Musketeers in Bengali translations. Far from feeling culturally alienated by these books, she says that she "felt very much at home with them and did not think of them as in any way 'foreign'. The metropolitan centres are often too quick to make assumptions about how knowledge flows one way - west to east - and it is important to realise that translations occur between languages, and not just from one to another."
"It is not that you can't or mustn't study English literature, but that you should be aware, in the study of all literatures, of your own cultural and historical viewpoint." The days of cultural ventriloquism are numbered. Differences do matter - indeed they are the substance of any truly productive reading. I asked Mukherjee whether her students were resistant to theory. "Oh no," she replied, "they love it! It's very seductive and they take to it immediately. The only problem is getting them to read the texts themselves.'' In this respect, I guess, they are much the same as their British or American counterparts. On a more basic and practical level, there is also the need to make the right texts easily available and affordable for students: a major difficulty given the economics of international publishing, not to mention the severe devaluation of the rupee over the past five years.
However, as far as new critical approaches go, the wheels of academic bureaucracy turn exceeding slow, and in most universities in the country English literature is still taught as though "a text is a text is a text", imparting eternal and universal moral values to its sensitive readers. Against this reactionary system, Mukherjee and some of her colleagues at JNU and down the road at Delhi University (and in isolated pockets across the country), are working to change the syllabi and the approaches used, alerting students to the politics of their own post-colonial relationship to these not-so-sacred texts.
Given the history of India's relationship with Britain, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that there is a strong resistance to simply "importing" ideas from the Anglo-American academy - it is a thin, and often broken line between post and neo-colonialism, after all. "If there is to be any rethinking about the syllabus we have to do it on our terms," Meenaskhi asserts. "It is time we decided within our own academies what we shall teach in our literature classes, keeping our own priorities in view."
Mukherjee is now much more interested in looking at indigenous Indian literatures than in writings by Indians in English and in a country of 15 main languages and over 700 minor languages and dialects, she has a wide field to explore. The innovative course she devised at the University of Hyderabad, "The Novel and Society", for example, includes novels by Bengali, Hindi, Malayan, Marathi, Kannada, Urdu and Tamil writers in English translation. (The politics of translation is, unsurprisingly, another burgeoning and fertile field in Indian literary circles.) The quality and diversity of literary texts in any of these languages far outweighs the relatively small number of Indian writers in English, though for most non-Indians (and even for Indians outside their own language community), writers such as Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and Shripad Pendse are relatively unknown. The practical problems in setting up this course brought home even more strongly the paucity of reliable, affordable and accessible texts - and the paramount importance of that most underrated weapon in the academic armoury: the photocopier.
It is not enough, however, to simply add "non-British" or "non-English language writers" to a syllabus, whether they are studied in original English or in translation. Most Indian universities will now include Raja Rao or R. K. Narayan as part of their literature courses, but these are often treated as "new icons added to the pantheon of literary gods to whom our students are required to pay homage". The field of Commonwealth literature has opened up the canon to a range of different texts which is very much to be welcomed, although Mukherjee - even in her capacity as chairperson of the Indian chapter of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies objects to the term "Commonwealth" which assumes that all non-British English literatures can be lumped together as a single homogeneous entity. "More important than the details of what texts we choose to put into the curriculum and how we interpret these in class is the question of what tools we are providing to our students for them to produce their own meanings."
The owl seems like the perfect familiar for Mukherjee in this dense, linguistic and cultural forest. The owls on her shelf look down, each a little different, knowing and unreadable, quietly thwarting our efforts to explain or contain their own meanings. "Ulloo, the Hindi word for owl," she adds mischievously, "also means foolish."
Anita Roy is a senior commissioning editor in the humanities at Manchester University Press.