Monday, April 30, 2012

English and Regional Languages: The Need for a Literary Lingua-Cultural Rendezvous

When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others.
                                                  -The Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano

The recent cultural theories provide a common platform for English and regional languages. These theories are included in the curriculum of language and literature as the tools for analyzing the micro strategies of imposing cultural power as well as the structure of language. But the colonial consciousness of the public and moreover the academic world refrain from making it more effective. Even now the English education in India is based on a Euro centric approach that follows the Western model of Standard English in the structure of language as well as pronunciation. The function of English education should be redefined in a cultural perspective and it should be closely related to the region, where it works.
            English has played a major role in the renaissance process of Kerala during the last century of colonial era. The Christian missionaries started English schools in various parts of Kerala from the beginning of nineteenth century itself. The English education was introduced by the British with the twin purpose of preparing the natives for taking up jobs to assist in the administration of the country and thereby imposing on them the values of western thought. On the other side, those schools provided the awareness of modern world for the people, the then ‘untouchables’, who were denied formal education in a rigorous caste based social system. The so called upper class kept themselves away from those schools as they had a traditional system of education based on Sanskrit language. But the traditional learners were forced to accept English education subsequently for various reasons.
            The decline of joint family system and the emergence of nuclear families forced individuals to seek new job opportunities. The social leaders, who were influenced by the western thoughts of democracy and modernism, identified the traditional believes and caste system as the main obstacles of social development. Indulekha, a Malayalam novel written in the last quarter of nineteenth century, urged the upper class for modern education, by making a contrast between the English educated protagonists with modern outlook and the antagonists as well as comic characters, who followed traditional value system. The innovative thoughts and exhortations provided by the social leaders, who argued for democracy, freedom, equality and secularism influenced the traditional scholars as well. Later on, the Indian political leaders, social reformers and writers of different regions developed a new perspective of social rights by understanding various cultures and political movements of different civil societies in different parts of the world through English education and they used it not only as a weapon to fight against colonial power but also to unite the people internally by applying the methods like eradication of untouchability. English became the prominent medium of communication between different linguistic groups, which was inevitable in a multilingual nation like India.
            The impact of Western modernism was evident in social life and cultural discourses of that time. Lot of changes occurred in Malayalam literature also. Neo-classical literary forms were replaced by modern literary genres like novel and short story. The traditional forms of poetry and drama also explored new ways of expression. Lot of western literary works was translated into Malayalam. But the process of modernization brought up some serious struggles in the cultural context of Kerala, as it did in the other regions of India. Malayalam writers of the first half of the Twentieth century shared these conflicts about self, identity and the existence of regional language in their literary works. We can see the argument from the other side of modernization in the poems like ‘Ente bhasha’(my language) written by Vallathol Narayana Menon and ‘macaulayyude makal’ (daughter of macaulay) by P. Kunjiraman Nair. ‘Kuttippuram palam’ (Kuttippuram bridge) by Edasseri Govindan Nair depicted the struggle between regional culture and modernity. Marshall Berman explains the struggle and experience of modernity:
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world, and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air’. 1
This kind of joyous and dangerous experience of modernity continued to be complicated in the post independent era also. The ideology of European modernism influenced the regional literatures in 1950s, while urbanization, poverty, political changes, wars and communal riots made Indian modernism more complex. As far as languages are concerned, Hindi gained the national status while other Indian languages were limited to their own regions. English remains on the verge of cultural domination. Braj Kachru observes, “English now has national and international functions that are both distinct and complementary. English has thus acquired a new power base and a new elitism” 2
            The educational institutions in India accepted English as their first language for communication and cultural exchange. The criteria in quality of educational institutions turned into how effectively they teach Standard English. The high class English schools followed Oxford English and Received Pronunciation as their status symbols. Standard Indian English pretends to be similar to British English, but it also has some regional differences, which are natural in a Multi-lingual society. Despite this diversity, there is general homogeneity in syntax and vocabulary among the varieties of Indian English.
            But the common people of India use English for communication with a regional colour that they developed within a number of dialects in English, distinct from the Standard Indian English that educational institutions have tried to establish. It is possible to distinguish a person's sociolinguistic background from the dialect that he/she employs. These dialects are influenced by their native languages, not only in the syntax and pronunciation, but also in the lexicon and idioms they generate from familiar situations of their regional culture. Malayali, Tamil, Rajasthani, punjabi and various other Indian language speaking communities developed their own English with this regional flavor. For example Suchitra Sadanandan has done a research on the topic ‘Stress in Malayalee English: A generative phonological approach’ (1981). Butler English or Kichen English is another dialect, which has some specific features of a pidgin, with a ‘Subject Verb Object’ word order and has a lack of distinct grammatical rules of Standard English. But the colonial cultural power of Standard English affects the Indians in a way, such as the consciousness of right and wrong, suspicions on pronunciation and the uncertainty of ‘quality’ make some kind of inhibitions in speaking/using English
            In fact, this cultural dilemma of language is evident in other colonial nations also. For example, the continent Africa is made up of people with different languages and countries with a variety of approaches to cultural expression and has rich traditions of verbal arts. But the transatlantic slave trade and colonial administration in various African countries alienated them from their own culture in many ways. First of all, the slaves exiled from their countries lost their own language and culture, at the same time they were forced to practice their masters’ language and alienated from both of these languages. The natives of African countries, who inhabited their homelands under colonial control, faced the domination of languages like English and French in a similar way as of Indians.
             The Africans followed a range approaches in using writing as a mode of colonial resistance. The first notable movement was Harlem Renaissance, centered on Harlem in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Famous poet and activist Langston Hughes, who participated in this movement, wrote about the period that "Harlem was in vogue". Another literary and ideological movement, Negritude, developed by francophone black writers, and politicians in France in the 1930s used various kinds of cultural expressions. Leopold Sedar Senghor, poet and the first president of Senegal from 1960 to 1981, Aime Cesaire, poet from Martinica, and Leon Damas from French Guiana were the leaders of this movement. Senghor has defined Negritude as ‘the sum-total of the values of the black world.’ Anthonia C. Kalu says,
Asserting African self-determination, beauty, dignity and strength, negritude enabled the emerging Western-educated African leadership to explore questions of responsibility, homeland and images of Africa as the Mother that nurtures.3 
            Accordingly, “Negritude aimed at trapping the colonizer with his own logic to reverse the damages he had caused.”4 The writers of this movement introduced African narrative techniques and themes used in oral tradition into contemporary African literature, especially in short story and novel. Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, a novel originally written in Sesotho language in 1910, and translated into English in 1925, made a platform for this Africanism. Amos Tutola’s The palm-wine drinkard (1953), the novel written in a stilted English, is a powerful compilation of Yoruba narratives. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) which is written in a kind of Standard English, yet manifesting the specific features of Negritude effectively, takes a different approach from that of Tutola’s Palm-wine Drinkard. Camara Laye’s, The African Child (1954), an autobiography written in a plain sensitive language is considered a major work in francophone literature.
            In Caribbean Islands, different ethnic groups and language- communities were compelled to live together under the colonial power. This situation made a hybrid cultural environment and the inhabitants of the islands formed some pidgins to communicate with each other.5 Later the descendants of these people developed the pidgins as creoles but these languages struggled to find their way into main stream literature.6 For instance, Louise Bennett (1919–2006), who wrote poetry in Jamaican Creole, was excluded from the meetings of Jamaican poetry league, but she argued forcefully for the recognition of this language. Notable Reggae singers Bob Marley and Peter Tosh used Jamaican Creole in many of their songs. These kinds of endeavors are relevant in the context of lingua-cultural resistance.
            ‘Decolonizing the mind’ (1986) written by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the famous English writer from Kenya, who renounced English, Christianity, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist and now writing in his native languages Gikuyu and Swahil, justifies his proclamation, ‘my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings’,7 by providing a number of arguments. Here are some excerpts from this work, which sometimes resemble social situations as well as the English education in contemporary Indian Context:
1. ‘We spoke Gikuyu [the most widely spoken language in Kenya] in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fireside.’
2. ‘The stories, with mostly animals as the main characters, were all told in Gikuyu...the language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of our immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the fields were one.’
3. ‘And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture... English became the language of my formal education. In Kenya, English became more than a language: it was the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference.’
4. ‘Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment - three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks - or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford.’
5. ‘The attitude to English was the exact opposite: any achievement in spoken or written English was highly rewarded... nobody could pass the exam who failed the English language paper no matter how brilliantly he had done in the other subjects.. English was the official vehicle and the magic formula to colonial elitism.’
6. ‘I started writing in Gikuyu language in 1977 after seventeen years of involvement in Afro-European literature, in my case Afro-English literature... I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples.’8 
            These kind of intensive responses are not familiar in Indian context. On the contrast, even from the colonial period, some of the Indian writers have been accused of trying to improve their status by working more on standard British English. The comment made by W. B. Yeats on famous Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, is an example. Yeats, who had written the well-known introduction to Tagore’s Gitanjali in 1912, wrote in a letter to his friend later,
Damn Tagore...because he thought it more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English, no Indians know English. Nobody can write music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.9 
            Another example is The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951) written by Nirad C Chaudhuri, who wished to be an English man rather than Indian. Some years ago Salman Rushdie dismissed the regional literature as ‘provincial’, when he edited a book of Indian Literature. Even if his generalized statement cannot be taken for granted, this attitude reflects the colonialist view of an Indian writer. In another way, one can identify this so-called provincialism as a part of cultural resistance. However, most of these works in regional literature are neither translated nor identified by international readers.
            In the post colonial period, Indian English writers are trying to find their own space for their own sake. Even when they try to narrate a regional theme, most of them have a Eurocentric attitude. Post colonial concepts like hybridity and inbetweenness provide a platform for their works. One can easily apply these concepts to catagorise Indian English writings. Moreover that works lack an indigenous approach or regional flavour. Let me conclude this paper by quoting some lines of Madhavikkutty/Kamala Das/Kamala Surayya, who faced this inbetweenness in language, region and religion:
...I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one....
....Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half
Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? 10

1. Berman, Marshal, 1982. All That is solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (Newyork: Simon and Schuster),  p. 15.
2. Kachru, Braj, 1986. The Alchemy of English: The spread, functions and models of non-native Englishes (New York: Pergamon), p. 12.
3. (Kalu, Anthonia C. (edi), 2010.  ‘introduction’, The Rienner Anthology of African Literature (New Delhi: Viva), p. 10.
4. Orizet, John (edi.), 1988. Anthology of French poetry (Paris: Larousse), p. 623.
5. “A pidgin arises in the first place to to fulfill restricted communication needs between people who do not share a common language.” See Jenkins, Jennifer, 2003. World Englishes: A resourse book for students (London and New York: Routledge), p. 10.
6. Patke, Rajiv. S. 2007. Postcolonial Poetry in English (New Delhi: Oxford), p. 96.
7. Thiong'o, Ngugi wa, 2004. Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature, (London, James Currey), p. xvi.
8. Ibid. p.9-22.
9. Quoted in Thayil, Jeet (edi.), 2008. ‘One language, seperated by the sea, 60 Indian Poets, (New Delhi: Penguin, p. xii.
10. Das, Kamala, 2004. ‘An Introduction’, Summer in Calcutta (Kottayam: D. C. Books), p. 62.

Some suggestions for enhancing English education in Kerala

1. The history of Colonialism in Various countries, with special reference to India and Kerala, should be included in the Syllabus of English.
2. Malayalam literary works, like Indulekha, ‘Ente bhasha’, ‘macaulayyude makal’, ‘Kuttippuram palam’ which depicted the conflicts of Colinial modernism, will help the students to identify the politics of language in the cultural context of Kerala.
3. Possibility of pidgins and creoles should be explored in a multilingual society like India, to improve communication with different language communities.
4. Students must be aware of the cultural elitism of Standard English in Indian cultural context. They are expected to analyze the Indian English dialects through a linguistic approach rather than grammatical.
5. We can see the use of dialects and regional languages as a part of cultural resistance in other places. So the use of Indian English dialects should be viewed in a cultural aspect. Let the people speak, let them express. Let them write in a language that they wish. Do not use the criteria of Standard English to read them.
6. Indian language communities are not communicating one another much, for the lack of a common language. We do not even know the culture and literature of our neighboring states. Indian English can contribute a lot to solve this problem.
7. All major literary works of regional languages should be translated to English. Two-way translations, from English to the regional languages as well as from regional languages to English, should be included in the curriculum. The students must learn translation theories and practice.

                                                             Dr. Manoj Kuroor
                                                             Department of Malayalam
                                                             N. S. S. Hindu College

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