C.D. Narasimhaiah is more of an institu- tion than anything else. It is not easy to come across ‘a mere village shopkeeper’s son’ (p.11) going on in the 1940s for an English Tripos at Cambridge, finding F. R. Leavis as his Tutor there, getting nominated by him for a Rockefeller Fellowship to Princeton, making acquaintances with R. P. Blackmur, returning to India to a professorship at the University of Mysore, discovering that British literature is not all that English literature has for store, spending more than half a century to popularize and academise literatures in American, Indian, Canadian, Australian, African, Caribbean and all forms of other Englishes, as well as introducing classical Indian poetics to English studies through his journal The Literary Criterion and his very own institute The Literary Criterion Centre for English Studies and Indigenous Arts, Dhvanyaloka, Mysore, and at the end of it all, getting recognized not just by students and fellow academics but by the Indian government, which conferred the Padma Bhushan on him in 1990.
Therefore, when one came across the latest book by this octogenarian living legend, one took it up less with the intention to critique it, and more as a historical account by the man himself of his travails with the changing horizons of English studies in India. Needless to say, many of his observations, most of the articles included in the volume being older publications, seem quite commonsensical now, but instead of trashing them as trite, one discovers with awe that the ‘common sense’ one accepts so unquestioningly in contemporary literary scholarship is much the product of this one man, C. D. Narasimhaiah’s endeavours. After all, one who can say, “In retrospect, it is gratifying to note that the concept of English Studies in independent India which I attempted to chart out has been adopted over the past three decades in most universities in the country. Scholars who have called it a ‘pioneering work’ and a ‘one-man revolution,’ I should like to think, have been partial to me. The endeavour has simply been in the nature of contributing my bit towards widening the horizons of this discipline and firming up the validity of its teaching in our universities” (p.15), is at once too great and too humble to contend with. Instead of harping on the dated nature of its arguments, the current volume has to be read as a semi-autobiographical treatise tracing the genealogy of certain changes in English studies in the last fifty years. After all, one cannot accuse a historical document of being old: it is supposed to be antiquated, and its values lie in that, and in the marvel it produces in the viewer through its sheer archaic monumentality.
The volume begins with an ‘Introduction’, a nostalgic account by the great man himself of his career and the different turning points in it, leading to the foundation of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS), of which he was the Global Chairman from 1974 to 1977. This is followed by twenty-three articles classified very systematically into eight groups—an opening ‘Exploratory’ section dealing with the theoretical concerns of Comparative Literature and Commonwealth Literature, followed by one section each on ‘English Literature’, ‘Indian English Literature’, ‘American Literature’, ‘Australian Literature’, ‘African literature’, and ‘The West Indies, the Asia-Pacific, and Canada’, and a final section exploring ‘Related Issues and Concerns’, which brings the arguments presented in the book to a cogent close.
The first ‘Exploratory’ Section consists of two articles—‘The Comparative Approach: Multilateral Scrutinies’ and ‘Commonwealth Literature: Search for Alternative Paradigms’—both of which, while elaborating the need to move beyond British English literature to literatures in other Englishes, also pick up CDN’s pet obsession with Sanskrit poetics. In the first article, the case for comparative literature is based loosely on Sankara’s observation that human propensity lies in seeking out the other—‘The new-born child cries in appetite for the attention of the mother, and the appetite gets multiplied as years go by’ (p.17)—and Arnold’s view that one must study a literature other than one’s own, to lead to the category of the sahrdaya that Sanskrit poetics assumes the ideal reader to be. In the second, the author shows how British literature has been rendered irrelevant after the demise of the British Empire and the alternative is Commonwealth literature. He says, “We shall have to visualise alternatives to teaching British English—the Empire has gone for good—in schools and colleges and prepare our graduates appropriately. It is fortunate that the stimulus for reaching out has been provided by the steady output of distinguished fiction in India for almost seventy years now” (pp.31-32). The claim in this first section that one needs to look beyond British literature to other literatures in English is carried forward in practice in the next five sections.
The second section of the book titled ‘English Literature’ contains four articles—‘Shakespeare and the Indian Sensibility’, where the author makes Shakespeare undergo an ‘Indian’ analysis exemplified among other things by a comparison of Tempest with Sakuntala and the Ramayana; ‘On Re-reading Milton’, where after a rigorous textual analysis Narasimhaiah deflates much of Milton’s canonical claims stating that, ‘In spite of Eliot’s and in spite of Wordsworth’s wish so often voiced that he might be living at this hour, Milton is truly of the past. … I do not even care to deny him an important place in the galaxy of English poets but I humbly submit he is not so great as to be bracketed with Shakespeare” (pp.64-65); ‘Rudyard Kipling: Conflict-Resolutions of an Outsider/Insider’, where in Kipling’s winning the Nobel Prize, the author feels that Indian Writing in English has been vindicated and claims that “In a sense India has a right to share the honour with England” (p.66); and ‘English Studies in the England of 1970s’, an analysis of changes towards the inclusion of Commonwealth Literature in British universities too. The third section of the book, on ‘Indian English Literature’, likewise has four articles—‘Understanding Indian Writing in English’, which argues vehemently against the linguistic re-organization of states in India and for the imperative of Indian English as the truly national language; ‘Aurobindo: Inaugurator of Modern Indian Criticism’ and ‘Raja Rao: Novel as Magic Casement’, two author-centred self-explanatory expositions; and ‘Should Indian Writing in English Replace English Literature in the Academia?’, where Narasimhaiah says, “My reaction to the question in the form in which it is phrased is Yes and No—perhaps more Yes than No” (p.121), and “To conclude we will do well not to replace English literature but let Indian writing in English share in a major way with the best efforts of English literature” (p.128). The two sections that follow—‘American Literature’ and ‘Australian Literature’, consisting of three and two articles respectively—are more general expositions of the history and salient features of these two forms of literature in other Englishes. In the sixth section on ‘African Literature’, Narasimhaiah presents the reader two articles—a general one on ‘African Poetry’, and a more particular one titled ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread: Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka as Critics of African Ambience’—in both of which he traces the commonalities between the Indian and African experiences and hence between the literatures of the two peoples. In the penultimate section of the book, ‘The West Indies, the Asia-Pacific Region and Canada’, the author presents three articles, one on Derek Walcott winning the Nobel Prize, one on the cultures and literatures of the Asia-Pacific region, and a third on Canadian poetry.
The final section of the book—‘Related Issues and Concerns’—includes three articles too. The first, ‘Commonwealth Literature or Post-Colonial Writing?’, probes into the important question of nomenclature for new literatures in English, and argues in favour of the former term on rather self-admittedly ‘conservative’ grounds: “At the cost of being dubbed conservative, I hold fast to the original term ‘Commonwealth Literature,’ because, for one thing, Post-colonial has a political tinge” (p.238). A dangerous logic that denies the imperialist politics of the British Commonwealth and a retrogressive aesthetics that dismisses the term ‘postcolonial’ with the statement, “The best of our writing, whether in Anand, R. K. Narayan or Raja Rao came out in the heyday of colonial rule; so was the poetry of Toru Dutt and Aurobindo and the good prose of Gandhi, Nehru and Coomaraswamy. They all wrote from the utmost freedom of the mind and the heart—colonial rule was a non-issue. … If anything, what may truly be called postcolonial writing like much of the poetry, prize winning poetry too, is marked by a colonial cringe. So is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and the earlier Golden Gate. If that is what postcolonial writing means it should be beneath critical attention, and not worth our time. The sooner we disown it the better” (pp.240-41). It is truly sad to see that a scholar who dedicated his life to changing literary curricula would be so averse to change when even newer developments suitably displace what was novel in his youth. C.D. Narasimhaiah is more of a historical figure than a contemporary academic jostling with you and me to make his presence felt in the publication circuit. His writings are dated and they should be taken in that positivity to be enjoyed as documents from a time of yore when decentred criticism was taking its first steps in a harsh DWEM landscape. In short, a must read for those interested in the half-a-century old history of the acceptance of literature in other Englishes as a curricular discipline.
Simi Malhotra teaches English and literary theory at Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi.