In the wake of numerous little publishing houses opening up to cater to a vast English market, translations on the one hand and creative takes on contemporary concerns, usually in the format of essays have become the prime products of these houses. Thus there is Three Essays; Macmillan has its prize winning essay competition in the Outlook and now Penguin India has launched its very own “Interrogating India” series to which the present book belongs, being the first of the lot. According to the blurb, Interrogating India looks at the “common sense prevailing on some of the most pressing issues of our times”. The idea is to make accessible the public debate on themes such as language, secularism, corruption, nationalism and terrorism, themes that figure prominently in today’s middle class discourse. The publishers seemingly perceive an untapped market which straddles the gap between newspaper reading and academic writing, a gap successfully exploited by Arundhati Roy’s now celebrated essays on the dam, nuclear bomb and other burning issues.
Since the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, when the essay was the genre of the man of letters, a jack of all trades who dabbled a little in politics, a little in culture, and was not necessarily trained in either field, it seems that we are witnessing the advent of the same species albeit with a difference. The earlier specimen could have been a lawyer, a scientist or an itinerant salesman but the newer avatar is usually an academic who wants to go pop or at most a journalist who wants to go academic. However, judging by this first, polemics and pamphleteering is as much his creed. Thus Nambisan chooses to write about language, not simply because “global communication has created new possibilities as well as dilemmas for language, its meaning and uses”, but because he has a chip on his shoulder and a score to settle. Four disparate essays then masquerade as exercises in an ethical concern with the right use of language, while the defence of English constitutes the inner essence.
In the title essay, ‘Language as an Ethic’, the author argues that language represents character and therefore the survival of any language is based on it being used for ethical ends, how bureaucratic control of language spells doom as witnessed by the language academies’ attempt to keep languages pure and sanitized and finally how it is the richness of the spoken tongue as opposed to the refined written word which holds the key to our salvation. Thus he opposes the subaltern’s speech to the elite’s feeble attempts at transcription, assuming that language is the preserve of the masses, thereby undercutting his main thesis that it is possible for Indian writers in English to document its very own Indian reality. At the same time, his chief inspiration is Orwell, whom he quotes extensively, identifying with his cause of checking “the purity of prose”. Therefore he leads a tirade against the obfuscatory use of language, examples of which lie in the sanskritized Hindi of textbooks and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Pentagonese during the Iraq war, and general examples of shoddy English and clumsy Indianisms drawn from his favourite newspaper, The Hindu. He argues that clear speech like that of Gandhi is an index of the democratic ethos in which the individual is steeped. His observation that compulsions of democracy drive even hardened Indian politicians to slide into the lap of naïve truth during election times is surely a new insight from the usual commonsense about lies that are dished out in buckets. Examples quoted are Khushabhau Thakre saying there was no alternative but to give criminals tickets for the UP elections or Ajit furosemide order online Singh declaring there was no longer any room for ideology or principles in politics.
In the second essay, ‘Sounds without Sense’, he deals with the sanctity of words, and how words must be wedded to sound to make true sense. While there is a welcoming of the fact that language is now a universally owned property, not an esoteric code, there is simultaneous lament for the mongrel (the north Indian pronunciations of Sanskrit shlokas causes him major heartburn) corruptions which this democratic impulse has furthered.
In the heart of the book lies the third essay, ‘The Problem of English’, in which the author selfconsciously reveals his true agenda, and indulges in a gratuitous bashing of the English bashers. Anantha Murthy’s speech in a Sahitya Akademi annual colloquium, in which he prohibits the use of English for creative purposes, dubbing it a sell-out has obviously got the author’s goat in a way that calls for this entire enterprise. He quotes extracts from his article, ‘Dreaming Indian, writing English’ written in reaction to this preposterous declaration, published in The Hindu Literary Review (21 March 1993) as well as letters in response to his piece to settle scores with this entire school and particularly with one “upwardly mobile English Department academic” whom he intends to shred to pieces. So great is his ire that he twists this unnamed gentleman’s words to refute allegations that have not been made in the first place. However much one might sympathize with his cause, it is overstated to such an extent, rambling on to such contradictory degrees that in the end, it defeats its own purpose. For instance, he pleads that he cannot help it if English is the ruling language and that some of his peers earn hefty advances, and then goes on to turn the critique on its head by asserting that truly world class literature can only be produced by the Englishwallahs, as they are the most pampered and the least parochial. One minute he is professing that the likes of Vikram Seth evoke envy even amongst the hand to mouth worshippers of the English muse and not just among the bhasha brethren, the next minute he says we are not prone to the anxieties and the intrigues that assail the regional writers and thus freer to improvise, though again he admits that the experimental turns are more often than not shelved by the logic of the global publishers. What are we to understand?
The fourth and final essay, ‘Political Correctness and Artistic Incorrectness’ demonstrates astute political sense in its expose ranging from the inadequacies of Edward Said who presumes to introduce and annotate “the definitive edition” of Kim without proper research to the implication of advertorials that seek to take away any credibility journalism might have in the minds of the public by giving space to genocide masterminds like Narendra Modi. But the contrariness of Nambisan is such that he joins here the coterie of the English bashers to attack those hacks turned novelists who write keeping in mind what sells in the West. The only respite being that instead of a homogenous West, we are asked to hate American values. In conclusion, there is a poem called ‘The Corporate Poet’, which seems to be an attempt at self-mockery going by the fact that its place of publication (London Magazine) is proudly displayed at the end.
Nandini Chandra teaches English at Hans Raj College, Delhi University, Delhi.