Before I begin the review of G.J.V. Prasad’s work a word on the dust jacket cover: it speaks of the multicultural, multilingual, multifarious ways in which English is read, written, and spoken in India. Hence, fish swim in a sea of words taken from Hindi, Tamil and English, the fish possibly being us who swim in the multitudinous seas that make up the many currents of English usage in India today and of yore.
Writing India, Writing English is as Prasad tells us a work that grows out of his long preoccupation with how in a country like ours, where language apparently changes every ten kos, and is accompanied by a simultaneous shift in culture, food habits, ways of living, thinking and feeling, English cannot be a fixed marker that remains changeless and inviolate. Indeed, its very changeability is what makes ‘English’ so worthy of continual critical enquiry. In the case of Prasad this enquiry becomes even more interestingly nuanced given his multiple belongings: a Tamil teacher of literatures in English in a Hindi speaking milieu.
And if this is not enough there is also the added fact of his multiple signatures as Professor in ‘English’, a novelist, a poet, a critic and translator of Tamil texts into English. To my mind, this complex set of criss-crossing locations in many ways best exemplifies the conundrum of English today and the reason why there is a whole arm of the publication unit in most serious publishing houses that is dedicated to contesting and interrogating the changing arcs of the narrative of ‘English’ in India.
The book is divided into two halves which seek to cover a history of English in India over a long period of two centuries, the early nineteenth century, the sweep of the twentieth, and taking in the first decade of the twenty-first too. The first part, ‘India, English, Translation’ begins with a explication and examination of the (in)famous Macaulay Minutes on Education and its fundamentally transformative impact on how English shaped the consciousness of the newly emergent class of its Indian users and directly drove them to question their enslaved status and their cultural burial under the single shelf of a white man’s library. In the manner of scholars before him, Prasad too sees this as a key moment in the kindling of the nationalistic spirit that lead to the Bengal Renaissance and its political manifestation in the increasingly vocal desire to slip the British yoke. What I wish Prasad had developed a bit more on in this opening chapter is what he signals at: the drafting by the self same Macaulay of the Indian Penal Code. It is like a film teaser that hints at great possibilities but the audience/reader is left unenlightened!
The next four sections are what-at the great risk of being seen as nationally chauvinistic-I can loosely term as the South of the Vindhyas section of the work. How so? Simply because the writer carves out his territory of English with care: the inter-relation between English, Tamil and translation with a side glance at Kannada and English with an entire chapter devoted to Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq. He calls chapter three ‘Tamil, Hindi, English: The New Menage a Trois’! Not content with this naming, Prasad creates a child that is born(e) of this troika: ‘Tamhinglish’. ‘Hinglish’, for better or worse, we are now aware of, but ‘Tamhinglish‘? This, as Prasad asserts, is used by a personage no less than R.K. Narayan in his novels: ‘an English which was laced with Tamil and Hindi, an English that was always under the pressure of the Tamil language.’This as he mentions-and this was again something that he could have done at greater length-is the long history of Tamil literature and language and its history of what he sees as a ‘reluctant hybridity’. In fact, in a variation from usual accounts on Tamil and its pure classicism that at least I have read, Prasad offers an alternate thesis: ‘…the history of Tamil, a language that has always been under tremendous pressure from other languages-Sanskrit and Prakrit, Urdu and Marathi, then English and French, just to name a few.’
Part Two, ‘Indian English Literature and the Nation’, works squarely within the now well established debate of nation and narration with the spin of whose nation and in which language.The usual suspects are found here from the romanticized Toru Dutt, to the much anthologized writers such as Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Nissim Ezekiel and others of his tribe, and women versifiers such as Kamala Das. The second part reflects some of the slippages that can occur when one puts together a series of chapters that have-as Prasad candidly tells us in the acknow-ledgments-appeared in other avatars. So there are the overlaps and the repetitions but there are also some new discoveries such as the chapter on Toru Dutt.
‘Romance in the West: Toru Dutt, the Novelist’ is a definite departure from the usual studies on Toru Dutt as a poet. Prasad instead focuses attention on her two posthumous novels, one serialized by her father in Bengali magazines (Bianca: or the Young Spanish Maiden)-she died young-and the other published in French in France (Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Avers). Both these novels were ‘discovered’ by her literary father, the renowned Govin Chunder Dutt. The question that Prasad teases out in this chapter is twin: ‘Why did Toru Dutt feel the need to conceal her novelistic works from her otherwise liberal father, and why did she set both her narratives of female desire in European locations?’ The analysis is cogent and compelling and provides a new insight into the nature of culture, gender and location.
R.K. Narayan surfaces again with Prasad providing multiple examples of how the novelist struggled with regional specificity and the difficulty of translating Tamil articles on attire in words that would not only be understood by the western reader but also by the Indian reader with a limited knowledge of the South! Indeed, as we discover in this chapter, it is not just apparel but more so food that remains untranslatable in English. Narayan’s resolution to the problem is to completely avoid mentioning the names of standard Tamil cuisine; instead he provides the list of ingredients that make up the food. Food for thought certainly!
Given the task that G.J.V. Prasad has set himself with the all- encompassing title it seems almost mandatory that he attempts in his last two chapters to encompass both ‘India in Verse’ and what I call for him ‘India in Drama’ with an account of Indian versifiers-male and female-with a closing chapter on Mahesh Dattani’s Tara. All very competently done but what I missed at the end was an epilogue that would taken the conversation forward.
Hopefully, in the future Prasad will take forward many of the ideas that his work is full of and give us a more exhaustive account of how we try and write India in English.