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Critical Essay by Alpana Sharma Knippling
SOURCE: "R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Modern English Discourse in Colonial India," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 169-86.
In the following essay, Knippling discusses Indian novels written in English and the implications of colonialism and nationalism on these novels, specifically focusing on Narayan's The English Teacher and Raja Rao's Kanthapura.
Indigenous Indian novel-writing in English dates back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. Its "origin" owes as much to the educational reforms called for by both the 1813 Charter Act and the ensuing 1835 English Education Act of William Bentinck as to the circulation, representation, and purchase of English literature and culture among members of the Indian upper classes in nineteenth-century India. While we are not at liberty to assume that novel production in Britain and colonial India underwent simply parallel routes, we may still argue for the possibility, in the case of English-writing in India, of a nascent space in which British and Indian social codes and value systems began to intersect and mutually determine one another. More specifically, the translation of certain progressive British social codes and cultural values of the Enlightenment into Indian terms entailed something like a new episteme, within whose rigor Indian writers started to produce novels assuming a critical stance towards what were now viewed as "backward" Indian social and cultural practices. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's 1864 novel, Rajmohun's Wife, for instance, utilizes a social reformer's zeal in its depiction of a middle-class Hindu woman's abuse by her husband. However, by the early twentieth century, many writers began to insist on the Indian "content" of their material, an increasingly prevalent tendency no doubt informed by the corresponding rise of nationalism and all the organized movements of civil disobedience.
It is within the folds of this complex history that we may understand the imbrications of the discourses of nationalism, colonialism, and modernity in the Indian colonial context. I would argue that, in order to effectively read early Indian literature in English (for the purposes of this essay, "early" signifies the period of the 1930s and 1940s), one needs to see how, in this period, the alliance of nationalism and colonialism produced India's modern "moment" and how the writing of a certain kind of fiction participated in this inauguration of modernity. Indeed, the uneven terrain of Indian colonial history, on which numerous nationalist struggles for independence were played out in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, yields nothing more startling than a picture of this very alliance between nationalism and colonialism, which, in a sense, secured India's modernity in the early twentieth century.
However, the alliance of nationalism and colonialism will not seem quite so startling if we remember that both these ideological formations had a shared stake in the larger Western bourgeois discourse of progressive liberal humanism, emerging as a symptom of modernity in the 1930s and 1940s. In their studies of the strategic exclusion of the subaltern from national narratives of emancipation, such Indian Marxist historians and theorists as the Subaltern Studies historians and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have pointed out that nationalism, or the organized resistance to imperialism, will itself always participate in "the cultural aspects of imperialism" as long as organized resistance to imperialism is a bourgeois movement. Bourgeois liberatory discourses of nationalism, in other words, cannot function in oppositional ways to discourses of imperialism because they are already aligned with discourses of imperialism, even contained within them. That discourses of nationalism did not evolve oppositionally to the British colonial apparatus; that the social determinations of class are such that the indigenous bourgeoisie participated in all "the cultural aspects of imperialism," from attending British universities to producing a nationalist rhetoric which came right out of the Western rational tradition: these are the crucial formulations that many Anglophone Indian authors and critics have not yet found themselves articulating in their expression of Indian national identity. What is "Indian" is seen as oppositional to or a corrective of what is "British," when, in fact, what is (bourgeois) "Indian" has effectively already been contained by what is "British." As for the subaltern classes, they may be positioned precariously at the margins of both nationalist and colonial discourse, "not situated outside the civilizing project but … caught in the path of its trajectory."
R. K. Narayan (b. 1906) and Raja Rao (b. 1908), two early Indian writers in English, productively demonstrate how the literary project participated in the modern "moment" inaugurated by the complicitous embrace of the discourses of nationalism and colonialism. Narayan's The English Teacher (1945) and Rao's Kanthapura (1938) are novels produced at a time when the most volatile political imperative concerned the need for Indian subjects to position themselves vis-à-vis British colonialism and Indian nationalism. But with the exception of Waiting for the Mahatma, neither colonialism nor nationalism occupies a central position in Narayan's novels of this or, for that matter, any later period. Conversely, questions regarding colonialism and nationalism do occupy a large part of Raja Rao's Kanthapura, but they are treated in such a way that they are deferred rather than addressed. In both Narayan's The English Teacher and Rao's Kanthapura, then, aspects of colonialism and nationalism are engaged in a sidewise fashion, indirectly and obliquely.
I would like to suggest that what seems to be most responsible for the curious lingering of questions regarding colonialism and nationalism at the threshold of these early modern novels is the regular and systematic function of English discourse within these fictional narratives. That is to say, English discourse functions in these novels as a way to both allow and authorize certain statements, while disallowing and de-authorizing others. In formulating such an argument, I have in mind Michel Foucault's project in The Archaeology of Knowledge, which can be described as conceiving a methodological account that does not automatically ground its "truth" in a self-willing and autonomous human agency, but instead looks at the particular conditions which govern and regulate the truth value of statements. Archaeology, thus conceived, is an examination of statements as worthy of study in and of themselves; but, remaining at the surface of those statements, it is also a method which tries to lay bare the conditions which make possible and perpetuate certain discursive formations. As Ian Hacking puts it, Foucault's project is to analyze discourse "not in terms of who says what but in terms of the conditions under which those sentences will have a definite truth value, and hence are capable of being uttered."
Of course, starting with Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault's attention was to move from the surface of words to their materiality in everyday practice. But his formulation, that discourse functions in ways that do not necessarily or always implicate human intention, which is itself only possible because of the terms which a certain discourse allows and disallows, is productive. It allows me to say that Narayan and Rao do not autonomously or willfully choose to be heavily influenced by English discourse and thereby prove to be individually culpable in the whole Westernizing process. Rather, I wish to point to how it was that English discourse came to hold such a sway among certain members of the Indian elite classes, that is, how many educated Indians were in the position to receive British discourse in the way that they did. This essay wishes to engage the systematic and insistent function of English discourse in the early modern texts of Narayan and Rao, with the assumption that this discourse is not willed into existence by these writers, that they are not simply or negatively persuaded by it; rather, it is the discourse which regulates the manner of its use by these writers.
I use the term "English discourse" as shorthand for all the Western discourses of progressive liberal humanism underpinning emergent conditions of modernity in colonial India. But English discourse in the colonial context cannot function in the same way as at "home." In colonial India, it cannot be separated from its institutional status—that is to say, its "body of anonymous, historical rules"; its everyday practices, as evidenced in British colonial administration; its hegemonic restructuring of the Indian social classes; its codification in Indian education in 1835; its traces in the English literature received by Indian readers, and so on. By English discourse, then, is conveyed the discursive functioning of everything "English" in India, with discourse itself viewed as a textual practice—a systematic way of "reading" and ordering—which, through historical repetition and institutional insertion in the colonial context, gains in authority and value.
The In-/ex-citement of English Discourse: R. K. Narayan's the English Teacher
The first Indian novelist in English to secure international recognition, R. K. Narayan began his prolific career in the 1930s during the heyday of Indian political mobilization and the campaign of civil disobedience against British imperialism. But what takes the place of an overt nationalist agenda in Narayan's fiction are scattered allusions directed at both the British in India and the contemporary struggle for independence. These allusions, casually recorded, as it were, in the margins of his texts, seem to tell a profoundly ambivalent story about Narayan's relation to the political and nationalist movements that were popular across India during his early writing period. This ambivalence, however, perhaps owes less to Narayan's conscious engendering than to the particular functions released by English discourse in the space of his writing. On the one hand, in the guise of the canonical British literary tradition to which Narayan was and is intensely affiliated, English discourse acts as the seducteur, instituting desire and exciting Narayan and his male protagonists with the promise of plenitude and the "alchemy of inexplicable joy." On the other hand, in its institutional, more obviously colonial capacity, it plays the provocateur, inciting them to an aggression and frustration whose intensity is rarely expressed, let alone relieved.
Published two years before formal Indian independence, Narayan's The English Teacher mobilizes both these functions of English discourse. Not very well known in either India or in the Anglo-U.S., The English Teacher constitutes one of Narayan's earlier, semi-autobiographical attempts at writing. Its protagonist, Krishna—a disgruntled teacher of English literature and language at the Albert Mission College and an aspiring poet—suffers the sudden demise of his young wife. Thereafter, the narrative shifts from the public realm to the private, domestic one, in which Krishna grieves the loss of Susila and takes on the care of his small daughter, Leela. To his delight, he discovers a supernatural "medium" through which he begins communicating with Susila. In addition, Krishna befriends a man who runs an experimental, alternative school for children, to which Krishna sends Leela. Persuaded by this school's "Leave Alone System," according to which the innocence and purity of children's visions may be preserved, Krishna decides to resign from his own teaching job and assist his friend in experimental education. The end of The English Teacher has him united with a vision of his wife in a full "moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death."
This bare outline cannot speak to the complexities of the narrative. For instance, one cannot simply oppose the two pedagogical approaches to education offered by the text and say that some essentially Indian way of knowing and learning pits itself against some essentially British one. Both systems of education are inflected with and participate in English discourse. Although the Albert Mission College is obviously a British institution run by the British principal, Mr. Brown, the experimental school run by Krishna's friend is described by him in a language that cannot be extricated from its Wordsworthian traces:
"This is the meaning of the word joy—in its purest sense. We can learn a great deal watching [children] and playing with them. When we are qualified we can enter their life…. When I watch them, I get a glimpse of some purpose in existence and creation."
The Indian headmaster's words echo Krishna's own earlier statements, in which a similarly Wordsworthian trace occurs.
Nature, nature, all our poets repeat till they are hoarse. There are subtle, invisible emanations in nature's surroundings; with them the deepest in us merges and harmonizes. I think it is the highest form of joy and peace we can ever comprehend.
Thus, in both its institutional and literary articulations, English discourse underpins the narrative. In fact, read problematically, the entire narrative demonstrates how English discourse regulates its reception by and influence upon Krishna/Narayan and, in particular, how its in-/ex-citement, its simultaneous play of provocation and seduction, is a function of that discourse.
The opening pages of The English Teacher offer a nightmarish look at the conditions under which Krishna teaches English literature at the Albert Mission College to distracted and bored students. Narayan describes Krishna's daily routine in a characteristically comic, ironic, and disengaged way:
I got up at eight every day, read for the fiftieth time Milton, Carlyle and Shakespeare, looked through compositions, swallowed a meal, dressed, and rushed out of the hostel … four hours later I returned to my room; my duty in the interval had been admonishing, cajoling and browbeating a few hundred boys of Albert Mission College so that they might mug up Shakespeare and Milton and secure high marks and save me adverse remarks from my chiefs at the end of the year. For this pain the authorities kindly paid me a 100 Rs. on the first of every month and dubbed me a lecturer.
Gauri Viswanathan's findings in "The Failure of English," in Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, are proven most persuasively through this passage and the first section of Narayan's The English Teacher, where there seems to emerge a picture that evokes all "the unfulfilled promises of English literary education" for the British colonial administration:
The study of English literature had merely succeeded in creating a class of Babus (perhaps the Indian equivalent of the English Philistines of whom Matthew Arnold wrote so scathingly) who were intellectually hollow and insufficiently equipped with the desirable amount of knowledge and culture. English education came to be criticized for its imitativeness and superficiality and for having produced an uprooted elite who were at once apostates to their own national tradition and imperfect imitators of the West.
In this passage, Viswanathan is concerned with the state of affairs for the British administration in the late nineteenth century. By the 1930s and 1940s, of course, the "uprooted apostates" and "imperfect imitators" she mentions have turned out to be either active nationalists or effective and, in some cases, subversive mimics (of the West), or both, depending upon the dispersal of particular discursive functions when English discourse is refracted through a modern lens.
In Narayan's text, the provocation of English discourse for the young teacher is its injunction to "stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry … into young minds and feed them on the dead mutton of literary analysis and theories and histories" at the expense of "lessons in the fullest use of the mind." Time and again, this portrait of the relentless rules of discourse emerges:
I spent the rest of the period giving a general analysis of the mistakes I had encountered in this batch of composition—rather very, as such, for hence, split infinitives, collective nouns, and all the rest of the traps that the English language sets for foreigners. I then set [the students] an exercise in essay-writing on the epigram "Man is the master of his own destiny." [sic] "An idiotic theme," I felt, "this abstract and confounded metaphysics;" [sic] but I could not help it. I had been ordered to set this subject to the class.
In this passage, the subject-position of the teacher, or the set of rules enabling him to inhabit structures of power in the classroom, is most powerfully and ironically underwritten by both the colonial agency that assigns authority ("I had been ordered to set this subject") and the "theme" of the composition topic ("Man is the master of his own destiny").
We learn that the colonial agent in question is the British principal, Mr. Brown. Brown exacerbates Krishna's provocation, reminding Krishna of the predicament of having to occupy intimately a discourse of power within which he himself seems disempowered. For instance, when Brown convenes a meeting of the teachers, he voices his anger at learning from an English honors student that the student did not know "honors" was spelt with the obligatory British "u." In private, Krishna responds to this sarcastically: "Brown's thirty years in India had not been ill-spent if they had opened the eyes of Indians to the need for speaking and writing correct English! The responsibility of the English department was indeed very great." In dialogue with a colleague who sides with Brown, Krishna poses the question:
"Let us be fair. Ask Mr. Brown if he can say in any one of the two hundred Indian languages: 'The cat chases the rat.' He has spent thirty years in India."
"It is all irrelevant," said Gajapathy.
"Why should he think the responsibility for learning is all on our side and none on his? Why does he magnify his own importance?"
Here, Krishna interestingly effects a turning of the tables on Brown by showing the ignorance masked by the school principal's apparent knowledge. But he does not answer his own plaintive question ("'Why does he think the responsibility for learning is all on our side and none on his?'"); nor is his question actually answered by the novel itself. The conversation with Gajapathy comes to an end, and Krishna concludes, after some agitated thinking, that "[a]ll this trouble was due to lack of exercise and irregular habits." In just such an oblique manner this incident—centered on the spelling of a word (which to exacerbate the situation is, in an American edition, "correct" in any case)—stages a contemporary nationalist debate over the status of English in colonial India.
What, then, keeps Krishna in a profession which affords so little satisfaction? Here, we might invoke the complementary play of English discourse as excitement. Specifically, the articulation of an emphatic position on the ideological practices of colonialism and nationalism is pre-empted by the ability of the British literary tradition to excite Krishna. When, at the end of the novel, Krishna resolves to resign from his job, he plays with the idea of stating anti-colonial motives in his resignation letter: "I was going to attack a whole century of false education…. This education had reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage." Significantly, however, he cannot actually mobilize these anti-colonial statements in his letter of resignation because they are like a rabid attack on all English writers, which was hardly my purpose. "What fool could be insensible to Shakespeare's sonnets or the 'Ode to the West Wind' or 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever'?" I reflected.
This question poignantly rewrites Krishna's attempted negotiation of nationalist issues. Indeed, the appeal of the British literary canon is articulated throughout the text, and everywhere its function is to forestall a radical political critique. The liberal humanist assumptions at work here are clear: we see the characteristic celebration of the human imagination, which is seen to function autonomously and independently of the public and political domains. Yet these very assumptions release immense complications when they are received as supposedly self-evident truths by Krishna. For, recast in colonial India, the aesthetics of liberal humanism cannot be divested of their political weight. Yet it is exactly the extrication of the political content of (liberal humanist) literature that is absent in Narayan's text. Krishna simply cannot distinguish the literature's colonial, ideological traces in his liberal humanist reception of it. Later, I will show how this inability was historically inflected and produced rather than a mark of some sort of self-willed failure on Krishna's or Narayan's part. Momentarily locating, then, but never quite fixing the repetitious habits of attempted negotiations and extrications. The English Teacher remains in what appears to be a moment which endlessly enacts, without resolving, the play of in-/ex-citement. Producing a certain measure of ambivalence, this play tends effectively to foreclose upon the terms of its critique
Narayan's own subjectivity, described by him with characteristic reticence in some of its twists and turns in the autobiography My Days: A Memoir, enacts a similar play of the in-/ex-citement of English discourse. On one hand, there is its ability to frustrate and incite in its colonial, ideological, and official capacity; on the other hand, its public capacity covered over, there is its ability to please and excite through its literary articulations. Perhaps owing to the logic of this simultaneous play, Narayan was to heed a friend's advice about not entering the graduate program in English literature ("a friend turned me back arguing that this would be a sure way to lose interest in literature") even as he decided to be a writer.
Owing to a similar logic, Narayan was to fail in English in his university entrance exams in high school, well aware that proficiency in English was "a social hallmark," even as his reading at this time was prolific. In 1925, one year before he enrolled in the B.A. program in English in Maharaja College, Mysore, the nineteen-year-old Narayan had read the poetry of Pope, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Browning; the novels of Walter Scott, Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Marie Corelli, Mrs. Henry Wood, Rider Haggard, and H. G. Wells; Palgrave's Golden Treasury and Long's English Literature; and the plays of Moliere, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. He also scoured dozens of British and American literary journals, newspapers, and monthlies: Little Folks, Nineteenth Century and After, Cornhill, the Boys' Own Paper, the Strand Magazine, the Bookman, Harper's, the Atlantic, American Mercury, the London Mercury, John o' London, T. P.'s Weekly, the Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, and the Manchester Guardian.
This prolific reading was possible because Narayan's father was an administrator and headmaster at several government schools, and his position of authority gave Narayan full access at all times to college libraries. In My Days, we learn of other pertinent details, such as the Officers' club where Narayan's tweed-suited father customarily stopped by to play tennis before he came home. As a child in 1916, when nationwide protests were underway against the Rowlatt Act, Narayan, "entranced," joined the Madras march, only to be scolded by his uncle for doing so because the uncle "saw no logic in seeking a change of rulers." Upon being introduced to Biblical stories in his childhood Lutheran Mission School, Narayan was "enchanted":
I loved the Rebeccas and Ruths one came across. When one or the other filled her pitcher from the well and poured water into the mouth of Lazarus or someone racked with thirst. I became thirsty too and longed for a draught of that crystal-clear, icy water. I stood up to be permitted to go out for a drink of water at the back-yard tap.
I mention these details in order to draw attention to the contradictory yet determining aspects which contribute, willynilly, to the simultaneous functions of provocation and seduction of English discourse in Narayan's "life" and "work."
What seems to ensure the more or less uniform maintenance and regulation of this double play of English discourse in colonial India is the historical excision of the "contaminant," British colonialism, from English literature. Interpreting Gauri Viswanathan, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan uses the history of this excision to argue for its problematic effects upon current academic practice in India:
English literature was not indicted on ideological or historical grounds by association with the English ruler. Rather, it became the surrogate—and also the split—presence of the Englishman, or a repository of abstract and universal values freely available to the colonized as much as to the colonizer.
It is this dissociation of English literature from its national origins that has made possible its unproblematic retention and continuance in the post-Independence education syllabus in India.
In other words, the controlled production and reception of English literature in the colonies was such that any ideological traces of imperialist power relations were excised from the literature, which then proceeded to circulate as a universal, trans-historical category in the colonies. What facilitated this sort of production and circulation was the "dissociation of English literature from its national origins." Rajan reminds us that Britain's local colonies—Wales, Scotland, Ireland—did manage to contest the nationalist rise of the British canon in the nineteenth century; but "[a]way from its scene of production, Britain, English literature could, in the colonies, assume a fixed and more homogeneous nationalist cast."
To some extent, these explanations help to contextualize and explain why and how English discourse could regulate its play in Narayan's identification with and reception of it. It must be added, however, that in the modern 1940s. The English Teacher assumes a particular global, geopolitical dimension in its project to represent "India" to the West and the West-like in the West's own terms. Such a solidified materialist project would not have been possible in nineteenth-century India, where more fluid, contradictory and, correspondingly, more resistant readings of English discourse were occurring. The figure of Henry Derozio (1809–1831), for instance, comes to mind. A popular poet and teacher of English at the Hindu College in Calcutta. Derozio was a self-proclaimed practitioner of progressive Western ideals: he attacked outmoded Hindu religious practices and lauded both the Christian missionary work in India and the French Revolution. Fired by the Romantic ideals of Byron, Derozio reportedly rode through the streets of Calcutta on an Arab horse. Yet he was also a patriotic zealot: anti-British and outspokenly nationalist, he did not distinguish the political content of his penchant for Romantic poetry, did not ask how one might at once oppose and admire the British. His own poetry drew equally on Wordsworth and Hindu mythology.
The (De)nativization of English: Raja Rao's Kanthapura Raja Rao is perhaps best known for the 1938 novel, Kanthapura, in which he undertakes an experiment with the English language, nativizing it to produce the rhythm and cadence of his mother tongue, Kannada. Unlike Narayan, Raja Rao directly engages the issues of nationalism and colonialism, whose imbrications produce the ground for conditions of modernity in the novel. In it, the occupants of a fictional village, Kanthapura, are catapulted into modern conditions of existence, due to the progressive elements of both Gandhi's noncooperation movement and his philosophy regarding the upper-caste practice of untouchability. In the postcolonial context, there is much of interest in this rambling yet experimental narrative. For instance, we see the deployment of a radical politics which reveals its own class-, caste-, and gender-based privilege as it mobilizes subaltern resistance to the colonial apparatus. We also see the complications of a liberatory discourse which reinscribes the power relations it has set out to undo, thereby mimicking, in advance, the conditions of neo-colonialism. Indeed, the novel's original scene of writing, the French Alps, and its subsequent appearances and (dis)locations—first, in 1938, nine years before Indian Independence, in London; second, in 1947, the year of Indian Independence, in Bombay; third, in 1967, in New York—testify to the significant discursive shifts within colonial and postcolonial exigencies.
But what is important here is the effective retainment of Rao's text within English determinants. Specifically, Rao's project to rewrite English gets (dis)placed onto what one may call the material scenes or sites of his text: publication, translation, reception, and glossing. Hence, the text marks a deferral of Rao's engagement with aspects of nationalism and colonialism; alternatively, one may say that his engagement with those aspects can only be understood as operating within the parameters of English discourse. As with Narayan, what needs emphasizing is the symptomatic way in which English discourse regulates its modern articulation in the period under question.
Embedded in a rural peasant past, the story of Kanthapura is narrated in the oral traditional style by a pious old Brahmin woman, whose "native" speech displays Rao's experimentation with English. The more or less predictable life of the villagers, their social hierarchies enforced by the topography of their village, are interrupted when the young Brahmin man, Moorthy, begins to spread Gandhi's non-violence campaign among them. Moorthy is especially adept at using Hindu scripture to awaken the villagers' political sensibilities. Interestingly, the characters he influences most are the upper-caste women, who not only come to forgive Moorthy his excommunicatory act in entering the houses of the "untouchables" but also join with him in trying to liberate the "untouchables" from their bonded labor. The end of the novel sees the village's ultimate disruption and the dispersion of the villagers in other villages and towns, but the text implies that once the spark of justice and equality has been lit, there will be no turning back.
Outlined in this way, the text seems to espouse a radical position, according to which, as Anindyo Roy puts it, the "theme of social awakening combines aspects of Greek tragedy uniquely adapted to record one of the most significant moments in modern Indian history." Roy seems usefully to problematize this very statement as he introduces the conditions of displacement which interrupt the "meaning" of Rao's text: "Written in the French Alps, the novel reflects the diasporic consciousness of a writer yearning to capture the reawakened spirit of a real India, striving to establish its modern identity." Here, Roy highlights the particular desires—as opposed to their fulfillment—released within a diasporic space that is itself removed from the imagined source, "a real India."
A similar deferred transaction is evidenced almost as equivocation in Rao's famous foreword to the novel, in which he states: "We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as a part of us." English both is and isn't "an alien language"; it is the language of Indians' "intellectual make-up" but not of their "emotional make-up." Caught in the impossible space of a strained articulation which both is and isn't English, but which nonetheless is in English, Rao's text defers the promise of delivering a nativized English that is "really" Indian.
A representative passage from the text demonstrates the problematic nature of Rao's experimentation with English. The narrator speaks:
Three days later, when we were just beginning to say Ram-Ram after the rice had been thrown back into the rice granary, the cradle hung back to the roof, and the cauldron put back on the bath fire, and the gods put back in their sanctum, and all the houses washed and swept and adorned and sanctified, and when one by one our men were slipping in and then hurrying back to their jungle retreats, what should we see on that Saturday … but one, two, three cars going up the Bebbur mound, one, two, three crawling cars going up the Bebbur mound like a marriage procession, and we all said, "why, whose marriage now, when we are beating our mouths and crying?"
We cannot help noticing that this entire passage consists of one long, prolix sentence. It utilizes repetition (e.g., "cradle hung back … cauldron put back … gods put back"; "one, two, three cars going up … three crawling cars going up") and, simultaneously, a generous scattering of Bakhtinian socioideological heteroglossia (e.g., the chanting of "Ram-Ram," the "rice granary," "the gods put in their sanctum," "beating our mouths," etc.) which highlight the native, rural, and cultural practices of the village.
No doubt Rao intends such passages to be comprehended as translations from the Kannada, both literally and figuratively. But larger theoretical questions engage this kind of experimentation by a writer who is himself geographically, socially, and epistemologically distanced from the subaltern characters he is attempting to represent: Who, for instance, is the "native" in Rao's text, and what is being nativized? Further, we may ask, who recognizes this nativization? Klaus Steinvorth points out that Indianizations are perhaps meaningful only in a Indian, not a Western, context. The narrator, who in an empirical context would not even speak English, is made to utter startlingly refined poetic phrases, with stylized alliteration ("crunch—cough—cane"; "paste—pickles"; "pit—plant"), assonance ("side"—"sign"—"mainstri"—"lime"; "much"—"crunch"—"touch"), symmetrically balanced phrases ("telling story after story"—"looking to this side and that"; "lime their betel leaves"—"twist the tobacco leaves"), and so on. Hence, Steinvorth suggests that by deploying a sophisticated, stylized English, Rao means to target a Western audience for whom his nativizations will work.
According to Feroza Jussawalla, Rao's nativizations are not only geared towards a Western audience but also problematic for that very audience. For Jussawalla, Rao's experimentation fails because Rao does not take into account India's actual multicultural and multilingual situation of spoken English and the fact that his English can never be Kannada itself. She relates an experimental study in which Professor K. S. Narayana Rao of the University of Wisconsin asked an American and an Indian in turn to read aloud from Kanthapura. The American reading registered a loss in the "meaning" of the passage, due to the American reader's unfamiliarity with the rhythms of Kannada; the Indian reading flowed more smoothly but was flat in its inflection and could "put off" a Western listener.
For our purposes, both Steinvorth and Jussawalla usefully highlight the material sites—of translation and reception—which situate English in relation to its larger discursive functioning. Hence, we may productively ask: Who or what constitutes the readership of early Indian literature in English? How is meaning produced in hegemonic contexts? However, in posing these questions, I depart from Steinvorth's and Jussawalla's implicit assumption that literature functions in a space that is susceptible to full meaning, that language is somehow adequate to both itself and its meaning. In fact, the mark of writing is such that it institutes both the grounds for its possibility in utterance and, simultaneously, its impossibility to fully or actually utter. As such, Rao's project to nativize English is, from the start, already implicated in and delimited by its failure. For in order to nativize English, he must also provide the denativizing indices which will render intelligible those instances of nativization to Western readers. Specifically, he must engage a nationalist agenda by nativizing English, but he must also provide a fifty-nine page glossary of terms as an appendix to the book which de-nativizes his nativizations.
What can be understood as a failure that always already inheres in language itself is also what de-politicizes Rao's project. His extensive translations from Kannada back to English work to contradict and negate his experimentation; his nativizations prove, after all, to be de-nativizations offered for their anthropological curiosity to American readers. Prior to New Direction's American publication of the novel in 1967, its earlier editions (one in London, the other in Bombay) did not include this glossary. I gather this from New Direction's note at the beginning of the novel: "The author's notes on Indian terms and references … may be unfamiliar to American readers." With the fifty-nine-page glossary added on in a later, postcolonial, distinctly American moment, not only does Kanthapura retrospectively correct and qualify its experimental premise and nationalist agenda, it also tends to reproduce the sorts of Orientalist gesture that Edward Said examined in Orientalism: it puts the "East" at the service of the "West." Specifically, the glossary fosters a kind of anthropological curiosity on the part of American readers, according to which "alien" cultures are deciphered in Western terms. With regard to the discipline of anthropology itself, such appropriating gestures bear a particular charge, because the ideological position of the anthropologist is allowed a certain suspect invisibility in his or her study of other, "alien" cultures.
Quite unlike Narayan in The English Teacher, Rao directly engages the issues of nationalism and colonialism in Kanthapura. He poses these issues in his modern and modernist project to nativize English which, in a sense, is to claim English as his own "proper" language when it is adapted to the rhythm and cadence of Kannada. But when this avowedly nationalist project gets (dis)placed onto the material scenes or sites of publication, translation, glossing, and reception, Rao's political agenda is deferred and postponed, awaiting a resolution that itself can be seen as infinitely deferred. What emerges, instead, is the way in which his Orientalizing project persists within the domains of English and the material scenes of the project's production and reproduction.
It may seem that I have sketched a worst-case scenario for early Indian literature and that I have done so circuitously. But if my analysis seems at all negative, it is because I wish to avoid an uncritical celebration of these texts. It should not follow that the literature of the colonized is automatically exempt from the sort of critique one may apply to the literature of the colonizer. This is an especially valid statement when we take into account that the category "Indian literature in English" is caught up in the same systems of signification and currency as is the category "English literature." But this is not to say that early Indian literature does not suggest the possibility for resistance against the dominant paradigm. It certainly carries with it the trace of its difference from "English literature," and, if read actively, this trace would yield the ground for a critical intervention in the narrative of imperialism. Indeed, a continuation of this study of Narayan and Rao would dwell on the resistant moments in their texts. I will only indicate a few of these here.
Krishna/Narayan's tendency to indulge in not only the Western classics but also Indian literatures indicates a disorganized and indiscriminate reading, which productively opens up a site of difference (that is, the text is and isn't English). As well, Narayan's understated and distinctly ironic writing style consistently interrupts his narrative, always ensuring it more than one interpretation; in fact, a variety of interpretations, mutually contradictory, seem to be produced simultaneously. With Rao, a locus of resistance may reside in the very (dis)placements of his text, as it moves from one site of production and circulation to another. Further, the glossary which is intended to facilitate access to Rao's "alien" material itself produces difficulties: it is awkwardly organized, so that the text defies quick consumption; also, the glossary is by no means exhaustive, so that it highlights the nonglossed aspects of an immensely stratified Hindu culture.
If my argument seems at all circuitous, this is owing, in part, to the sign of modernity under examination: modernity is or implies both a condition of certain possibilities and the ways in which those possibilities might be realized. With Narayan and Rao, modernity is both a desirable condition of "being" and a method that is written into the process of achieving that condition. In other words, it is both the means and the end, and, as such, it is a category that is to be understood as overdetermined.
Perhaps we may posit that the relation of those Indian writers who were closest to colonialism and nationalism is mediated in greater or lesser degrees by their proximity to modern English discourse. It may even be said that their modernity is constituted precisely to the extent to which their colonial and nationalist identifications converge in the "field" of English discourse. This generalization prompts us to ask: what currently passes for nationalism, colonialism, and English discourse in the subcontinent and what counts for modernity there? If such formations as Hindu fundamentalism, neocolonialism, capitalist commodity production, and cable TV immediately come to mind, do we pose the question of a violent disjuncture within post-Independence Indian history, or a re-enactment of the original "epistemic fracture of imperialism"? In any case, one may say that the determining aspects of imperialism in early modern Indian literature allow us to see precisely what is, in our own postcolonial, global moment, increasingly difficult to map out: namely, the linkages of a discourse to the dominant ideological and cultural practices of a nation and its institutions.
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