Saturday, December 19, 2020

On English, elitism and writing in India

Here's a passage from a short essay I wrote about Indian writing in English, and the insinuation that it was an elitist club. You'll need a subscription to read the full article in Outlook:

Occasionally, I also heard charges of elitism levelled at this club and, in the beginning, these made me nervous. I knew Hindi well enough but English was the language I could touch with no gloves on. I was aware that it was accessible to a smaller fraction of the population but if we were going to do fractions, what language didn’t have its elites, its tell-tale dialects that gave away the country cousin, the migrant, the unlettered worker? Even so, a tail of suspicion attached itself to cultural production in English. The baggage associated with its colonial antecedents has shifted so that, instead of examining inheritors of actual power – politicians, priests and businesspeople – a certain outsider-hood was invented for those who had a special relationship with English.

These suspicions confused me. Growing up, much of my reading was English ‘classics’, which is to say, mainly British novels and plays, some American short stories and translated works from Russian, German or French. Later, travelling and working as a journalist, I saw that the concerns of people remain the same, no matter what language they spoke: how to survive, how to secure your present so the future appears a little less uncertain, how to gain freedom, how to protect a reputation, how to find and keep love, how to transgress without being destroyed by the hegemony of the day. Such were the struggles and conflicts described in the stories I read, whether they were set in nineteenth century pastoral England or twenty-first century India. Was it possible to measure the democratic quotient of a book based on how many people could potentially read it? And what happens to nations where the majority is unlettered? Are all literatures elitist if most people cannot afford to read for pleasure?

Full article here: 

No comments:

Tweets by @anniezaidi