Any self-reflexive teacher of English language and literature in Kerala is sooner or later bound to confront questions like: how and why does one teach literature? Is the literary categorizable at all? . What is the essential difference between the common man who reads for pleasure and the scholar who “studies” literature as a discipline? What is the relevance of teaching English literature in Kerala at present? These are theoretical questions, with cultural implications. What follows is a generalised attempt towards problematising them. However, for the sake of gaining certain amount of intellectual clarity in my presentation I would choose to regard this under three major heads– ofcourse, they are interlinked– that of the student, the research scholar and the teacher. And because of my own personal involvement in all these capabilities the discourse is not entirely objective either.
Those students who opt for English itself has dwindled down the years: many now stray into the English class for want of anything better. One cannot blame the student alone for this but the system itself creates such a lacuna between what the student learns and what the everyday life demands. Of what use is an English graduate in a postindustrial society that at every point makes practical demands on the individual: the distance between imagination and a sheer bread-and-butter-consumerist culture is fast increasing. The study of literature has undergone tremendous upheavals in the other parts of the world but we appear to upkeep a dead inheritance with admirable nonchalance and unshakeable faith! Small wonder then that the student of English finds nothing worth his/her while in this foreign burden.
The study any literature exerts certain demands on the student, however eager or involved, but to have to study a literature in a foreign language would be doubly demanding. For many a student the language of English literature is itself the major stumbling block : how does one get to see the finer aspects of a language and culture , feel the subtle nuances and innuendoes couched in an artful idiom ,if the denotative aspects of the language themselves are not fully grasped? Which is essentially more valuable– a language in its bare communicative aspect, or a literary sense that is couched in any language ? The average student in the English class struggles with his foreign words and phrases attempting to work out near equivalents in his native language while the more informed gropes in the dark for the subtler aspects of literature. Have our literary critical theories and our teaching been of any use to either of these at any time in any situation whatsoever?
Perhaps, the most important aspect of literary theory that the keen student would realise soon would be the irrelevance of the English language itself; for the imbibing of any language would mean the imbibing of its culture too, and the more alien a culture the more removed the student becomes from his/her indigenous roots. And this becomes a major crisis– of what use is it to waste five or more years of the best part of one’s life if it is only to realise at the end that what one had pursued is of little consequence to one’s life?
The problems facing a research scholar in the English department is not quite different from those faced by the conscientious student, only that here they take on a larger dimension. Now, serious research in English studies began in Kerala only quite recently. Although among the English teachers of the last generations one could easily cite singleminded scholars imbued with deep commitment to their work — excellent teachers who could expound on any topic at great length and profundity, explicate any text , and make the reading of English literature most entertaining and insight-offering– many of them had not thought of pursuing their knowledge in systematic manner , say, for instance, produce a scholarly treatise or dissertation. Perhaps, they did not feel the need for such endeavours or the times did not demand it of them! I do not mean to say that the dissertations that are churned out a-plenty on all kinds of topics in the present day from the departments of English is a sign of intellectuality and superior scholarship to that of the past generations of great teachers! Far from it.
Over the last few years there has been a tremendous rise in the number of M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations in the area of English studies — a large percentage of them worthless primarily because they are “random searches” that are not founded on any thorough scholarship or pursued through systematic methodology. This kind of end-oriented dissertations could not even be called “theses”: they are just extended essays largely culled from somewhere without even acknowledgment– a ritual performed for sheer practical purposes!
Most dissertations during the early seventies were mere explications of single author’s works. Up to about the mid eighties research in English meant simply taking up an author and making a thorough examination of his/her works, categorising them according to their genres, explaining the allusions and references, quoting from a variety of sources , and the thesis ultimately turning out to be a jumble of quotations drawn without any logic from here and there. But by the time literary theory hit our universities, the conscientious researcher found certain concrete methodologies possible in addition to mere re- reading.
As a usual practice (perhaps it is true of most other fields of enquiry as well) the English scholar looked to the West for theoretical sophistication : if earlier literature meant only literature from the British Isles , now literary theory meant only those with the fancy labels like “Structuralism” “Semiotics” “Deconstruction” etc. Everything that was Western in origin was looked upon with reverence and awe, and even to mention anything Indian was anathema — one had to be either fundamentalist or jingoist (something short of an ignoramus in “Theory”) to consider anything Indian as worthwhile at all! So we in Kerala wrote dissertations and journal articles on “English” and “American” Literatures. As our syllabus widened to include the “Third World” writing in the newly introduced form of Commonwealth Literature we gladly shifted our focus to that, but with an eye heavily overburdened with “Theory” and a methodology incorporated from the West. In the eighties our departments of English were overflowing with scholarly treatises on the works and worth of Indian and Third World writers, known and unknown, all studied under several sophisticated theoretical heads! We have dissertations on Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Tagore, Bhasa, Kalidasa and even Valmiki– deconstructed and dissected , misread and bisected. Many have even gone to the length of unearthing Feminist and subaltern “subtexts” from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. All for the purpose of securing a degree! Under usual circumstances anything new that happens in the west takes several years to reach our departments, and only after many more years of dilly-dallying with the same do we realize its validity or irrelevance to our condition. But in the case of theory, one was compelled to reevaluate one’s own situation before one could practice it seriously. However, that was a realization open only to the chosen few– those that took even theory seriously. For the others theory meant only just another axe to chop and chisel, and they wielded it mercilessly and indiscriminately on any form of writing whether it be in English, “english”, Malayalam or any language! For years now, any scholarly work from our departments of English will be derided as inferior if it doesn’t carry citations from Derrida, Foucault, Lacan or Said and their kind.
True, in more than one sense theory is liberating in its application, but when handled inadvertently by our anglicized Pundits it loses its relevance and significance. In fact this is not the case only confined to our English departments but in our Malayalam departments as well scholars feel the compelling need to draw and disburse wisdom from the fashionable demigods of the West
When Commonwealth literature came to be looked upon as postcolonial and a new theory sprang up around it our departments caught on to it. The research scholar in English was ever on the lookout for new topics and areas to work on. And here it was – a virgin territory, a whole unexplored terrain rampant with themes and techniques ranging from incest to myth, expressionism to magical realism.
What more could we ask for? Hence we churned out dissertations on O.V. Vijayan and Kakkanadan alongside that of Milan Kundera and Rushdie to unheard of names from Canada , Australia, Latin America and South Africa. Comparison became easy and satisfying! Postcolonial theory also liberated literary canons: there was no need to bother about values! Why should one discriminate good writing from bad? Concepts like hegemony, interpellation, condensation, displacement, abrogation and appropriation have come to be household usages for our scholars. One wonders whether anyone pauses to deconstruct their own reading, thinking and writing! But dissertations are meant only for the academia and no one reads them. In fact where in the world does the scholar have time to read if he/she has to write so much? However, the residual problems that surface need to be interrogated. In the place of canonical writers we have installed new ones!
The crisis facing the research scholar in English in Kerala today is a sort of self-exterminating one: one does not require the self-styled postcolonial critic to tell us that our land and literature are unique. Then why write and discuss in a foreign language burdened with the sense of alienation and dispirit, a lengthy dissertation for a Ph.D. if only to formulate a contradictory conclusion? Why write in English at all? Why not study and write in Malayalam?
Naturally, these problems lead us to the position of the English teacher in the various colleges in the state. Now that Pre-degree is delinked from the colleges one could consider all the colleges as having to do with graduate and postgraduate studies in English. Here we have two kinds of English teaching: that which is aimed at the English optional student and the other for the student who studies English as Part I. However, the techniques adopted by our teachers by and large is the very same for both! We teach texts, and never anything else. We explicate passages and more often translate into Malayalam, professedly for the benefit of the Malayalam medium students! Many a teacher of English in Kerala teaches much more in Malayalam than in English! Here both the language and the literature content are lost on the students. For the students from the Science optional, the English class rooms have been reduced to mere ritual wastage of precious time which could be more fruitfully spent in their labs! Woe to the teachers of English who have been inculcated with a precious sense of self importance and missionary zeal!
The conscientious teacher is , to say the least, paralyzed by the overflow of all the stuff that he/she reads and the qualitatively irregular situation prevalent in the class room. The students who sit facing him/her seek immediate guidance from him/her and also expect him/her to tidy them over the examination and no more. The text books that are to be taught are often prescribed by a body of people who have several other factors that prod them to do so. The question papers are set by another person who hardly knows what has been taught or even how, and the answer papers are valued by yet another. Considering all these, the situation of the teachers in the English class room is very complicated indeed! Hence, it is not surprising that they often adopt the easiest way out: simple explication- de- text. In fact the majority of students get very upset if any teacher does anything other than this set routine! Several teachers that I am familiar with are quite emphatic about this practice of class room teaching: “what else are we to do,” they ask, “other than explain the texts?”
Any teacher who is adequately well-read in current developments in Theory and who believes in up-keeping scholarship confronts total contradictions in the prevalent class room practice! In an environment where so much discrepancy exists between the committed teacher and a majority that refuses to see the validity of keeping up with the latest, the former is often cramped for breathing space. From my experience, I could classify the English teacher in Kerala and his/her relation to theory in the following manner:
Those who are totally ignorant of theory and continue to be ignorant.
Those who are totally ignorant of theory yet pretend to know it all.
Those who know something of theory and know their limits and so don’t care
Those who know something of theory and would like to know more.
Those who know their theory well yet never think of practical application in the class room.
Those who know theory well enough to ATTEMPT some kind of application.
A majority of my colleagues appear to feel that reading and research are activities meant only for those who are young and have the time at their disposal to squander it on scholarship, while they are by virtue of their seniority blessed by wisdom that does not require them to upkeep any knowledge! Such senior teachers still practise the age old custom of textual explication and take pride in reading from their old notes that their teachers had given to their wards who in turn take it down diligently!( No personal affront meant!)
Once we have seen our situation for what it is, should we still continue with our old texts and older methodologies? Do we really have to recourse to a foreign language to teach our students what their lives mean to them? Granted that on account of certain historical incongruities English has come to stay as one among our native languages , should we insist on teaching literature in English through that language or simply teach the language alone for our practical purposes? If at all we do have to teach the literature it is long past the time to revamp our syllabus and awaken ourselves and our students to much that has happened since the 60-s. Once such a thing happens, ofcourse close on its heels would dog the problems that I have been highlighting! The self-contradictory nature of teaching English literature / literature written in English/ english literature in our class rooms is the crisis that looms large before the English teacher.
I do not wish to close on a pessimistic note. What the self reflexive English teacher thinks today is something that would reach the teachers of other departments quite soon. May be on account of dealing with imagination and its products, the English teacher is blessed with a prophetic insight. Like the hare that senses any minor changes on the earth’s surface the teacher of English senses far in advance. Well,shouldn’t the forewarned be forearmed ? To recall my opening words again, this essay is only a generalised attempt—it erratically displays my as yet unclear apprehensions. My intention was less on finding answers to the problems than on posing them. And if I have not been quite definitive in my arguments it would only show the incomplete nature of my critical awareness of the situation. But nevertheless that such problems are growing day by day in size and gravity no one would deny. Since I consider this to be a shared common problem I would be happy to receive the responses of other like-minded teachers.
*The above essay was published in the local Newspapers and I did receive a great number of responses. I was also asked to submit a rejoinder as closing comments. However, I still think the issues raised therein are currently relevant.
The idea of Culture is definitely something quite challenging to define. Perhaps, one could just about safely state that culture constitutes the collective ideas that human beings live by, and these cultural values differ from community to community and place to place and are altered certainly from time to time. However, there are certain forces that shape and define human society in historical, political, social and ideological terms, and which serve to condition and manipulate human lives. The larger percentiles of humanity accept these and live by those silently and orderly but the sensitive minorities who are awakened to these fetters respond differently. Patriarchal and hierarchical values are two such “givens” that humanity for the most have taken for granted. The domination of nature, woman and the subaltern has for the most been the accepted normative of societies widely separated by colour, creed, geography, history, and even political and social systems. If such is the case how then can the marginalised voice their own selves? How then could one conceptualise these issues? Victims of marginalisation socially and politically ostracised and alienated from the mainstream culture had to seek for their own voice, their own identities, in order to make themselves be heard and taken note of. Such an attempt proffered them a repositioning of their own identities toward a rediscovery of their own selves.
The 26 essays brought together by the editors, Gulshan Das and G A Ghanshyam, attempt to interrogate the position of the marginalised, the Dalits, the situation of women and the subaltern in contemporary society as it is evidenced through various facets of the literary and the aesthetic. The British term subaltern, meaning a low-ranking position in the military was adopted by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to primarily refer to the Italian peasant class, but of late this term has been popularised to include the oppressed classes like the Dalits, socially and historically repressed tribals, and even the marginalised women under the yoke of patriarchy — a sort of umbrella term. This is the general background of the book under review: it invokes various issues pertaining to these and more while ranging through popular texts and literary contexts, film and media-generated images — Indian as well as western and cuts across a variety of literary and aesthetic genres like poetry, autobiography, fiction, non-fiction and films.
In all, the essays would represent a kaleidoscopic image which renders the traumas and travails of the down-trodden and the repressed. The most interesting aspect of these essays is the easy manner in which each author resorts to the material chosen for critical analysis: be it literature available originally in the English or through translations. The central focus that would link these varied pieces is the concern for the issues at hand, the role and identities of the downtrodden and the voiceless. The preface opens with a verse from the Rig Veda: In the beginning there was no centre/In the beginning there was no margin… then what existed before margin and centre? The final essay inquires into the self-contradictory role of a woman in the contemporary society, in terms of what the idea of a new woman would hold in the present times. This would reveal the scope and dimension of what the book sets out to achieve. Ideological issues, philosophical concerns, textual and theoretical inquiries, individual queries, aesthetic norms and their imbalances, the wide-split terrain of geographical and generation gaps, generally held social beliefs, sanctified roles and regulations, tensions, inequalities, the innumerable normatives and aberrations in our society and in the many new cultures in transition — these are some of the issues that this most intriguing collection of essays by diverse hands would offer the inquisitive reader.
The essay by Ali Ahmed Khan, on identity crisis in Maharashtrian Dalit short fictions, argues that Dalit literature is for the most deeply concerned with identity formation while it endeavours to assert the self-confidence and self-worth of the marginalised and the underprivileged sections of our times. Ghanshyam’s essay ‘Voices of Dalits from the Margin’, echoes Omprakash Valmiki’s position that the Dalit movement is an anti-caste movement and Dalit literature is certainly literature written by Dalits while the non-Dalit writer could never echo the true conditions of the underprivileged consciousness. The essay also goes on to situate the positions of women in a patriarchal society as being almost similar in scale and fate.
Voice of woman
There are essays that deal with the voice of the woman as explored by Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Suraiya, and the social traumas and psychological travails as depicted by Mahasweta Devi and Namita Gokhale. There are compact essays like the one by Oorja rajan Sinha exploring the peripheral nature of the Dalit psyche and by Prashant Mishra on local and regional literary identities evidenced through translations; there are also explorations rich on a comparative scale like Binod Mishra’s study of major works of Hindi and English stalwarts, and the one by Uma Ram on Attia Hosain and Bapsi Sidwa on partition as versions of the marginalised. Throughout the book one can perceive the diligence and commitment of the editors as they texture out the various strands. However, one wishes that they had taken a little more pain in the preparation of the manuscript by sectioning out the various essays either in terms of their content, genre or treatment. Nevertheless, what emerges through the different voices is the stringent voice of the hitherto voiceless: the subaltern, the Dalit, the woman, and the underprivileged — in a collective search for true identities. After all, when the marginalised navigate toward the centre, the periphery disappears and merges with the true centre.
Having said this much, I should also point out that the book suffers from a serious editorial shortcoming which could have been avoided: the various issues highlighted from the Indian situation, their regional counterparts, the literary representations of the women situation in western texts and narratives, different critical explorations of canonised texts and evocations of scribbles from the margin — all have been grafted together in one medley for the concerned reader, who in turn is called upon to discriminate the variety of strands and differences, of identities and dissimilarities that very often constitute the true dilemma of the modernised and modernising societies.
VOICE OF THE VOICELESS — Conceptualizing the Marginalized Psyche: Edited by Gulshan Das, G.A Ghanshyam; Authors Press, Q-2A, Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 625
Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University
The Act/Art of Inter-reading
Reading is a not a simple process of transaction of meaning from the text to the reader. Of course, such a simplistic view is but a naïve manner of understanding the complex linguistic, lexical, syntactic, socio-political and aesthetic circuit of the author-text-reader continuum— so much intellectual and academic discussion and analysis over a long period of time has gone into the dissection of this triangular relationship, and it is not yet over. And quite understandably so. In fact, this may even be nothing new after all when we take into account the scholarship that has accumulated over the last century in the related fields of human sciences and the social sciences and turn our heads backwards into our own past. The virtue of hindsight could proffer us newer perspectives, no doubt. And, literature, it augurs well to remember, is not the only domain where these issues are problematised, of course. The consequences of the decode-encode complex and its dimensions in terms of the cultural-historic rhetoric/fabric has been discussed and debated ad-nauseum by now in academic circles all over the world, in as varied a discipline like Anthropology or Cybernetics, Geography or Ecology Nevertheless what all this has entailed for us in brief is the self-reflexive foregrounding of the author-text-reader complex. As Jeremy Hawthorne has put it succinctly:
“Meaning, significance, fulfillment are not to be found sitting obediently and expectantly in literary works, waiting for the pages to be opened so that they can troop out into the reader’s head. What we get from our readings we get as a result of a mental struggle which is informed and directed by our theories and ideas– whether or not we are conscious of these.” [Jeremy Hawthorne Cunning passages: New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and Marxism in the Contemporary Literary Debate. London:Arnold, 1996.]
The point well worth reiterating is that the mental struggle we engage in when we encounter texts could be conscious or unconscious—no reading thus could be free from theorizing on its own, every reading is an informed reading! In short, the common reader is most uncommon! Let us now take a closer look at the trigonometry of this relationship:
In brief, one could say that the movement of the arc of literary theorising has been historically decided by the instress of one of the three points of the literary triangle: the author, the text and the reader. Those theories in the past that accorded prime importance to the author like the Romantic or the Phenomenological theories could be grouped together on one end as against those formulations of the New Critics or the Formalists who argued for the autotelic nature of the text removed from all contexts. Post Structuralism and its aftermath challenges the very orthodox nature of these relationships and unties the very lynchpin of textuality and the fabric of reading. While socio-politically self-reflexive theories like Feminism(s) and postcolonialism read against the grain of that fabric situating themselves not outside this trigonometric relationship but firmly securing themselves within the eddy of the meaning making process, whether it be the inquiry into the ontology of the text/meaning .
Theorising in one form or other has gone on in our universities for several decades by now and we have come to recognize the act of theory as moving toward new and newer positions within this paradigm and evolving Strategies of Reading. In all, the idea is not to be bogged down to a sort of reading and interpreting of individual texts but untying the very process of meaning– formation and the dynamis of the trigonometry.
In all, the range of literary theories from Formalism through New Criticism and Structuralism to Deconstruction and their critical practices has been in more than one sense instrumental in creating a meta-language of literary production, meaning and receptivity.
And the academic institutionalisation of literature and literary studies – focus on how literature is –Created, Constructed, and Conditioned. Thus theory did usher in a paradigm shift. And the reading process as one discovers was never simplistic.
Now, if the academic institutionalization of literature and literary studies could be said to have brought about a sort of Copernican revolution—a paradigm shift—in the focus of how literature is created, how it makes meaning, or even how such an awareness is itself constructed and conditioned, one could say that the intense history of theoretical enterprise itself has brought about even an even profounder paradigm shift in the manner in which such theories themselves have been interrogated and applied in various cultural contexts. For instance, Postcolonial theory is necessarily a historical recognition of the status and relevance of theory, and at the same time it foregrounds a resistance and challenge to the inordinate theorizing of literature in non-European cultural contexts
Well, whatever its demerits might be, the emergence of theory in our academia has brought forth newer and newer perceptions for discovering cultural locations. The trigonometry of reading has evolved from the almost two dimensional Euclidian plane geometry into the pluralistic trajectory of a post-Einsteinian world of multiverse(s). The dynamic of this movement cannot be underestimated: it entails a new world of interpretative possibilities. The reader is as much ingrained into the text as the text is de-centred in the process.
This is the point where I propose to implant the theory of inter-reading that this book aptly bears out. Quite distinct from the deconstructive entertainment that the play of text-author-reader poses, this process would re-organise and recognize value and signification. Inter-Reading does not play down intertextuality neither does it inter/hinder the reader/writer. It allows for a slow percolation or osmosis of the trio I mentioned at first into one another. The writer does not cease to be, neither does the text, when the reader enters the play ground. The text in the sense of being a tissue, a woven thing— woven of former texts—is by virtue of being itself, a process of engagements, of con/texts. And the inter part of the theory that the reader ushers in does not inter the text, in the sense of inter – bury or put into the ground, neither does it hide the reader’s act of playing. The text proffers the vast but structurally limited playground where in the deconstructive play takes place. For as long as the reader can, the play goes on and it could also end in a tie! Meaning and interpretation are here not mere strategies but palpable sensations that bear out the testimony of delight—the ananda or beatification of being. And the implied value in literary texts do not go unrecognized. As pointed out earlier, caste, race, gender and history could be seen as conceptual tools in engaging with the textual territory. We recognize the category of nature without the text as also another criteria for this engagement. I have discussed this process at length in another context. Suffice it to say that the idea of the text does prefigure the work of human mind(s) and the process of meaning production hastens in the outside/inside continuum. The text opens itself before it encloses the fabric of its own destiny. Ancient Indian Sanskrit linguists have spoken about mahasatta—the great essence. This is in part what each individual reading would participate in. To stretch this anlogy further would be to essentialise, to narrow it down would be but to fragmentalise. Either way Interreading (without the hyphen) would lead us to mediate between the text and the author, to allow for the play to happen, and also to retain our integral beings. After all it is the human being that creates cultures and counter-cultures!
….Read More in Inter-readings: Text, Context, Significance (2010)
Interreadings:Text, Context, Significance,2010,
© S.Murali & Clement Lourdes, Department of English, Pondicherry University
Published by the Pondicherry University Pondicherry 605014, India
First edition, April 2010
No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission from the editors. The views expressed in various essays are those of their authors alone and the editors are in no way responsible for those.