Vol. 5 Num 86 Sat. August 21, 2004  

On Writing in English: an Indian poet’s perspective
A couple of weeks back Kaiser Huq wrote on the topic of writing creatively, writing poems in fact, in English in Bangladesh. The essay evoked considerable interest in our readers, as did the accompanying note that said that Indian writers and poets have written fairly extensively on this topic, if only because they have been more closely engaged, and for a much longer period, with the language then us. Keeping that reader interest in mind, we publish here Keki Daruwala's engaging account---originally a talk delivered at Internationale Literaturtage in 1988 at Erlangen, West Germany and which he said was 'a cursory attempt to explain to a German (and international) audience what Indian poetry in English was all about' --- of his own ongoing tussle, and delight, with the English language.
---Editor, Literature Page

We are all trapped in history. The Europeans came to trade, hung on to fight, intrigue and conquer, and stayed on to instruct. Their colonies became vast markets for their textiles and their language. Conversions followed, to another way of life and on occasions to Christianity. When they went back they left their language behind -- and half-castes. In an alien land, language itself turns brown and half-caste.

English was introduced in India with commercial objectives in view. What was achieved was something much greater in dimensions. Colonial history shows that language can be as domineering as any occupational army. It supplants myths, whole iconographies, world-view, ideologies. It ushers in its own symbols, and its own values. An armada of new texts sails in. Old dogmas and bigotries are swept away -- and exchanged for new ones.

You cannot choose your generation, your parents or your language, even a foreign one at times. If your father teaches English and you have three thousand books in the house, all in the same language, you have precious few options. To become fully conscious of writing in the language of one's erstwhile colonial rulers, one must cross various thresholds of realization. To put it simplistically, a child thinks through language and feels through experience. The first school I entered was called Sacred Hearts. But World War II was raging, the Italian fathers next door were under house arrest, and even a string or two of barbed wire had sprung up around the school. Not the right type of atmosphere for a growing boy, my father thought. So I got transplanted to an Arya school, quite a different kettle of fish, really. Many of the boys came from a different social stratum. Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit were given as much importance as English, and rightly so. The pronunciation of the school masters and the students bordered on the atrocious. My fluency (so called) in English was greeted with derisive laughter. Just because the grammar was correct, and the diction not too awful, one became an object of mockery.

The next threshold was crossed when one encountered boys from public schools. These were situated in the mountain sanctuaries of Murree and Simla and Nainital. The boys wore blue blazers and school neckties. Their speech was more clipped, their smiles more condescending. They even spoke their Hindustani with an anglicized accent. They could hardly pronounce the names of the towns they lived in. Nainithal, as it is pronounced in Hindustani, got twisted to 'Nainitoll'. And they used slang. It was old slang of course, shipped some three decades ago, which had got lost on the seas, then lay rotting on the docks like dry fish, till it was dispatched by steam rail and later on mule back to those public schools in the mountains. But the fact is that they used slang and if you did not latch on to a phrase, you were held in contempt.

And then came my first conversation with an Englishman. He had to repeat himself three times to make himself understood. What an exotic accent, I thought. Why couldn't the fellow speak English as she ought to be spoken?

No other trauma intervened for the next fifteen years or so. Then as one started publishing poetry in English, critics shook their heads in disapproval. Yes, fiction, essays, articles, even pornography one could write in English, they said (though nothing like Punjabi for robust abuse). But poetry was another cup of tea. You could write it only in a language you had imbibed with mother's milk. This line of argument gave rise to what I chose to call the Lactatory School of Literary Criticism. Another august body called the Royal School of Dreamy Criticism asked me if I dreamt in English. The trouble was I dreamt in images mostly and seldom in language. My dreams were often silent movies. When once in a while, they did turn into Talkies, they were like me, multi-lingual.

Exiles come to alien shores and write in the language of their adopted country. Joseph Conrad, Arthur Koestler, Nabokov are examples. An Indian writing poetry in English was an exile in his own country.

The handicaps were all too apparent. One is not merely speaking of an exclusive readership. Isn't poetry restricted to a class with a certain educational background? It could be said that 7000 miles and quite a few years separated the Indian writer from the 'living speech' of the language. But didn't millions speak English in India? Wasn't it at least the second language of most educated Indians? It was the language of the bank and the stock exchange, of the Parliament, the secretariat and the law courts. The writer was at home with it. What I am trying to refer to is the difficulties in writing poetry itself. You stuck to the straight and narrow path of textual English. You cut out linguistic heroics and hesitated taking liberties with the language. It was tough enough mastering (if that's the word) the idiom. To now start fragmenting it, chopping up the grammar and entering the slippery realm of the disjunctive seemed an unthinking indulgence. Sound, as poets know, is vital to poetry. At times I hesitated in giving a full phonetic charge to my verse unless the meaning was crystal clear and each line as a unit made sense.

Yet instinctively, one knew what to exclude: words like 'deliverance' and 'renunciation', expressions like 'the wondrous mysteries of the divine', 'the oneness of Brahma', 'the stream of life'; the self (both the small guy starting with an 's' in the lower case to the big fellow with the capital 'S') all talk of moksha, (liberation) and maya (appearance)*, all reference to infinity and eternity and expressions like 'the womb of the void' or 'the void of the womb' -- have it any way you please. I avoided them like the plague. Not once, as far as I recollect, have I talked of the soul in a poem. It was by a conscious act of will. The stranglehold over the soul, this monopoly over the spiritual enjoyed by the earlier well-meaning savants who passed off as philosophers, and the present batch of crooks who masquerade as godmen, is one of the intellectual scandals of this century.

Instinctively one made language slightly subservient to content. Those who think that the form is the poem would not take kindly to this. Literature concerns itself with the world of the spirit and the flesh as we know it. Passions, feelings, consciousness, the past and memories get thrown in. Language after all is just one of the dimensions that make literature what it is. So it was good literary strategy to give slightly more weight to content. All language and literature are in some way a translation: you render reality (dreams, perceptions, memories, the physical world around you) into words. Surely this reality is important, and a case can be made out for giving it a certain degree (however small) of primacy over language.

How would I define insight or truth? That, which in any other tongue, would have gone as swiftly to the heart.

Looking back I find that the compulsion to mark out an identity for myself must have been very strong. Since one was writing in English it should be all the more evident that it was an Indian writing. Just bringing an Indian sensibility to bear on a theme was not enough. The poem had to be securely fastened to an Indian setting; should seek freshly upturned earth under a monsoon downpour. Most, if not all of this, worked unconsciously within me. With hindsight, that is the only way I can explain my almost fierce commitment to place, site, landscape. (Not just in my poems but also in my stories, where I take great care to set the scene first, almost like a director visualizing the stage for a play). In my first book, Under Orion, one entire section was devoted to life in the marshlands (the terai). Another book dealt with the Ganga at Benares and with the purificatory myth of the river.

At the same time one could not close one's eyes to the filth at the ghats of Benares and the seeming chaos, the miasma of funeral pyres going up in flames a few yards from unconcerned pilgrims bathing in the river, offering obeisance to the rising sun. I accepted the notion that its swirling waters cleansed one of his sins. But I could not shut my eyes to what was happening in front of me. This is where we come back to language. For languages erect their own outposts of sensibility -- not that you can easily marshal arguments to support this kind of nebulous statement. Nor had this kind of perception anything to do with a colonial hangover (though critics might believe otherwise). One saw squalor and chaos for what they were. They registered themselves on the cornea. No alibis are needed here.

In university one had been brought up on a diet of Shelley and Keats. When you left the campus you faced harsh reality around you -- drought, poverty and communal riots. One needed a harsh language, words with a saw-edge, words which rasped and got into you like the shards of a broken bottle. Slowly, almost unconsciously the poems developed a vocabulary and a soundscape of their own.

The question of patois comes up often, of the Indian contribution to the English language. Some of these experiments (in prose) have been very successful, for instance G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatter and Raja Rao's Kanthapura, both recognized as minor classics today. Novels are one thing, verse another. We have had no such triumphs in poetry. Admitted that the Indian has his own way with English syntax, but it is no way comparable to the Caribbean patois. The Indian way of speaking English is to mix the languages -- half a sentence in English and the other tattered half in Hindi or Marathi or Bengali. Writing in that manner could bring on numerous problems. Pidgin is fine but a half-Hindi-half-English amalgam becomes impractical.

Finally, while the poet endeavours to hone the language to his purpose, language also has a way with his poetry. If you have wielded an oriental scimitar all your life, you are used to whirling it about, making fearful whistling arcs in the air and generally slashing around. But give the same man a straight bladed sword and willy-nilly, given some time, he will learn to thrust and stab.

Keki Daruwala was awarded the Commonwealth Prize for Poetry in 1978.