Here is an excerpt from Nissim Ezekiel’s poem ‘The Railway Clerk’:
I am never neglecting my responsibility,
I am discharging it properly,
I am doing my duty,
but who is appreciating?
Nobody, I am telling you.
My desk is too small,
the fan is not repaired for two months,
I am living far off in Borivli,
my children are neglecting studies,
how long this can go on?
The poem goes on in this manner, listing the railway clerk’s grievances about his lower middle class life full of economic hardships and the difficulties springing from them. It is one in a series of ‘Very Indian poems in Indian English’ that Nissim wrote.
For sometime now, poets, novelists and linguists have begun to take Indian English seriously and there have been attempts to provide formal descriptions of this variety of English language. The use of Indian English sometimes is employed for ‘subversive’ purposes. In poetry such an example may be found in Kamala Das’ poems.
I remember Anita Desai’s acclaimed novel In Custody which chronicles the decadent Urdu poet whose recent life is being researched by the protagonist, a Hindi lecturer. It is highly unlikely that this Hindi lecturer requires to speak in English to his acquaintances or with the great Urdu poet about whom he is writing an article. So, as readers we grant that the novel is recording events in translation, and that the conversations we hear are reported in English. We, nevertheless, find Anita Desai making a character speak in Indian English. Pray, why is one speaking in English? Why should a speaker who in the situation portrayed should be using Hindi or Urdu made to use Indian English in the narrator’s recording of it? Not to forget, the narrator for her prose uses the British English. It intrigues me when writers cannot even resolve such simple issues. It for me indicates only a cynical and almost capricious view of both the character being portrayed and the language being used.
In Nissim’s above quoted poem we see the same capriciousness. The clerk is frustrated with the difficulties of modern urban life. This is a common motif in modernist poetry and in Nissim specially. But, Nissim in this poem is not talking about the modernist urban anxiety. His use of irony in many other poems with similar motif presents a critique of the social milieu. But, in this poem (and in general in his Very Indian poems in Indian English) his target of irony and satire is the speaker of Indian English. Satire in literature is a technique that is aimed at attacking the immoral, unethical and suchlike. But it is rare to find a poem where the character’s lack of fluency in a language other than his own becomes the target of satire. Nissim does precisely that. His irony towards the railway clerk is with reference to his inability to speak ‘correct’ English and not that he is morally culpable or his grievances reveal his idiocy.
I feel this reveals the superciliousness of the poet towards his subject – a lower middle class clerk not fluent in English. I think this also indicates the manner in which Nissim becomes elitist. There are other poems where we find further proof for this conclusion about Nissim.
This elitism in some of the Indian English writers is seldom questioned, busy as we are either in a debate over why Indians shouldn’t write in English (dumb) or with the postcolonial thematic. I am not for a minute suggesting that this malaise is to be found only among the Indian English writers or this is the only form of elitism in their work. One does find a variety of other ways in which some of the Indian English writers project their elitist perceptions of the society.
In fact we also see the superciliousness hidden in the works of many other Indian writers, whether in their literary works or in social / political prose. Here I am looking at a particular kind of insensitivity. In Nissim’s poem if we find it in the manner in which the clerk’s lack of fluency in English becomes a target of satire, we do find such insensitivity in many other forms. Let me take a writer who writes in Kannada and occasionally, some socio-political pieces, in English. U. R. Ananthmurthy is a major public intellectual. In one of his articles, titled “
India of the Rich & Bharat of the Poor”, Ananthmurthy criticizes the exclusivist private schools of today where only the rich students study. He argues that this disables them by not giving them an opportunity to meet and interact with people other than their type and thus limits them. He campaigns for inclusive system where a school accommodates not people of only one class but from all classes:
These days in expensive private schools the children of the rich don’t have an opportunity to expand their experience by coming to know of the rich life and culture of the poor of this country. This will create two countries, the
India of the rich and the Bharath of the Poor. I want common schools empowered again so that all the children of this country have an opportunity to share their joy of learning together and also learning from one another in a mixed school.
Valid point. No disagreement here. Ananthmurthy is basically a story teller. So his social or literary commentaries also have anecdotes or little narratives. In this article he refers to his school days and says, “The school opened up my world for I sat there with all boys and girls who belonged to all castes in the village”. I am sure Ananthmurthy’s gratitude to his school atmosphere where he was able to study with students from other castes is genuine and he is thankfulness is because he was able to go beyond the caste limits. But the question that comes to my mind is: what happened to the children of other castes who studied with him? Did they also grow up to thank their school life? Did the schooling as it did exist then that enabled Ananthmurthy to grow out of narrow caste limits, helped those from the other castes to grow without the social stigma? In the essay alluded here what to me appears insensitive is the neglect of this. The author tells of the benefit he got and not of the benefit that the other students got. Considering that Ananthmurthy is recommending a pattern of schooling in the essay, we might conclude that he recommends the kind of schooling that his anecdote makes a reference to. But, the schools of his time are hardly remembered by the victims of caste system as an ideal place. Even a little knowledge of the history tells us that those days caste system was much worse and schools were no exception. Given this broader context, how can Ananthmurthy evoke nostalgic anecdotes about the educational system of the past in an argument about the desired form of schools he wishes to recommend for today’s society? Ananthmurthy in his article articulates the reform he was able to undergo living within a caste society. Good. But, he fails to show sensitivity by denying to record what the system, which proved good to him, did to those from the lower castes. In his novel Sanskara too one finds the same problem. The novel concerns itself with the degradation of the brahmin society, but does not bother to record the state of affairs with that of other social groups. This results in Sankara with a situation where the brahmins are seen mobile whereas those from other castes inert, undergoing no change, not even degradation! This restricts the novel’s view of the society and accords to the lower caste society a very limited space, relegating them to the sidelines.