Literary Theory

Jaded's picture

Caught Between Colonised Consonants

These last few weeks have been rather stressful for me, so by the time I get home, I’m more than exhausted, crash on my sofa and let the TeeVee numb my LadyLobes into oblivion for a while. This is around the time my grandmother’s favourite soaps are aired and we’ve developed a routine between the two of us. I help her to get dinner going (in my limited capacities as a non-cook) and she fills me in to whatever I missed in the first 10 minutes of the show. Over these weeks, I have now become familiar with the plotlines of more than seven shows, each predictably depicting middle to upper middle class Hindu households, where the protagonist, generally a virtuous woman battling a myriad of obstacles  from abusive husbands to nose-parker neighbours, this Indian Daughter In Law suffers and endures rather vapidly, always quoting from some scripture or following orders to a T. This is TeeVee land after all, where women go to bed in saris and with their full make-up on, where the idea of a ‘diverse’ family is a multilingual Hindu family — what? have a non-sterotypical Muslim or a Christian character? Never! The TeeVee roars back — and where always, good triumphs over evil, after about every 200 episodes. Of course, when I’m watching these soaps with my grandma these quips are contained in my LadyBrain as she genuinely enjoys these shows. Plus if you saw her blushing the way she does when a Dude and a Lady on the screen brush hands, you’ll get it too.

Yesterday I noticed something interesting in one of these shows; it reminded me of my other grandmum that I lost a few years ago. One of the senior actors on the show had the exact expression as my grandmum would get when I’d start rambling too quickly in English; like many MudSquatters she too could read and write English quite well. Though she was the one who introduced me to Austen and the Brontës; when it came to sounding the syllables she fell short. The actor on-screen was making an exaggerated effort to understand her grandson as the child blathered on in the Coloniser’s tongue – with the American accent no less!—when this grandma of mine looks at me and teases me, “Isn’t this like us? You and your English books, always ranting in that language! Going so fast that no one can even understand! God knows what you must be saying in that language about us!”. While my parents and I converse in English relatively easily, for my grandma this language remains an unexplained pun, as she correctly guesses our tones but the words and their exact meaning escape her. For her not learning English remains her way to defy the Empire, while today I believe in smashing the Empire from within, using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house and caught in the middle are people from my mum’s generation who learnt English to get jobs and status. My parents have a more intimate relationship with our Mother Tongue than I do, for English remains a means to an end for them, as for me English is one of my primary expressions; it’s alienating, frustrating and yet the only tongue I can dream in. The debate of ‘Whose English Is It Really?’ can continue forever. What interests me today how this language is used to cut, to prod, to break into and make room for new dichotomies to absorb. I’ve noticed how my tone changes when I’m speaking to my friends or students, while at home even my English shifts its tenor, it slows down. Here, my a few words from my Mother Tongue blend in, the way I leave questions open is again extremely specific for my community, the language flows more smoothly till the transition to speaking entirely in my Mother Tongue has been made. Sometimes when my Mum and I don’t want to let the maid know we’re talking about something that concerns her, we shift unanimously and almost subconsciously to English and then step right out again in a similar manner. Here, English is used to show and maintain class and to an extent caste supremacy whether we’re aware of it or not.

Jaded's picture

We Are Still Using Knowledge To Cut

A few months ago, my student asked me why do I read so much -- well, what is much? -- and I couldn't reply to that seemingly simple question. I made an excuse and told him I'd explain later, when I'd realise it myself. I've been reading for as long as I remember; I started because I wanted to be like my mum, snuggled on her side of the bed with the reading light on and lost in her little niche every night. Soon enough books weaved their magic spell on me and now I have the incurable fetish for words, written or otherwise. That is still not a reason enough that can explain my relationship with reading; for books are just my way of knowing the world. Especially after it dawned on me that most books that I read weren't really meant for me despite the claim of their 'universal' status. Even as a child of 12 I knew I was never going to raft down the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer, I had no 'crazy' acquaintances like Mrs. Haversham, if I met Mrs. Dalloway in real life she'd frown at my skin and many such examples that made the cultural static between my world and theirs painfully visible under all the layers of Cannonisation and Universalism. And for a long time, I considered myself lacking in someway for not feeling at home in these masterpieces of World Literature. These days I just fondly call this list 'Dead White Ubiquitous Writers' who are just about as universal as my dog is for the rest of his species. Doesn't mean I won't read Wuthering Heights every year or won't hurt from the way it treats 'dark-skinned ruffian' Heathcliff, but rather I am aware of this difference and am not ashamed of my subject position in and out of the text anymore, however alienated the text or the language makes me feel.

As reading is such an important part of my identity -- you don't major in Literature if you feel anything less, People Of The Olde Interwebes -- the question why I read plagued me for quite a while, I even brought it up recently when my friends and I were discussing Zadie Smith's essay on 'Death Of The Author'. Each of us had our own reasons, one liked to read to escape to another world, another liked to escape from this world, one reads so that she doesn't have to listen to her own thoughts all the time and another reads to feel a part of something. But my LadyBrain was still hoping for a better and a concrete answer that would stop the constant inner interrogation for good and allow me to bask in my books once again. One time I brought it up in class to see how other 'non-readers' viewed books and the politics behind them where one dudely student remarked that I was making a 'personal issue' about a harmless question, because apparently, "Seriously? Reading? Words don't matter that much anyway, nor do they change the world in any way" is quite a popular opinion among most afore mentioned 'non-readers' when all I was doing was not making a problem out of a personal question; but making a personal question an absence of a problem, to borrow and modify from Foucault. Reading is a space where there is infinite potential for negotiation of meanings and implied subtexts. For instance, Kamla Das talks about making walls -- "I shall build walls with tears/She said, walls to shut me in", almost a retort back to Woolf's statement that being 'locked in' is the worst possible scenario -- to me it's a resilience while my student read it as an act of submission. Such possibilities often make me giddy and for a while I thought I'd found my answer. And then last week while voluntarily melting my BrainCells watching TV I reached my happy place. Who knew the idiot box could lead to wonderful Lady Insights Of The Super Important Variety?

Syndicate content
Powered by Drupal, an open source content management system