Thursday, 30 August 2012

South Asia and Southeast Asia – Writings in English – An Overview

In the case of South and Southeast Asia English is a language that is a mode of internal unity due to the very many regional languages that exist. It is also the language of international and global relations. Macaulay’s minutemen in India, for example, was the first truly conscious effort to form a new breed of colonized citizens that would be Indian by blood but English in walk and talk. He called for dissemination of English in India at the cost of the Asian languages.

Considering the fact that India stemmed from a more oral tradition, the new thrust of British literature was overwhelming. Admiration and emulation was the first consequence and what followed was a product of colonial writing in English. Even after independence English was retained as a language that was looked upon as modern, international and a means of unification.
As early as 1956 we have poets like Sujata Bhatt writing of the partition in a style of poetry that is not polished but yet conveys expression:

‘How could they
     have let a man
who knew nothing
     about geography
divide a country?’

 The same train of thought is carried forward in Charmayne D’Souza’s ‘Trains of Thought’ (1990):

‘The British knew
how to bring a nation together –
an elbow in the rib,
a space divided.’

Colonisation was a double-edged phenomenon for it made the British with their civilized view of living see themselves to be reflected as the savage other as works like E.M. Froster’s ‘A Passage to India’ highlight. On the other hand, Asian societies now had a chance to come into contact with the elements that had made colonization possible like economic practices, technology, modes of knowledge and the European concept and structure of a civil society.
Unwittingly Macaulay put into the hands of the people the very tool that would make them more aware of the world around them. And so, postcolonial writing has shifted from mimicry to varied forms of literary expression but this shift has not been easy. The West was identified with modernity and English was seen to be a medium of understanding the West. In 1995 Rushdie coined the term ‘Westoxication’ that highlights the more seductive aspects that lead to such aspirations, he felt writing in English was a part of this. In Southeast Asia the political independence led to poetic aspirations towards writing in English whereas on the other hand, in South Asia poets felt the need to write in English long before it was accepted by their societies.

English in India
“English is everyone’s language in India; and it is no one’s language. Because it is the former, everyone can read the Roman alphabet and knows the meanings of words; because it is also the latter, they can completely miss the tone and emotional charge the words carry, as in poetry words must, always.”

It took over a century for Indian poetry to turn from its imitative aspect as the British writings were a sort of benchmark that poets in India aspired to through imitation. The first Indian poet was Henry Derozio an Eurasian whose volume of ‘Poems’ (1827) pre-dates Macaulay’s Minute of 1835. Thus, one can see that though Macaulay did aid the rise of English as a language; the fascination it imposed existed much before.
A study of 19th century Indian poetry shows its highly imitative nature for it was the Western model which was the only one the poets could fall back on. Post-romantic Indian poetry had three major Indian exponents namely Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghose and Sarojini Naidu. Though Tagore was held in admiration by Yeats and to some extent by Pound, his Bengali poetry is more effective than English showing that he was not as comfortable in English as in his native tongue.

Despite all this reverence bestowed upon Tagore internationally, Indian poets shy away from his style of writing like ‘Matthew Arnold in a sari’ to quote S.C. Harrex. Contemporary writers like Keki Daruwalla have protested that there is a lack of innovations in the works of Indian poets like Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu and the like for they have switched western Hellenistic myths for their own local ones instead of starting from scratch.
It was only in the 20th century with writers like Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes that contemporary poetry was introduced. Infact, theirs were the first two volumes of Indian poetry published after the independence in 1952. Moraes had a clipped style while Ezekiel sported a dry and ironic manner though both moved from formal to more relaxed styles. While Moraes preferred overseas portraits, Ezekiel looked back closer at home and fingered Bombay.

Unfortunately, encouragement was scarce as the idea of Indian writing in English was seen to be much akin to the former bluestocking itch. In 1937 Yeats said, “no man can think or write with music and vigour except in his mother tongue” which is too dismissive a statement to look seriously into. Indo-Anglian potery was considered to be more of a blind alley that was housing curio shops and had no definite aim or purpose.
Patriotism and the oppressor’s tongue

Writers were the worst condemners’ o a language they held foreign. Like Marathi novelist Bhalchandra Nemade who presented a nativist argument on the lines that if one is truly conscious of one’s culture one would be linguistically conscious as well. Since Indian culture is valued low to write in a foreign language would tarnish its already tarnished reputation still further and such writing in English would not be able to convey any ‘Indianness’ to the body of world literature.
A fear of betraying one’s country through the adoption of an alien language too was a concept most writers grappled with, like Lakdasa Wikkramasinha (Sri Lanka) feared writing in English would amount to ‘cultural treason’. The language here has been identified with the oppressor and the oppression borne; hence, it is a politically conscious rejection. R. Parthasarathy declared he had been “whoring after English gods”. Note here, that it is not the language he mentions but the ‘gods’ which show an unconsciously instilled religious fear of English customs.

English was oft times associated as the language of the Englishmen and so, Wong Phui Nam (Malaysia) remarks, “The non-English writer who writes in English is…in a very deep sense a miscegenated being”. It was of course, not all Asian writers that treated English so wearily. Yasmine Gooneratne turns the tables by stating that it is envy that causes people to badmouth the language rather than any other more pious motive. There were others who opted for a bilingual approach like Arun Kolatkar who wrote in English as well as an Indian language to each both audiences.
 English – the mistress and not muse

One senses during the period of the 1960s and 70s is that there is a certain self-consciousness felt by poets in their selective use of English as a medium of communicating their poetic expression. Daruwalla for example, was energetically self-deprecatory on this front, preferring to call the English muse ‘The Mistress’, “No one believes me when I say/ my mistress is half caste” and so, though the medium of expression is English it is an apologetic use of it rather than something stemming from a right to use English as a language as colonial association have not yet been broken.
Kamala Das is the first Indian woman who writes in English and that too with candour with regards to feminine sexuality. In her poem ‘An Introduction’ she brings out the hybrid aspect of a colonized citizen who may speak three languages, write in two and yet dream in only one. She says very emphatically: Don’t write in English, they said/ English is not your mother tongue.

A shift in the type of English
English is not a static language in India for the local linguistic movements did interact with English as translations and bilingual approaches by poets has kept some contact alive. A new concept was emerging of ‘Indian English’ as the language was transmogrified by the local speech habits prevalent. Ezekiel’s parody ‘Soap’ is a perfect example of how many people spoke the English language:

Some people are not having manners,
this I am always observing,
For example other day I find
I am needing soap

From Ezekiel’s poem we find that there existed individuated types of Indian English but these were prevalent due to error rather than through any conscious attempt. Ezekiel gives the flavor of Bombay as he sees it while Adil Jussawalla addresses the problem of Westernisation that sprung up in the post colonial world. He is bound to the West by its Westoxication and yet he feels alienated from his country. According to Bruce King he is an intellectual preoccupied by ‘an historical awareness of his own situation as a representative of a decaying class soon to be replaced by forces which he cannot be part’. This is quite akin to the consciousness of decay predominant in Vassanji’s ‘A Bend in the River’. Sujata Bhatt on the other hand, who grew up in India and studied in the US, writes with more variation for she moves between cultures, language and societies: Which language/has not been the oppressor’s tongue?/ which language/ truly meant to murder someone?
It is with her poems that we notice a blend of her native Gujarati language within her English poems giving a polyglot effect which however, fails to move Indian readers. However she does ask important questions in her poetry like how poets come to being and why they prefer certain languages over others.

It is only from around 1992 that poets have begun to use English with less selfconciousness and more innovation. A good example is Vikram Seth’s long narrative poem ‘The Golden Gate’ which is in sonnet form. This may not be the best poetry but it shows an effort to move away from the Modernist shadow and has a more easy-going pace stemming from a decolonized attitude.
Language and affiliation

Asia is more of a region divided by its diversities and also due to the effects of colonization and paradoxically despite all the resistance to English as an oppressors tongue, it now began to be a common base for a region torn asunder by political events. Independence not only led to throwing off the colonial yoke but also a division based on ethnic and religious affiliations.
Rukhmini Bhaya Nair for example, brings out the senseless religious violence in ‘The Ayodhya Cantos’. The poetry of Ghose shows the portrait of a culturally displaced migrant who revisits the fear of a world which is vanishing before his eyes. There is no definite object or statement in his postcolonial poems, there is only a feeling that one is looking at the memory of a memory.

Sri Lanka and English
In Sri Lanka things were different as with its independence nationalism erupted on an aggressive-defensive scale causing English to be displaced as the medium of education. Despite this resistance, there was a need felt by poets to write in English. There have been three persistent problems on this front, one being the persistence of Sinhala as the language of the majority. The other reasons are the country’s proximity to India and the ethnic strife that makes many writers wan to migrate to a more stable environment.

The poems of these poets in English do not reflect self-consciousness.  On the other hand, they are more concerned with a consciousness of the political instability prevalent in their country. Like Jean Arasanayagam remarks in ‘The Poet’:
Today it’s the assassins who are the new messiahs
Their voices herald salvation
With a hail of bullets

In the case of migrants like the novelist Michael Ondaatje, his writings give us a sense of not an orphan but a cosmopolitan member of his new country Canada who seeks a relation with his birth land. His poems seek for something that has been ‘lost’. There is a correspondence between inner and outer worlds established. A relation between akam and puram (Tamil) as A.K. Ramanujan would call it.
This method transcends cultural and political borders as we can see in Gerard Manely Hopkins term ‘Inscape’ which invokes a sense of relation between uniqueness and pattern to objects of poetic contemplation. In a sense, poetry rises to comfort Ondaatje. In the case of his poem written in remembrance of his first ayah Rosalin, we find her to be a figure that stands for everything he, as a migrant leaves behind before he finds release in poetry. Thus, he says: Who abandoned who I wonder now.

We constantly find a need of homecoming and departure and a sense of that which is lost being recovered only to be lost again in such poems. What the poets have managed it so place the blurred line of a sense between longing and belonging through the medium of the English language on paper.  
English in Pakistan

Longing and belonging is a common aspect found in postcolonial poetry but with Pakistani English writing it took on a whole new meaning as the resistance to English was from not only the State but indigenous languages as well. Urdu and Persian was the norm for writing poetry and since English had such a negative past behind it politically speaking, there was certain suspicion associated with it. Yet there were poets like Muhammad Iqbal who wrote with brilliance and passion as a bilingual poet.
Persian was an old imperial language while others like Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi and Pashto were oral in nature and so due to this, though there were poets writing in English, there were a minority. It was in the 1990s that a change came about and English began to be seen as more than a non-Islamic language. Obviously religion and politics had quite a hand in the suppression of English.

Southeast Asia and its English
In the case of Singapore and Hong Kong which were sparsely populated by colonizers and more trade centric, it took some time for cultural expression to voice itself. It was only after Singapore split with Malaysia that English began to prevail over local languages like Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. The use of English in creativity only emerges around the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Just like Hinglish in India, there was an attempt to have a blend of English with local Chinese and Malay expressions thrown in. This was supposed to be ‘Engmalchin’ i.e. ‘Eng(lish)-mal(ay)-chin(ese). An example of this can be seen in the poem ‘Ahmad’ by Wang Gungwu:
Only yesterday his brother said,
‘Can get lagi satu wife lah!’

Though this attempt was later given up, Singlish (Singapore English) was the next experiement attempted. But one prevalent problem in this writings is that there is a feeling that poetic self-expression hasn’t been fully achieved due to a self-deprecatoriness or self-conciousness. Again politics becomes a theme and their works bring out underlying pools of anxiety with a sense that the new modernity and achievements of their land may still turn out to be too fragile to be sustained.

Edwin Thumboo focuses on the importance of individual bonds and the importance of a collective effort towards community and nation building. One sense that the poet is aware of literary developments outside his country and also of the political and cultural immaturities that his country still is in the process of shedding.
Among the other colonies, Hong Kong was the slowest to feel the urge to write in English. Though English served as a language for international trade and colonial administration, it wasn’t a people’s language like Cantonese. But yet, the poetry one finds from Hong Kong is coloured  with political worry.

Thus, English from being merely the language of the colonizer or a language for international trade; has also become a language of self-expression. English was a means through which poets could address their people as well as the rest of the world and it was due to this consciousness of the modernity or prosperity of other cultures which lead writers and poets to question what was lacking in theirs.


  1. Good grasp of ideas. It is Naipaul who wrote A Bend in the River not Vaasanji, must have been an oversight. Good work.

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