Monday, 3 January 2011

DU and Hatterr

I was trying to write a short note on G.V Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (one of the best things I read last year) and then I began to digress and talk about my university syllabus and it all got very long and turned into a post of its own. So here it is:

I wanted to talk about a particular aspect of the Delhi University undergraduate English syllabus (of which I am mostly quite a fan). Most people (and I was one of them) have read very little Indian writing when they start the course, and the university has wisely included a compulsory Indian Literature module that introduces them to some of the better 20th century Indian literature. The only problem with this that I can see is that it is introduced in first year. The first year is when we’re also given Victorian literature to read, presumably because this the sort of writing with which we’re assumed (probably correctly) to be familiar. The Indian Writing course has some pretty impressive stuff on it, for all that: almost the first thing we read was Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”. There’s Jayanta Mohapatra, there’s Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (which is marvellous even though I think we’d have appreciated it more if we’d read it a couple of years later when we were reading people like Dario Fo) and Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure (ditto but with Beckett) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadowlines which, combined with a really good professor, was the text that really taught me how much a text gives you to play with.

Still, faced with a class of undergraduates recently come from CBSE/ICSE schools, I can imagine the university would leave out a few things as possibly being too much. If it was necessary to break us in with the Victorians (for the next two years the compulsory courses all followed historical chronological order), it was equally necessary to keep the Indian literature we did accessible and recognisable. And since this is the only reason I can think of for All About H. Hatterr’s exclusion from the syllabus, I think it’s best to assume that this is why.

There’s an Angela Carter essay where she talks about the enormous importance of James Joyce both to the English language as a whole and to her personally:

Nevertheless, he carved out a once-and-future language, restoring both the
simplicity it had lost and imparting a complexity. The language of the heart and
the imagination and the daily round and the dream had been systematically
deformed by a couple of centuries of use as the rhetorical top-dressing of crude
power. Joyce Irished, he Europeanised, he decolonialised English: he tailored it
to fit this century, he drove a giant wedge between English Literature and
literature in the English language and, in doing so, he made me (forgive this
personal note) free. Free not to do as he did, but free to treat the Word not as
if it were holy but in the knowledge that it is always profane. He is in himself
the antithesis of the Great Tradition. You could also say, he detached fiction
from one particular ideological base, and his work has still not yet begun to
bear its true fruit. The centenarian still seems avant-garde.

And that is what Desani could, should be for us. We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.

Desani’s approach to language is so far away from the way English is taught and experienced in Indian schools that it isn’t even, as with Joyce and the Great Tradition, the antithesis to it. The two bear no relation to one another; they exist in different planes entirely. And so I’d like to see what would happen if Delhi University undergraduates were to be exposed to All About H. Hatterr. In third year, perhaps– by then there’d be a certain amount of context to help them to make sense of him. Yet if an unsuspecting class of first years were to come across H. Hatterr it might be exactly what they needed for the next few years of college.

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