Whenever Indians, Bangladeshis or Pakistanis come together to discuss literature, past and present, the question of English inevitably arises. The conference that took place at ULAB in Dhaka last month was no exception. The conference theme was Language, Literature, and Community, and despite the fact that Bangladesh is a Bangla-speaking country, born of a magnificent language movement that fused nationalism with language, and despite the fact that Bangla is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world, still the question of English was everywhere during the conference and in the informal discussions that took place around it.
Historians of Indian literature will trace this fixation with English to the nineteenth century, when English education was brought to the subcontinent as part of the civilizing mission of colonial rule. As early as the nineteenth century, English was associated with advancement, even as English education was only accessible to the elite. English thus served to entrench already existing social hierarchies. Today, we see similar trends in all the countries of South Asia. But today's English is not precisely the English of the nineteenth century. For one, today's English is more about accessing a certain globality rather than a colonial, or strictly British, modernity. Anglophilia has been replaced with a desire for global belonging. This means that English offers social advancement to young people not only in the opportunities it might provide for going abroad, but in Bangladesh as well, in the new avenues of social mobility it opens up in terms of higher education, jobs, promotions, and salary. In some ways, then, the desire for English has become less ideological, and more pragmatic – less about accessing a putatively superior culture and more about making a livable life for oneself, either at home or abroad.
The debate between ideology and pragmatism was visible during the various discussions at the ULAB conference. Many of the speakers and participants were professors of English literature, meaning that they earned their PhDs and continue to research and teach texts from the English (and, less so, the American) canon. The study of literature, it can be argued, is not limited by language, but cultivates a certain sensibility regarding aesthetics and form, ideally across languages. Thus Professor Kaiser Haq, head of the English department at ULAB, is an accomplished poet in English and a translator of Bangla literature. Professor Harish Trivedi, recently retired from Delhi University, researches on Virginia Woolf and Kipling and also reads widely in Hindi and Sanskrit. In this multilingual subcontinent, this kind of traffic between different literary traditions is an ideal.
But the ideal sometimes jars with reality. In a world in which students are increasingly pressured to make pragmatic decisions, in a world in which social advancement is not a luxury but a necessity, the severance of English from literary studies is a very real possibility. It is a South Asian problem, but not uniquely so. In the United States as well, the humanities is under threat and the study of literature is increasingly associated with a small, privileged minority of students who, subsidized by their wealthy parents, do not need to be pragmatic when it comes to their futures. For the rest, more practical fields of study are in order. So enrollment in literature classes is decreasing. As a result, universities are hiring fewer professors. Academic jobs in English are turning towards the teaching of writing – an important skill, to be sure, but often one geared more towards the effective use of language than interpretation, analysis or aesthetics. Is there a place for the study of literature in any of our futures?
On one side, an unanswerable question – on the other, one that might offer new possibilities for the future of English on the subcontinent. In India, there is a burgeoning body of new literature in English that refuses the high literary aesthetics of an earlier generation. Writers such as Chetan Bhagat, Anuja Chauhan, Amish Tripathi and Durjoy Dutta, among others, are less concerned with the depth of their prose than with telling relatable stories to first-generation English readers. These novels will likely not win Booker Prizes. Many of them are about aspiration itself – entertaining stories of young people who struggle to orient themselves in today's changing times. Bhagat's most recent novel, Half Girlfriend, centers on Madhav, a young man who comes from a village in Bihar to an elite college in Delhi on a basketball scholarship, and lacks the fluency in English that his Delhi-bred peers have. He struggles with his self worth as he is ridiculed for his Bhojpuri accent, and ends up leaving a prestigious job in Delhi to return to Bihar to work at his mother's impoverished village school. There he has an opportunity to win a grant for the school if he can make a speech, in English, in front of Bill Gates and members of his philanthropic foundation. Gates, the novel tells us, is not interested in hearing a translated speech. English is the only option. Madhav studies hard and manages to make himself understood. But English remains a foreign language for him. The novel, though written in English, is a record of Madhav's alienation from it. Far from celebrating English, it is wracked with a particular ambivalence that marks this new generation of fiction.
Novels such as these, and conversations such as those held at ULAB, suggest that the global crisis in literary studies might have its solutions not in the places where English was born and bred, but in the regions of the world where English occupies a contentious, lively and problematic place, and where the meaning of English is continually subject to debate. The subcontinent's growing English-speaking population and the burgeoning of English-language publishing in India suggests that the future of English might not be at Oxford or Harvard, but in this part of the world instead, where English is spoken, and then at times not spoken, where the linguistic worlds are rich and multiple, and where the story of English remains a beautifully unfinished one.
Ulka Anjaria teaches at Brandeis University.