English Literature in Indian context

I always wondered how root beer tasted and what pot roast was when I read Enid Blyton as a kid ….

I also wondered how people could live in the countryside and have electricity, functioning shops and their kids could take pangas with local cops like Mr. Goon …. cant imagine this in the Indian context.

I could not imagine kids running some sort of secret society without mothers butting in and effin the hell out of this bid for independance ….

My friend, a writer called Dr. Jayshri Kannan has put it wonderfully, in a speech she delivered at the British Council recently.  I had to put it on my blog, hope you dont mind Jay …

Studying English literature in an Indian context

I have not written anything populist for a long time. But why talk to a congregation of Educators about Education? So I make an exception here. Hmmm do I hear sighs of relief? I too need to do something different fellow educators.

I grew up studying British and American children’s books at the Delhi Pubic Library. The characters had names like Tom, Elizabeth, Lucy and John. They drank ginger beer, they ate sandwiches and cakes, their hair was golden and eyes blue.

I pursued my studies in Literature at the University. I studied more of Tom’s , Elizabeth’s, Lucy’s and John’s who drank more ginger beer or root beer now( what they tasted like, I had no clue but beer the forbidden word in usage was exciting enough), ate more sandwiches and cakes, and had shiny golden hair and transparent blue eyes.

It never occurred to me that people like me who were breaking norms and paving some life in their own terms in India could also be part of literature. Stereotypes were carved in my mind.

But Indian writing got bolder. No one cared about the – oh – so Englishie – English. They wrote about life around them. Sopna, Seema, Rajneesh and Asano who ate mishti Dohi, idli, parathas or rice and had black eyes and black hair. These I recognized. Thus began my gradual mental shift.

The American and British books I read were wonderful. They opened up a new world for me. A world that was so fascinating! But they had inadvertently told me that the real people around me couldn’t be a part of this literature.

I come from a conservative middle class background. We went to visit our Grandparents in the countryside during school vacations. During these vacations we visited many families. We were told they were poor people and we were clearly told not to flaunt our urban ways in front of them. But these so- called poor people offered us milk in huge jugs and lived in lush green farms!

I am equally guilty of forming stereotypes in my mind’s eye. It had not occurred to me what was luxury in the city was of common use in the countryside. It had become impossible for me to think beyond my visions of poverty. I went to them with a well meaning, patronizing pity. I had felt sorry for them even before I met them. I had a stereotyped image of the poor.

I am guilty more than once, guilty and ashamed when my microscopic vision comes alive! When my husband got posted to a place in the north eastern part of India, I began touring these places. I had an impression that the people there were drug addicts and irresponsible drunkards. On my first day in the North East (I mean Nagaland in particular), I saw people laughing, meeting each other, shopping , just the way we lived in other parts of the country. Initially I was a bit surprised and then I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized I had been bought over by the images commonly created, images that showed people as one thing over and over again. I came with the sure shot faith that there was no possible connection with them as human equals and returned home with some, who I can say are my best friends now.

I must quickly add that I too have been judged by stereotypes. In North India, Madrasis are supposed to be Intelligent and good in Maths. Unfortunately to the disappointment of my North Indian friends I regularly failed in Maths and sported a skewed look which far from showcased me as intelligent. To the culturally conscious South Indian I was generally a creature from outer space. They couldn’t strip off the popular images and connect with me as a human mind.

When the North Indian looked for South Indian sensibilities in me I wondered:

What if they knew of my journalist friend Arun in Chennai who dares to live with the Dalits?

What if they knew of my friend Lakshmy who tried every progressive method possible, to gain some recognition within her household?

What if they saw meaningful South Indian cinema and the not so meaningful cinema working in their own innovative ways?

What if they knew of my dear poet friend Kanimozhi, who dares to question establishment besides being a part of the political set up?

What if they knew of all my friends staying in south India who pray together and open champagnes together-despite the fact that alcohol is an unutterable word among Indian Hindus and Muslims?

What if they knew of the caste, creed and religious barriers writers like Vairamuthu break just to be honest?

What if they knew of Kuttirevathi, Sukirtharani and Malathy Maitri talking of sex in the same breath as food attempting to expand the subversive creative spaces available to women writers?


For every journalist like Arun in the south there is a Peter Hodge in Australia or a Deepak Bharti.

For every Vairamuthu in Kollywood there is a Javed Saab in Bollywood

For every Kanimozhi there is a Medha patkar who vociferously fights the establishment

Didn’t they know of children tolerating and paving his path despite poor academic support everywhere?

Didn’t they know everywhere they remixed Bob Marley, Abba and Gun and Roses to popular taste?

Didn’t they know both places had committed NGO’s resiliently working for a cause?

Didn’t both poles of the country have those bunches of kids who loved pizzazz, pastas, sushi, as much as they loved their home cuisine?

I often wondered if my south Indian community would accept me more easily:

if there had been a television network in each of the Indian villages to telecast its ever changing ruralism?

OR if they knew about my beautician’s cleaner who collects the hair cut in the Salon and runs a booming business of hair extensions?

OR if they knew of that Business man in Delhi who fights every hurdle created by the political structure – sometimes have failed but managed to rise and remain afloat despite odds?

All of them are real India. And yet no one single image is India.

Stereotypes never tell these stories. Stereotypes are not always untrue but surely they are incomplete perceptions. They emphasize differences and not similarities.

I never thought of myself as an Indian or a south Indian or a north Indian till someone pointed it out to me

I conduct writing workshops every summer and am always surprised at how many people are keen on attending them. The only thing I make sure is they take back with them the ability to break and question stereotypes. Start the story of Environmental degradation with an I, you have an evolving view point; start the story of corruption with your experience you will have a more humane writing evolve.

I was charmed and touched to the point of tears when one old lady recognized me as the Jayshri Kannan ,the author of her daughter’s English Text.She took me aside and said ,” M’aam you are very daring. You must write more such books. But I don’t like the fact that you write only one book a year. Write more and write about this. .” She gave a me along curriculum plan! I was really charmed. This old lady not only had read my book; she also took ownership of my next book! This is was a North Indian old women .North Indians are said to be less inclined to reading.

One of the stereotypes is that India is a land of two races – the lighter- skinned Aryans and the darker-skinned Dravidians –

David Frawley in his impartially written essay on Aryan Dravidian divide says:’ The British ruled India, as they did other lands, by a divide-and-conquer strategy. They promoted religious, ethnic and cultural divisions among their colonies to keep them under control. Unfortunately some of these policies also entered into the intellectual realm. The same simplistic and divisive ideas that were used for interpreting the culture and history of India. Regrettably many Hindus have come to believe these ideas, even though a deeper examination reveals they may have no real objective or scientific basis

This stereotyped image of India I think comes from western Literature. Mark Twain in one of his famous speeches says:

In religion, India is the only millionaire – the One land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined Mark Twain quotes American Humorist, Writer and Lecturer. 1835-1910.

So power plays a major role in creating these stereotypes. How powerfully is it said? By whom? What is the economic and social power of their countries? How many times is it said? All this matters. Yes Power matters.

Things said in the colonial rule, Indian writers took years to demystify.

My American student recently told me, my ways were not authentically Indian. I am willing to contend that I had failed many a times and agree I have a number of oddities but the fact is I didn’t know who an authentic Indian was?

I was so much like my friends all over the world .I wasn’t starving, I questioned and I did not worship sadhus .I didn’t fit the single story .They had stereotypes drawn out. India to them was one entity, a land of sadhus, poverty and prejudiced citizens, beautiful landscapes, incomprehensible people, people unable to speak for themselves- waiting for a kind white person to save them from impending disaster.

But I never had such preconceived notions about America. Not because I am in anyway superior to my student but because a variety of American writing was at my disposal. I had read Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Melville, Hemingway, Saul Bellow and Toni Morison. I didn’t have one stereotyped image of America.

If I too hadn’t grown up in India I too would see India as is seen through popular ideas. These images alienate continents, alienate cultures. To those who read that, “one single story” and form opinions about countries and people, there is no possibility of other people, being similar to themselves in anyway. I borrow the term ONE SINGLE STORY from Chimamanda Adiche, a Nigerian storyteller who in her extremely well articulated talk on the danger of a single story says,”how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story particularly as children,”

I would like to conclude with her punch line, “when we realize that there never was a single story about any place, we regain a paradise.”


27 thoughts on “English Literature in Indian context

  1. I never thought of it that way.

    I remember I once convinced my sister to ‘run away’ to the gardens. We pitched a tent and pretended ‘bad men’ were after us, and lazed around eating sandwiches.

    We need more Indian literature where we fight with moms over lengths of the school skirts, fights over curfew, nasty boys who pull our hair and then try to pull skirts…

  2. Who exactly is Dr. Jayshri Kannan? Is she famous? I mean are we supposed to know her and it’s only me who doesn’t recognize the name?

  3. Advitiya you’re hilarious! Boys who pull your hair and then your skirts! Awesome! I remember the hair pulling parts but not the skirt bits!

  4. Very true!

    I remember, there was a time when I also thrived on Enid Blyton, then Nancy Drews, followed by Sweet Valley High. Then I do not know why, but there was a gradual shift to Indian literature for me, and now I see myself engulfed in a world of Satyajit Ray and Jodi Picoult


  5. I think all Indian children wondered about this!! I had the exact same thoughts!!

    Another thing I wondered about was the Caucasian dolls we have for children, either sari clad or blue eyed, when we were young there were no black eyed dolls, that could shut their eyes and move their limbs!

    I am glad your friend is writing Indian literature for Indian readers.. it’s caught on big time… I love reading Indian authors!!

    Me too, its our type of work

  6. Just to inform you Mom Root Beer and Ginger Beer are two different things. Root beer is one of the worst things I have ever tasted and you wont like it even cause you can hardly stand Red Bull. And Ginger Beer is too sweet for my delicate palate.

    Never had either …. shrug

  7. Thanx for all ure responses and most of thanx to Ritu for accomodating me in her celeb status blog!Ah ok lemme take it one by one
    Avitiya:u’re newer analogies were oh – so cute…we too pitched tents and did the secret five/seven stuff.
    Nova:Im so glad ure with us.
    Ramit:u sound exasperated not knowing jayshri kannan. heheh this is so funny.
    Who exactly is Dr. Jayshri Kannan?
    Jayshri is a normal soul who works in the area of curricuum development and is a teacher educator. If u read ure 11th /12th english texts ..u read jayshri kannan and hated her.

    Is she famous?
    famous ? famous amongst students who scored less in english and came crying,famous among
    english language teachers who went unrecognized in their own set ups.
    I mean are we supposed to know …. it’s only me who doesn’t recognize the name?
    No u dnt have to know her and its not just u who dosent know her name.Names dn’t matter but ideas do.I travel the nook and cranny of the country to train teachers.. I am amzed at the exemplary wrk sum teachers do in smaller districts …they need to be recognized. My work mayb creating an impact on a large population but it is these unknown ppl and ppl like u who keep my spirit up.I am neither on net or blogs or chats .. so hw wd u know me?But we all need appreciation and support…so many heads nodding in unison is my support ..u all now become a part of my next work.Thanx for lendin an ear.

  8. Manju , Dipali, sakhi:ure appreciation matters and spurs me on.
    Athira & Homemaker:SO u read Jodi? tell her that on her official site. SHe wd be delighted. Her constant complaint id no indian ever reads her wrk.she is so much like Me. My age group , similar issues…nice to know ure immersed in her writings.
    The caucasian dolls stuff is so true. I wonder why i dint think of it when i was writing.
    Zero: readin your blog now. will write my comments there.
    AB reh gaye Ishaan ji:C this generation knows it all! Power speaks ..economic power speaks and adds to awareness..

  9. @ Ritu

    Wow that was such an eloquent and thoughtful sppech. I totally agree with wonderig what were pot roasts and root beer (I think I derive my love for continental food from there) 😛

    @ Jayshri

    I read Jodi Picoult too btw and love her books; and so do many of my friends.Quite a few of us (including me) have even blogged about it. Please reassure her that she has enough and more readers in India 🙂

    I started reading wih Noddies and gradutaed to Famous Five & movd onto Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys. Somewhere along the line, my grandmother got me hooked ontot Rabindranatah Tagore & Sukumar Ray.Now I prefer reading Indian autors at the end of the day and that’s the first section I visit in Landmark 🙂

    Best of luck to you 🙂

  10. I grew up reading Enid Blyton too and did the usal Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie and of course a host of classics. I went through this “Asian writers only” phase in college but now I read anything that catches my attention. 🙂 I love reading period.

    Me too, including the old tattered newspaper in which some stuff may be wrapped

  11. Hi Dr. Jayshri, good to see you here. Most teacher sorts are weirdos anyways.
    I read my class 12 english books like 16 or 17 years ago. Were you around then?

    Ramit dont be a horror

  12. And my English books were the only ones I actually loved and read. And if you wrote them Dr. Jayshri, then you did a great job!

    Hear Hear

  13. I’ve been very keen on starting a reading club where ppl gather and read whatever they wrote/liked or feel like sharing.donno when it wl happen.

    Good idea

  14. What a speech! Like Manju, I kept nodding my head reading it.
    As for Enid Blyton, I grew up reading her books too and i wondered too the same as you. How I wanted to go and stay in one of those boarding schools, either Mallory towers or St. Clare’s.
    Nowadays you will find me curled up with an Amitav Chosh, a Chitra Divakaruni or some such… all the Indian authors.

    Yeah, rang a bell for me too

  15. have you seen this??

    Plagiarism??? Don’t you think there is too much of a similarity between the above speech and this TED one???

    I am shocked 😯

    Yeah there is …..

  16. Honestly I loved to read all the english books. (Don’t remember any of it now so don’t quiz me) And it was fun too!

    I know all of you have commented that you have since moved on to Indian literature, but I haven’t. I still read all foreign authors and enjoy them too. I don’t remember reading much by Indian authors.

    Is it imp to shift to Indian lit?

  17. Sakhi.I did not give u the background of this speech. We were given her speech as an input to develop our talks, So every speaker knew we were using her speech as the concept developer. It was legitimate usage. Thanx for drawing my attention.

  18. ‘One Single Story’ is absolutely mind blowing.
    Jayshri, You are wonderful in your speech. The style is totally easy and yet so convincing.
    Ritu, THanks for sharing.

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