Maybe, delinquents, that’s Truth!

The reading assignment for our session on the Nobel prize is in the post below.

Our discussion opened up many further directions to go with Hatterr. I will just underline the theme of fraud in the novel, which recalls Bennett. It seems to me quite typical of figures who are in some way peripheral to treat cultural status as a performance rather than a mark of essence. Central figures are much likelier to believe in the triumph of inner worth (though sometimes peripheral arrivals embrace this belief too, as a tribute to the system that allows them to arrive). Both Desani and Bennett approach the suggestion that prestige is only a sham—yet neither really implies this. In Hatterr the residual possibility always remains that alongside all the fake gurus and ascetics, a real one could be found. (This uneasy balancing act between make-believe and unqualified belief is often described as typical of religion in a secular or pluralist age; Aravamudan takes up the issue at length. In Desani the issue generalizes from religion to other fields of culture.)

Orsini and Mufti give you tools for thinking about the question of languages other than English in relation to literature in English in India. More generally, they should make you reflect on the idea of “literature in English” and “literatures in English” (the thing Rutgers gives PhD’s in). I wanted to spend more time on this issue in relation to Hatterr but we were led on to other questions. Here are some basic points to keep in mind.

Any language is fraught within internal division: English is really a family of more or less mutually intelligible varieties associated with various geographic areas, social groups, forms of status, and occasions of use in speech and writing. The same holds true for any language, though English’s global spread makes it an extreme case in some ways. And no language is hermetically sealed off from contact with others; what varies are the conditions of contact (recall Beecroft). The imperial history of English has produced particularly fraught conditions.

Only within the ideological form Mufti calls “nation-thinking” (466) does a close correspondence among language, literature, culture, nation, and state appear as the norm; this form of thinking was, he says, a product of the colonial encounter between Europeans and non-European literature cultures. Where problems with the nation-state-language correspondence appear—which is to say, everywhere—a contest for hegemony arises, in which, most typically, different aspirant bourgeoisies compete for the resources of the state on the basis of claims to represent the “people” who “belong there”; such claims often involve the invention (putatively, the discovery) of literary and cultural traditions of which the aspirants make themselves the representatives.1

One trajectory for English in India is as the language of an Indian national literature, associated with urban upper-middle-class education (cf. Samosapedia s.v. “English Medium”), marked by distinctive concerns, accents, and genres, and uniquely suited, unlike the bhāṣās (India’s other, more regionalized languages: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu…) to representing and justifying a new nation. Desani can be, and is, enrolled in the newly forming category “Indian writing in English.” His novel even looks, from a distance, like a tour of the incipient Indian nation from North to South and back again, and it testifies to the enriching possibilities of interchange between English and the most widespread “vernacular,” Hindustani. (Hindustani and not Hindi or Urdu: Mufti is very illuminating on this distinction.) The parodic figure of Banerrji and the abject misadventures of Hatterr among Indians as well as among sahibs hardly paint a flattering picture, but this may hardly matter if one can appreciate the achievement and, in appreciating it, feel appreciated by it.

We discussed the other trajectory—the one enabled by international modernism—in class. Here English is a preeminent medium for experiments in language and literary form hailed in the metropolitan centers: Desani turns his vexed relationship to English into a kind of stylistic advantage, so long as he can indeed be recognized as a linguistic master and not merely the clumsy non-native speaker he parodies in his preface, “All About…”. Other Indian writers in English in Desani’s period differentiate clearly between a narrator who operates in Standard and their more linguistically variable characters; this what R.K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand do in their English novels. But Desani takes a different risk. The risk is that he will be only a style, only “Hatterrese.” We looked at some of the early versions of this. But we shouldn’t rush to congratulate ourselves on having overcome those bad old tendencies. Orsini identifies something similar in the present day when she warns that “In the florid, sensuous, inclusive, multicultural world of the post-Rushdie, postcolonial novel, the West can settle down to contemplate, not India, but its latest reinterpretation of itself” (88). Orsini, a comparatist who works on multilingualism as well as a scholar of Hindi, is not voicing total pessimism about cross-cultural transmission and circulation. She wants to keep the cross-linguistic in the cross-cultural. She is urging us to consider the institutional conditions of the globalization of English as a literary language, and to consider the linguistic and cultural possibilities that are obscured when “literatures in English” are assumed to comprehensively represent multililingual societies in which English occupies a particular (high-status, urban, cosmopolitan) position.

  1. This is a rough paraphrase of the argument of Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983). The key point, as in Mufti, is that the nation is a distinctly modern form: “Nationalism is not the awakening of an old, latent, dormant force, though that is how it does indeed present itself. It is in reality the consequence of a new form of social organization, based on deeply internalized, education-dependent high cultures, each protected by its own state” (48).↩︎

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

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