4 minutes reading time (890 words)

Postcolonial English and the Prospects of Change

One particularly controversial aspect of literature is its relationship to history. According to literary critic and scholar Satish C. Aikant, “The bond [between literature and history] is both inextricable and problematic”, as a “…study of literature inevitably involves a study of its history and a determination of its sites and modes of discrimination…” (In ARIEL, Vol. 31-1 & 2, 2000, p.337).

In Saidian/Orientalist terms, one could also add that, in fact, history today in its formal/institutional sense especially, is a ‘product’ of the former imperial/colonial ‘dominant’ Western powers; since these continue by and large to appropriate and control the ‘construction’ of the ‘Other’ (i.e. the Orient/Orientals) to quite an extent, in the supposedly ‘postcolonial’ scenario. One very obvious manifestation of how this continues to happen and affect us even now, in the academic/intellectual and literary fields, is that of the continued stress in postcolonial societies (such as India and Pakistan) on teaching a rather dated, ‘elitist’ and conventional English-literature based syllabus at various levels of education.


In the landmark volume, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York, 1989), Prof. G. Vishwanathan unveiled, very effectively, the ways and manners in which ‘literary’ English studies were introduced in colonial India as an effective means of colonial subjugation and control, whereby the supposed ‘superiority’ of English/Western societies, cultures, literary and technological developments and so on, could be drummed into a subject people, in turn spawning several generations of compliant natives who, if not wholly conditioned by the ‘master culture’, were certainly quite ready to be obedient servants of the imperial system. We can note, even now, every day around us, the continued survival of this mentality within the bureaucratic corridors of South Asia many decades after our ‘independence’ from colonialism per se—to the detriment of any real progress, or development, within our societies.


It is therefore certainly imperative today that universities in South Asia at least, take a serious look at what they are teaching in their English syllabi. In another essay, “Then and Now”, Prof. Vishwanathan dwells on a scene from Vikram Seth’s well-known novel A Suitable Boy (1993), where the ‘syllabus committee’ of the English Department of the fictional Brahampur University are engaged in a hot debate about the inclusion of exclusion of certain writers from their ‘modernist’ syllabus. But their arguments and deliberations, quite ironically, only seem to revolve around the traditional ‘canon’ of English literature and writers such as James Joyce, DH Lawrence and TS Eliot, to the complete exclusion of papers/courses on Indian/South Asian or other Commonwealth writers in English. “There is a ready acceptance of the template they inherited from the colonial days”, says Vishwanathan, “What is also missing from the discussion is the important question of how British (and other Western) texts should be taught…”. This mirrors the experience of the late Prof. Edward Said, on a 1985 visit to a large public university in the Gulf states, where he found the literary courses equally ‘anachronistic’, with “Young Arabs dutifully reading Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen and Dickens…[with] no emphasis on the relationship between English and the colonial process”.


Not much seems to have changed since, at least as far as Pakistani English literary syllabi are concerned, although I believe a rather better awareness prevails in India of the issues concerned and the need to develop viable approaches to tackle these. It is true, that over the last few years or so, some token attempts have been made in some of the larger public sector universities in Pakistan to incorporate some elements from the new/contemporary English literature(s) now being written in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and to engage in some limited theoretical discussion/study of the colonial role of languages and literatures in English, French and Spanish in different regional contexts. Yet, these efforts are generally not sufficient, nor very well planned or thought out.


Some people in Pakistani academia are very quick to propose that English literature/literary studies should be done away with entirely and English language alone should be taught at our colleges and universities as a mere ‘communication skill’. This is no solution at all. Literary and cultural dimensions are very closely interlinked and no simplistic linguistically-oriented programme can do justice to the current requirements, within an increasingly complex set of global discourses. Indeed, given the challenges of today’s world, what we need to do is to somehow (a) develop comprehensive curricula for English literary and linguistic study at college and university level, that also provide scope for wider, comparative literary/linguistic/cultural studies; (b) at the same time provide students with an adequate theoretical base on which to construct an eventual process of postcolonial ‘indigenization’ and ‘recovery’ via the shared, common experiences of former colonies; and (c) in time, evolve a truly independent, objective critical faculty that enables us, at last, to rise out of our continued dependence on the persistent remnants of colonialism/imperialism that still plague us in various ways. It is envisaged that the gradual evolution of the sort of intellectual maturity/confidence engendered by these proposals would also be generally very useful in South Asian states and societies, in helping them shed many of their shackles and narrow perceptions and limitations, towards the achievement of common goals.


Ultimately, a whole process of academic/scholastic and literary/intellectual change is inherent within this basic premise.

-From ‘Selected Shorter Essays’ 2011

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