Published in Peril
From school to my Master's in India, English served as the only language that I could read and write reasonably well – the only language that I could express complex thoughts in; the only language through which I could feel deeply; the language that I could argue in; and the language that formed the basis of my critical faculties. My grasp of my two other primary languages was always less than adequate for any of those higher-order tasks. The foundations for this were laid during school.
However, in school, even though English was the medium of instruction and we studied English Literature quite seriously, our learning of the language was flawed. The absence of an organic link between what we read and how we spoke reflected this most markedly. While we read (or were supposed to read) Wordsworth, Dickens, Shakespeare, and all the rest of the “traditional” canon—our curriculum was developed by English classicists in the early twentieth century, and changed very marginally in later aeons—we spoke English in school in a grammatically inconsistent, free-flowing and highly idiosyncratic manner. While it was mandatory to speak in English at my school, the English that was spoken was a hodgepodge of improvised grammar, idiom and syntactical forms. (Many fellow students were the first in their family to receive an education in English. Most students spoke what we referred to as our mother-tongues at home, but there were a few who also primarily spoke English at home.) This state of linguistic formlessness was, in retrospect, a reflection of broader, ongoing historical and cultural shifts, our little social habitus serving as a microcosm of the wider society.
History and politics
English came to South Asia with British colonialism. If you are someone who is interested in the history of the region, you will at some point encounter what may be regarded as the manifesto of colonial cultural indoctrination – Lord Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), which memorably stipulated, among other things, that a key aim of colonial education in India ought to be to produce an intermediary class between the colonial governors and the native governed—“a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.
Lord Macaulay’s observations and exhortations went on to decisively shape the English Education Act that was passed that same year by the Council of India under the stewardship of Governor General Lord William Bentinck. The Act envisaged a swift end to official support for Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic education in India, and marked what may be regarded as the beginning of the ‘Age of English’ in the subcontinent and, indeed, in the broader region. Since Independence in 1947, English has only more decisively established itself as the dominant language—officially, legally, economically, academically and socially—in India, its ascendency underpinned as much by Indian realities as the verities of globalisation. English divides as much as it unites, and it remains a site, instigator and marker of vast and seemingly irreconcilable differences in the country.
Without a doubt, growing up, I was conscious of the politics surrounding this language. Everyday life engendered a subliminal cognitive dissonance – ever-present but unobtrusive. English constituted and opened up an imaginary and habitus that at once alienated and also felt completely natural. It was the language of aspiration. One could not but be aware of its status, its power, its dominion, and its all-encompassing and all-pervasive influence. Growing up where I did, and in my particular cultural and educational milieu, one could not but live on within the language, taking it for granted. It was powerful—educationally, economically and socially—but its power felt utterly unexceptional. The status quo was not something that you wanted to raise too many troubling questions about, particularly questions to which you had no answers. The power of English seemed to accord with the natural order of things. Every act of speaking or writing was imbued with this power, and every act of expression was also an act of consolidation of this power. Every utterance was meaningful in that it betrayed your place in society – your education, your family background, and perhaps even your professional background. In a chaotic cultural landscape, the English language served as a seemingly coherent marker of status.
Therefore, it goes without saying that for someone like me to discuss the English language here and now, understanding the socio-political framework of its dominance is crucial.
But the average mind tends to gradually despair of the burden of politics.
Mastery over form
Politics is one thing; mastery over form is something else entirely. No amount of political analysis, interrogation and reflection could help me achieve what I’d like to achieve, and what I’ve always wanted to achieve – to overcome my truncated linguistic heritage, to master this one language that has formed the substratum of my intellectual development, and to use it well. To inhabit the language fully, and plumb the depths of complex ideas and fields of knowledge competently and adroitly. To master new knowledge through mastery over language. To generate new ideas through mastery over language. To delve headlong into ideation and thinking, and to do so dexterously.
As a student of the social sciences, I find myself confronting questions about language daily, perhaps more so than I’d like. Everyone else seems to be able to get on comfortably in life without experiencing the slightest pang over their linguistic ability. I, on the other hand, feel constrained by the incompleteness of my knowledge. I suppose that in this field, where language is—and ought to be—key, becoming more circumspect about language is inevitable. I am now more than ever aware of my incomplete knowledge and grasp of English. In fact, interestingly, flaws that were invisible or unacknowledged earlier have thrust themselves into attention now. If I used to take liberties with word-usage, syntax and meaning earlier, I am now less careless, or rather less confident about throwing language around without being certain of its appropriateness.
My gripe with the English language is that I can never quite master it completely. I can never quite know all of it completely. I can never quite get it absolutely right. I can never quite make it do adequately what I want it to do. I often fail to produce the exact effect that I intend to produce. Even as I write this sentence, I am aware of its incomplete-ness, its inadequacy. It is almost the lexical representation of a half-formed thought. The thought that I am conveying now is only a mere fragment of the real thing. I want to convey my sense of helplessness at being trapped within the confines of the language, but the sense that emerges here is only a refracted version of that thought.
Of course none of this is exclusive to the English language; it would be foolish to believe that what I’ve just said here is anything but universal to the phenomenon of Language itself. Yet something about the English language—about my tortuous journey with/in this language; about my irredeemably incomplete knowledge of it; about my sometimes half-hearted and sometimes refractory attempts at mastering it; and about my feelings of inadequacy within it—something about the wondrous, powerful and utterly mysterious English language accentuates all those feelings and experiences, all that I’ve talked about here.
Perhaps this is why I have an abiding fascination with ‘non-native’ writers who mastered English so well and so completely that they surpassed the best of their ‘native’ contemporaries. There are a handful—just a handful—who came to the language as outsiders, or as peripheral-knowers, and eventually inhabited it so fully that they made the language their own. Fully in control of the language, and fully capable of effectively demonstrating and deploying its beauty and power, they produced insuperable art.
One such is the Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s writing stuns with its precision, discipline, power, richness and seeming boundlessness. For someone who came to the English language as an outsider, his skill was amazing. Both the tautness and the expansiveness of his writing pierces with its excellence. Conrad’s psychologically penetrative novels are also literary masterpieces – their literariness is as stupefying as their incomparable probing of the human condition.
The early attempts of foreign masters
Recently, I found myself wondering about Conrad’s learning arc, and how he reached the apogee of his skill. What was his learning curve like? How did he write while he was still learning and developing his skills? It is difficult to find out about this because what we have today are these masters’ triumphant works and successes, not their early (and presumably flawed) tentative endeavours in the language.
The permanence of our flaws
A peculiarity of our time is that everything that we write (on the computer) or do today will likely get stored somewhere. In the endless galaxy of information that is the internet, every time we publish something online, we leave a small but seemingly permanent trace. A consequence of this is that you can never fully outlive your flaws – while still evolving as a writer, the messy writing of your past doesn’t quite disappear. It’s still there somewhere, not fully discard-able. The past lingers as a reminder of your inadequacy. You’re still constantly learning and you’d like to believe that your best is still ahead of you. Nevertheless, you can’t help looking back when it’s all there for you to scour. The reflexive embarrassment that accompanies every ill-judged attempt to look back over your shoulder gets to be a bit annoying. You can see the flaws, but you can’t go back and change them.
Recently, for the first time, the ‘right to forget’ came to be conceptualised in internet law in the European Union. Impractically, I wonder if we could extend that concept to our past writing as well?
Back to form
As the world increasingly moves towards a more utilitarian and perfunctory approach to language, I find myself pondering the question of formal beauty even more. My bad English reminds me of how much further I could go into this one language that I know well.