Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. A personal experience by Risa

Risa has kindly answered some questions for us regarding postcolonialism. She is a young, educated woman, from India. She studied English literature at university and is currently on hiatus from work, but she lent us some of her precious time. So, thank you a lot, Risa! Also, I would like to show you her blog, Bread Crumb Reads – it is great and very well informed, so don’t forget to pay her a visit as soon as posible.

Risa for Books and Reviews:

1. When did you decide you wanted to study English Literature? Why? Did any particular work inspire you?
I knew I was going to study English Literature from the time I was about four or five years old. I believe this was because my mother was a teacher of English and she taught me to love reading. From the time I could read I devoured abridged versions of many popular classics. Strangely enough, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was a favourite for a long time, and there was Little Women and The Wizard of Oz. I also enjoyed reading plenty of Enid Blyton in those very early years. I graduated to reading the classics unabridged, and by the time I was ready for university I knew that all I wanted to do was teach English Literature, be it in school or university.
2. How many languages apart from English do you speak? Do you use them on a daily basis?
Now this is where I have some explaining to do. I am a South Indian whose mother tongue is English. I know this doesn’t make much sense but this too is the result of postcolonial India. My grand-parents and their generation belonged to the era when India was gaining its freedom. It was also a time when any educated Indian could speak excellent English and studied English Literature and Western Philosophy. ‘Educated’ Indians were more well-versed in Western culture and literature than they were with all things Indian. (I would just like to mention that there was no ‘India’ until the British came and brought most of the little kingdoms here, under their domain.) My mother grew up on a heavy diet of, not only Western Literature, but Western classical music, dance, movies and the popular music of the day. Consequently I learnt much of this from my mother. My father belonged to a family, where though they all knew English, spoke in their native tongue, which in our case is Tamil – a language that is as old as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, (again, I am sure, the consequence of what the British colonization has done to our psychy) my father refused to talk to us in anything but English, and my mother could talk to us in nothing but English.
In very good private and convent schools, students were not allowed to speak any other language but English. If anyone spoke any other language they were punished quite severely. In the past decade, though, these rules have been relaxed as the government has been trying to encourage learning of the mother tongue. Personally, though  English is the only language I speak fluently, I know enough Tamil to buy something at the market, bargain rates and speak to my maid, and I can understand some Hindi.
3.  At university, did you study postcolonial literature or just the canon?
Postcolonial Literature has become quite important in academics in these past eight or nine years. Indians are beginning to realise how much they have been caught up in all things Western that they’re missing out on something that is quite their own. Therefore, Indian literature from the post colonial era has become important and recently universities have begun studying Australian, Canadian, African and Caribbean post colonial literature as well. We also have separate courses that study translations of Indian literature.
4. How are “typically Western works” perceived in India?
Again, this might sound strange, but those of us who have grown up with British classics and popular literature feel like we know England better than we know our own country. However, we are greatly in the minority as our population is vast, though we do make up a pretty huge percentage among those who have had access to a good ‘English’ education here in India. To us, British Literature is the literature. Only in recent years have we been striving to let go of this attitude.
5. At school (from ages 7 to 18) what do studendents read: more English authors or Indians?
As far as I know there have always been works by Indians in the school syllabus, namely works by R K Narayan, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nissim Ezekiel, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore and Toru Dutt. However, the western writers have always dominated the scene in school. This does not mean that students aren’t introduced to Indian writers who write in their own mother tongue. These writers are studied in their respective language classes.
6. Can you recommend us some contemporary Indian authors?
Kushwanth Singh, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande., Kamala Markandaya – these apart from Arundathi Roy and Salman Rushdie. I haven’t read all of these authors’ works, but they are all supposed to be really good writers.
7. As a mother, what do you encourage your child to read? Do you pay attention to racism/discrimination and use literature to help you? How do you protect him from comment such as “congratulations for your good English!”?
My son is only a year old, but I know I would start him out on the things I started out with – Enid Blyton, and other English writers of children’s books. The only Indian books I could see my son reading at such a young age would be the Panchatantra stories. (they are rather similar to Aesop’s Fables) All other Indian books for children that I have seen are all based on Hindu mythology which I would object to from a religious point of view. Actually, now that you’ve brought up this question I realise that there aren’t many books for children by Indian writers writing in English. And you might have noticed that I do not mention children’s books in our Indian languages; that’s because, as far as I’m aware, there aren’t any, or they are very few.
8. You are obviously young and a working mum, but, have you ever felt the need to be “more English”? Is there still presure in India? (I ask this because I read somewhere that Aishwarya Rai was offered a whitening skin product and she refused to promote it. In that particular moment I realised that the English stereotypes are still present in India, even for an ex-Miss World)
You just quoted an example of Aishwaria Rai and a fairness cream – believe it or not, skin colour is a huge problem in India. If you’re fair, you’re beautiful. If you’re dark, you’re not. It breaks your heart to see young, dark girls who come from very poor families, desperately buying fairness creams and applying them to their skin in the hopes that what the advertisements promise will come true. In the marriage classifieds you’ll find that men always want fair or ‘wheatish’ looking women. Even in terms of foreigners, you will find that the locals (when I say locals I mean the average man on the street with a minimum amount of or no education) will treat a white man with a great deal of respect, while a black man (there are quite a few people from Nigeria) is treated horribly.
Just a quick example for this last: a few years ago, one afternoon after college, I was sitting in a city bus waiting for it to start. I was occupied with a book when someone asked me if she could sit beside me. I looked up to find this tall Nigerian with a bandana round her braided bangs. I was startled that she had asked, but I said sure she could, I wasn’t expecting anybody. I went back to my book while she sat down. After a few seconds she asked me, “You really don’t mind my sitting beside you?” I realized there was something rather odd about the question, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. “No, I don’t,” I said, “why do you ask?” What she said completely through me off gear. Apparently there were people who did mind when she sat next to them. She got dirty looks and not very friendly comments. I learnt she was in the same college as I was, and that her classmates made a great deal of fun at her Nigerian English accent and the way she dressed. To me, this was something very new and horrifying. But this is the reaction of the locals in any part of India. (Her classmates were mostly first-generation learners from the local area, belonging to lower-middle class or poor families.) If you’re white they worship you. If you’re black you’re treated like a demon. I have a friend who is quite dark. She is such a lively, charming person, but her family has convinced her that because she is dark she is ugly, as a result she has such a terrible complex about herself that she hasn’t been able to allow herself to get married – something she’s been wanting to do for years!
As far as English as a language goes, it is said the reason why many Indians do better than like countries abroad is because they can communicate very well in English. So, you find many small places offering crash courses in English so that people from poorer families who are looking to grow, can improve their English. Really, if you want to succeed in any type of career in India you need to know English. In schools and colleges every child is introduced to the likes of Milton and Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth, Dickens and Hardy!
9. Your personal view on postcolonial studies and the “Western re-discovering the East”. Anything you’d like to read more about?
I am a typical product of postcolonial India. Although I’m an Indian, I’m very western in my dress, behaviour and outlook. I dream, think and speak in English. My native tongue is as alien to me as it would be to a person who is British. I have always loved pre-modern British Literature. When I was in college post colonial literature put me off. Everything was rather the same, and most often the writers were people who wrote from outside their own country. I could never stomach that (I still don’t, I think). It’s only in the past couple of years or so that I have pushed myself to explore beyond my comfort zone of the Romantics and Victorians. I don’t always succeed. For me, good literature is more than just complaining or ‘writing back’. If you can capture the soul of what you are representing then it’s worth it.
I find it rather ironic that the East has given up so much to ape the West, only to leave the West to ‘re-discover’ the East. But it’s a prime example of how much the West influences us. We, the once colonised, are unwilling to let go of years of being mastered. We’re still trying to wean ourselves away…and yet it is irksome that the West treat the (re)discovery of the East like Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. At the end of the day everything is about power-play in trade and commerce; what suits the super-power of the era goes for everybody. Personally, I think nations are still colonised by the super-power of the West via technology and the world wide web!
I asked her, for personal interest: Also, I’m not sure about the term Indian (my super polite teachers don’t let me use it, I have to use Hindi and God forbid me to say a black man!) so, change it if my use is not correct please.
I’m curious to know who these teachers are. Are they Indian? Have they ever been to India or had any first hand experiences with Indians? I’ve never heard of these things before!
To begin with, Indian is just as much a term as say American, English, Chinese, Japanese and so on. Hindi is one of thousands of languages that exist in India. It is also one of the newest languages, though most won’t admit it. It was a language created during our fight for Independence in order to have a common language among the people of the many cultures that are prevalent. Foreigners tend to get Hindi and Hindu so confused that they refer to all of us as such. As I said, Hindi is a language. Hindu is what a person, whose religion is Hinduism, is called.
If you were to come to India and call just anyone Hindi they’d be most offended, especially the further south you come. Depending on which state they’re from Indians will identify themselves as a Telagu, Kannadiga, Tamil, Malayali, Maharashtrian, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarathi, Assamese and so on and so forth. In fact, we all tend to identify ourselves with our States first. Then comes our country as a whole. So yes, we’re all Indians.:)
As for being called ‘black people’, again we’re a variety of races and skin colour. People from the north of India tend to be very fair of skin, and it’s not uncommon to find those with light green or brown eyes. These people are said to have strains of the Aryan race. Towards the north-east part of India you find people of the Mongolian race, and as you come further south the skin colour darkens until you reach people who have almost the same skin-colour as the Africans. These people are said to belong to the Dravidian race. Of course, these racial differences are not clear cut since we’ve had many, many centuries of mingling. We’re really a very mixed up bunch of people – geographically, culturally, religiously, racially, linguistically – and we’re incredibly proud of it!:)

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for the last post on postcolonialism with a list of recommended works.

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