A COUNTER-REJOINDER [Archives:2000/03/Culture]

January 17 2000

Murari Prasad
Associate Professor of English
Faculty of Education, Sa’ada
Responses to a piece of writing are always welcome- either reassuring or enlightening, or even nitpicking ones. In the field of humanities where there is always room for divergent points of view informed critique helps us reduce our ignorance by fruitful disagreement as well as by agreeable fruits of arguments. However, when ignorance become our inspiration we tend to veil it by supercilious attitude to any intervention that interrogates the status quo. Lest such reactions should have the least laugh, we must guard our stand against misinterpretation. Which is why the rejoinder to my article titled “English literary Studies: Need for interfacing WLWE” by Dr. A.K. Sharma prompts this rebuttal. I will be brief and blow by blow since he has misconstrued the argument thoroughly, but to begin with, I would like to take up the point in his conclusion since it has a bearing on our professional equipment. The learned commentator mistakes some informal and idiomatic expressions for journalistic register’, and to cap it all treats India Ink as a journalese whereas it is a well-known publishing house in New Delhi; and I used it as such in my article. Aren’t we expected to be a little knowledgeable about things nearer home? Besides this, he forgets the fact that Yemen Times is a popular newspaper, not an academic journal suffused with howbrowish, heavy read.
Dr. Sharma horrendously equates the word ‘genre’ with ‘English literary studies in Yemeni universities’ and disregards the crux of my argument from the very beginning of his rejoinder. The implications of the term ‘interfacing’ and my concluding remarks cohere in that I set out reasons for curricular adjustment in view of the flourishing body of WLWE (World Literature Written in English) and the changing complexion of English literature across the world. Nowhere in the article have I suggested a whole-sale replacement of the mainstream Anglo-American authors with their WLWE counterparts.
The author of the rejoinder prefers to be a prisoner of the tunnel vision approach to see language, literature and culture apart as watertight compartments. While responding to this I can stick my neck out and maintain that WLWE has multicultural perspectives and it does reflect the current pressures of the world around us. He misses the point of my critique of the current canonical English literary curriculum when I underscore the need of expanding it, bringing new texts to bear on the tradition, building up a new frame of reference. That doesn’t mean throwing the old tradition overboard. I will counter his rejoinder point by point.
1) Thus my response to his observation No.1 is that English is both a polyglot language and a polyglot literature, and without WLWE components our courses in today’s context are inadequate and irrelevant. He is unaware, and I repeat unaware, of the recent studies that have established the thriving nexus between British colonialism and English studies.
2) In regard to his second point I suggest that he takes an update on the English literary studies in Indian universities. Nearly half of these have introduced some variants of the new literatures in English. And the trend is on the increase. It is strange (or downright silly) to mention that the British intellectuals in the past did not suggest a countertrend in English studies. Why should they? They knew that the language would prove Britain’s real black gold. What Dr. Sharma suggests is that we should remain hooked up to colonial preferences. This is all that I am arguing against. Reassuringly enough many British academics share our view, and I quote John McRae, the author of “Penguin History of Literature in English”: “By the way, I notice a reluctance amongs English teachers in India to acknowledge the immense wealth of local writing. This is a dreadful mistake in post-colonial culture.” (Focus on English, June 1993, p.5, published by British Council Division, Madras, India).
3) Dr. Sharma’s comments on the academic outreach and possible provenance of commonwealth literature, comparative literature, postcolonial literature etc betray his lack of acquaintance with these new enterprises, so I will let it go at that.
4) Even at the best of times literature has been a minority pastime, and it is customary to be dismissive of a writer’s talent without reading his or her work. His self-opinionated appraisals of writers are wonderful examples of extrapolation without any evidence.
5) This point does not hold water because in the context of Yemen English literature with its metropolitan canons is not culturally akin to it either. On the contrary, there are signifying transactions in the works of South Asian English writers as also in other strands of WLWE which are less alien to Yemeni readers. For example, a book like “In an Antique Land” by Amitav Ghose in which the early cultural contact between Yemen and India forms part of the backdrop. Let Dr. Sharma name a single work of this kind in the main stream English Literature.
6) The point is not well taken by the writer because it is an out of context observation just to pad out the rejoinder.
7) The comparison between the two books, viz., Shasthibrata’s “My God Died Young” and Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” is utterly invidious, grossly unfair and downright disproportionate. More to the point, new literatures in English have undergone staggering transformation since the former appeared.
I would like to end my response to the rejoinder with a quotation from H.L. Mencken the great pundit of American language, which summarizes the British attitude to American English in 1936, and by extension our colonial hangover in relation to de-colonizing strategies in the matters of language, literature and culture: “This occasional tolerance for things American was never extended to the American language.”
Finally, WLWE has moved beyond the stage of sufferance despite some samples of shocking bigotry.