Managing English:The Leona Cassiani way [Archives:2005/884/Education]

October 10 2005

The English Departments seem to have taken another beating from their hard-nosed brothers – not the Sciences this time, but the Business Schools and the Institutes Management. Perhaps this is happening globally, but given the extremely uneven spread of English in India, is more noticeable in this country. The situation is like this: while people in the English Departments are out to throw the category of literature overboard under the pernicious influence of Cultural Studies, the B-school guys are doing great things with it, albeit in the mundane field of communication, which is their new found mantra. They have found a new use for Shakespeare, using him to gain insights into the darker sides of human nature to be avoided while doing business, not to mention the more regular practice of judiciously using the Shakespearean to liven up corporate communication.

The reason why literature is enjoying such a high profile in such an unlikely area is simple. The R & D people have suddenly realized that in the matter of success in life in general and in clinching that all-important business deal in particular, the so-called 'hard skills' – 15% in their estimate – play a decided second fiddle to the 'soft skills.' So the gurus of Management are turning to what they call 'liberal arts literacy', the perspective from literature and art. They are sober, astute and realistic enough to see that literature has long since foreshadowed their own new-fangled ways of getting past the 'rational model' through 'emotional intelligence' and 'lateral thinking.' We thus have the curious phenomenon of the 'product champions' at Hewlett & Packard insisting on the pleasures of language and literature, of Ken Adelman, an ex-arms dealer turned management consultant, teaching company CEOs the dos and don'ts of business via Shakespeare; of Tom Peters recommending a literary regimen as part of his package for excellence; of E.H. McGrath asking his students at XLRIs across India and us in his hugely popular Basic Managerial Skills for All to 'make every word tell' in the manner of our best known writers of prose such as V.S. Naipaul, Graham Greene and E.M. Forster.

And what are the real custodians of English in India doing in the mean time? It is hard to believe this, but they seem to have abandoned their forte, literature, altogether. Whether it is high theory of the metropolitan kind or the hack work of the moffusil kind, English in India in both its avatars of Cultural Studies (C.S) and Communicative English (C.E) have entailed the rejection of literature. If the first rejects it as an ideologically tainted baggage, the latter rejects it as an impractical, high minded pursuit.

The consequences of this rejection are for all of us to see. C.S. uses literature as little more than window-dressing and C.E. is plain commodifying. Moreover, heavy duty theorising has led to abstruse and arrogant jargon in the name of radicalisation, while the Brahminical mindset of the teachers of English is keeping them insulated from the real democratisation of English that is going on around us in the form of Hinglish and other fascinating forms of Indianisms such as 'preponing', 'air-dashing' and 'history-sheeting', to name some of the colourful ones. It is this which has led an astute commentator, Gurcharan Das, to observe somewhat sardonically and rightly that 'the biggest impediment to the spread of English in India is the English teacher.' When they should have taken the lead in teaching the rest of us to manage the world by manipulating the language in course of simply doing what is their bread and butter, they are aping, and, hence, falling behind, others. To adapt an expression from Marx, they, the owners, have been evicted from their own premises by their hard-nosed brothers who now market their produce better.

It is time then that they showed their brothers the door and came home to roost. It is time they took over the management of English. And it is time they took the cue from their subject, literature. Literature has always shown the way both to manage and to inspire through its fine art of verbal management. A charming anecdote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, a great novel now being shaped on the Hollywood anvil, shall show us this way, which I shall call the Leona Cassiani way.

I pick on Cassiani advisedly, because, though a minor character in the novel, Garcia Marquez uses her to make the major point that when it comes to managing she is far ahead of Florentino Ariza, the novel's hero. The lovelorn Ariza, it will be recalled, never manages to learn the 'mundane simplicities of mercantile prose', because no matter how hard he tried, he found it difficult 'to wring the neck of the die-hard swan.' He does not, of course, need to be embroiled in the inanities of earning a living. Leona Cassiani, a mulatto clerk in the same commercial establishment where Ariza works, is able, on the contrary, to display the highest level of managerial wisdom by the simple expedient of suggesting the closure of the company's General Section. The G.S., as she pinpoints, has become the happy dumping ground of the unsolved problems of other Sections and, in its labyrinthine operation, resembles the Dickensian Circumlocution Office or the modern-day State Secretariat inhabited by, to quote from Richard B. Taub, 'bureaucrats under stress.'

If Floretino Ariza behaves like the old-style litterateur, the lotos-eater, Cassiani is the figure of the modern-day manager. In shifting from the one to the other and in encompassing both through a verbal economy of the most exacting kind, the novelist outlines the figure of the astute new litterateur-cum-manager which, it will be the supreme privilege and duty of the English teacher, to protect and nurture in the very act of earning his bread and butter without having to look either left to C.S. or right to C.E.

(The author is a professor of English at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar. The trigger for this article was Gurcharan Das's thought-provoking piece on “The English Teacher”, published in Times of India dated October 31, 2004.)