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Widening The Literary Canon In India

When I moved to India two years ago, I shifted from Beirut, Lebanon, as opposed to my native place, Los Angeles, California. West Asia was my home for several years as I lived and worked in Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon teaching in universities and a high school. This experience of living and teaching abroad began my interest in what young people learn and how they learn it. Of particular interest for me are the subjects literature and history and what role they play in shaping a young person’s sense of self and sense of identity in relation to one’s larger community, a theme I plan to explore on these pages in the coming months.

Perhaps as an American I’m hyper-sensitive to the ways in which Western culture–and American culture in particular–insinuates itself around the world. I’ve seen the state of post-colonial curricula in four countries and the pattern seems the same. Young people, especially in cities, are inundated with American brands from fast “food” to blue jeans, Hollywood cinema, as well as music and books. To be sure, it’s not that India doesn’t have its own variations on these themes or that young people avoid Indian culture altogether. But the values that Americans inculcate in the children who consume its mainstream culture–which is typically all that gets exported–are troubling. Whether it’s the consumption of what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances” that are devoid of nutrition or the genetically modified seeds propagating rural India or the ubiquitous presence of American fiction, I wonder how much parents and teachers question these influences with the young people in their lives.

In urban India, places like Bengaluru where I live, it’s hard not to escape the Americanisation when one finds everything from Levi’s shops to California Pizza Kitchen dominating the streets of upper-class neighbourhoods. Among the young people I know, it’s hard not to notice the increasing Americanised accents that seem to have replaced their parents’ British-inflected diction. Even more troubling are the number of young people disinterested in learning how to read and write in their native tongue.

But how is that counteracted in schools and homes? As a literature teacher I’m conscious of the ways in which culture shapes young people’s identity. Perhaps it’s a bit more challenging in a country with such a variety of languages and cultures. It’s not like it’s easy to have a laureate whose verses are sung by the masses as one finds with poets like Mahmoud Darwish whose lyrics are cherished across the Arab world.

Yet even in the Arab countries where I’ve lived, literature curricula is still dominated by English and French colonial antecedents, and increasingly its United States counterparts. In places like Palestine and Jordan, which the United States and Israel continue to control, to varying degrees, it’s not surprising that British and American literature are stock features.

In India, however, it’s striking to see how little Indian literature is on official Indian syllabuses used in schools. In most countries, school is the place where nationalism is codified. It’s the setting in which one learns not only his or her history, but also develops a love of one’s culture, language, and hopefully a love and respect for other people’s cultures as well. On the current ISC (Indian School Certificate) syllabus, for example, the upcoming exam for the compulsory twelfth standard English only five Indian writers are included compared to twenty-four largely British and American authors. For the elective literature in English course for graduating seniors, teachers may select any three texts of which only one–The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh–is written by an Indian; the poetry anthology used for this course is full of what in my college days we called “dead white men”. (Eleventh standard students fare much better as they have two Indian writers they may select from the list of British authors: Kiran Desai’s Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard and Vijay Tendulkar’s Silence! The Court is in Session.)

The Kenyan novelist, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, has thought deeply about the role literature plays in a so-called post-colonial society. In his book of essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, he reminds us of the most insidious nature of colonialism, one that has long-term consequences even after the colonists leave: “its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can ever be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others”.

Certainly, Indian students studying their literature in their mother tongue will be exposed to Indian literature. But given that, for better or worse, English is also an Indian language, wouldn’t it make sense to try to balance the heavily Westernised influences seeping into Indian popular culture and daily life by introducing children to more Indian writers in English? Of course in earlier grades, Indians read a smidgen of canonical writers such as R.K. Narayan, Rabindranath Tagore, Vikram Seth, Nissim Ezekiel, and Sarojini Naidju. But what if we opened up the syllabus to include the less anthologised poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Eunice de Souza, Sujata Bhatt, Nitoo Das, Sridala Swami, or Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. The number of playwrights and novelists are as abundant such as: Mulk Raj Anand, Githa Hariharan, Mirza Waheed, Habib Tanvir, Saadat Hasan Manto, or Aruni Kashyap. Widening the literary canon in India can also help lessen the divides that exist across the country by giving students a window to lesser-studied places and the people who inhabit them.

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