A Teacher Named Literature

Portable World

by Mini Krishnan

5 min read
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My students are my publications- Prof M. S. Doraiswamy Iyengar

My students are my publications- Prof M. S. Doraiswamy Iyengar

Don't Want Caste
Don't Want Caste- Malayalam stories by Dalit writers

Back before the Flood, before there were Departments of Literature for Culture Studies, there were stories - the ancestors of today's fiction and drama which are not fiction at all but the truth dressed up as stories leading us back to itself. Let me quote what Roberto Calasso said ten years ago when the Tamil translation of Ka was released, 'No one starts with Physics... everyone begins with stories' and recall what Rushdie said just four months ago -- that before children can speak, parents sing or recite poems and stories to them. 'Soon children begin to ask for stories as often as they ask for food'. These stories: grand mixes of myth and modernity, fantasy and bitter realities of family and social histories are fashioned into literary texts that set the base for our sense of self.

A Portable World

A bit of history. Till a hundred years ago, the Chinese court selected a prime minister after tests in Mathematics, Philosophy and Literature. Fast-forward to look Westward and what do we see? The first chair of English Literature in England was established in Oxford University in 1894 but long before that, in fact by 1860, one could get a degree in English Literature from the University of Calcutta. Flipping back again, a couple of centuries, an understanding of Poetics and Poetry was an area of learning expected of a certain class everywhere in the world. Gradually, as travel and printing demolished time and space and universal education broke class barriers, Literature became the mark of an educated person. There were some things that were a part of the cultural equipment of even a matriculate who attended an interview.


Zooming into India, it has to be said that in 60 years we absorbed 600 years of English (and some European) literature. But identifying suitable study material for Indians from English Literature set off a furious discussion in England. As the debate raged, colonial admirers of Indian knowledge systems wanted to offer Oriental texts and the classical languages of India in schools. But the Anglicists, and their cousins the evangelists argued passionately against this proposal of the 'Orientalists'. They insisted that the selections had to be chosen with a keen eye on moral grandeur. 'No' to 'The Eve of St Agnes' by Keats and 'Yes' to Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. By about the 1970s, Indian scholars of English and American literature were the match of their counterparts anywhere in the world.

Then, about forty years ago when the Humanities began to lose their prestige two things happened: caste-class-gender movements began to shake the traditional order and there appeared a flood of writings by persons long suppressed by a patriarchal and prejudiced knowledge system. In the first place so-called low-castes and women were not even educated. When they were, they were (barring exceptional exceptions) blocked from publication and virtually invisible. After the Ambedkar centenary, the production of writings by this suppressed bloc and the adoption of texts that needed to be read, studied and discussed (no doubt a trickle to begin with) arrived at a time when post-colonial India was on the move. Two other things happened: one was that most English language publishing houses began to revolve around women in key editorial positions. Still subject to male-dominated managements; but ... still ... an improvement from a time when the only women in publishing houses were those in the typing pool. Two, department heads of colleges and universities began to look beyond syllabi that had not been questioned for at least two generations.

Mother Forest
Mother Forest

The cry on the street gradually entered classrooms which had harkened only to cries on the page and that too from writers 10,000 km away who had only the vaguest idea of our conditions. But there were eerie resemblances because the universality of human experience began to seep into the minds of Indians, the inheritors of a colonized past. We began to be enriched by both imported and home grown Literature. Shakespeare drops a handkerchief and Kalidasa a ring. We learned about the Ashwin Twins of Hindu mythology and the twins of Greek myth who break out the eggs Leda lays after Zeus has had his way with her; apparently cross-dressing was something every literary tradition carried out in its adventures and epic romances; and to wind up a few examples, the grinding poverty of 19th century Dickensian city life found an echo in the lines of poor women who ask our 13th century Kannada Harishchandra 'What use is an elephant to one who is poor? Ghee when one is thirsty? A kingdom when one is dying? Jewels and applause when one is burning from a sun- stroke? Tell us, lord of the earth,' so ably translated by Vanamala Vishwanatha.

Requiem for the Living
Requiem for the Living

The point I would like to try and make is that the teaching of Literature in our school and college classrooms exposed us to a great variety of imaginative texts that in themselves became our teachers and indeed the best teachers cross-referenced as they taught; apart from that, and very interestingly, most of the writing that challenged canonical ways of thinking happened to be works translated from regional languages into English.

Long after Britain gave up her colossal possession in 1947, her empire of words dominated the choices our Literature faculties made. Only very recently have readings of life by writers who at one time could not even find readers leave alone translators and researchers, entered Indian classrooms in the form of set texts and study materials. Feminist readings of traditional narratives and the sharing of women's experiences were closely followed by novels, autobiographies and poems by Dalit writers or by representatives of marginalized groups such as Adivasis. Publishing history via translation gave us lines like ''My poem is ...lava from my belly to script a new geography' (Bichitranandan, Odia) or Jai Prakash Kardam writing in Hindi, saying, 'Only ash knows what it feels like when it is burned down' No one and nothing else can tell it what to feel; or Tenati Suri 'Here comes God/ Lifeless in bronze/ Parading the street/ Riding his wooden horse/ Ask him about wages fellows/ Tell him we don't have enough to eat' (Telugu); or Bama Faustina's remark, 'We are alive only because we cannot die' or Sharan Kumar Limbale ---the first Dalit to win the Saraswati Samman -- asking 'Will you deny that new sunrise?'

The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing
The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing

Should we not read with open hearts believing that the study of Literature will expand our chances of making sense of an increasingly chaotic world? Every literary text is a link to an understanding of life different from ours and therefore worth exploring, and if we respond courageously and honestly to it, chances are that it will open up spaces where creative ways of thinking and powers of expression will benefit us in ways impossible to quantify.

And.... therefore the head quote I selected for this article, on Teacher's Day, which is the true goal of every teacher of Literature, no matter which language.

(Mini Krishnan was Translations Editor, Oxford University Press and is currently co ordinating a programme of translations for the Tamil Nadu Textbook & Education Services Corporation in collaboration with eleven private publishers)

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