Kachru, Desai, and English as "Neutralizing Alternative" in India

Brandon Brown, English 27, 1997

In "The Alchemy of English", Braj Kachru points out how English can be used to unify expositors of the postcolonial experience. Kachru holds up the example of the neighboring and often competing language cultures of India. Hindi, Persian, Hindustani, and Sanskrit, the "native codes," all carry "markers". That is, they are "functionally marked" as representative of cultural groupings in terms of religion, caste, or region. Therefore, despite the accuracy of these cultural connotations, English stands as the neutralizing alternative for the Indian writer. Kachru concludes that "Indian English Literature. . . . has provided a new perspective in India through an 'alien' language" (Kachru 293).

Competing languages and their cultural markers provide a central theme of Anita Desai's In Custody. The protagonist, Deven, a Hindi professor, is in search of an Urdu poetic tradition embodied by Nur, an aged poet. Deven finally finds the poet, sick and composing lines of poetry only rarely, and tells the old man the reason for his coming, Urdu poetry. Nur retorts:

How can there be any Urdu Poetry when there is no Urdu language left? It is dead finished. The defeat of the Moghuls by the British threw a noose over its head, and the defeat of the British by the Hindi-wallahs tightened it. So now you see its corpse lying here waiting to be buried' He tapped his chest with one finger. (Desai 42)

Just like cultures, languages often relate to one another in terms of a hierarchy. Nur's statement points out that the abstract relationships among languages can come to represent the relationships of the cultures associated with the each language. Desai herself is only able both to write book about this controversy and also reach a wide audience because she writes in English.

Kachru does not ignore the limitations of English. He admits that it is associated with a "small and elite group." If this is true can the "bilingual intelligentsia" writing in the postcolonial period claim to represent the experience of their respective native people groups? In "Constitutive Graphonomy" Bill Ashcroft attempts to answer this question. He writes that no writer or subject can claim "ownership of meaning." Based on his theory any postcolonial discourse demarginalizes its subject simply by existing. One way of generating this demarginalizing discourse of which Ashcroft writes, is by a strategy which Chantal Zabal calls relexification, a term first used by Loreto Todd. In the case of postcolonial English Literature for example, relexifcation means to write using "English vocabulary but indigenous structures and rhythms." Those who utilize this technique use English to simulate another language and therefore reaffirm New's observation that non-European writers are not merely using English but also modifying it. In this process the expressions of the postcolonial are functioning as an "interlanguage," mimicking "neither the European target language or the indigenous source language" (Zabus 315). A press report from the Markere writers convention of 1962 suggests that what is taking place in much of African Postcolonial writing is that writers are "thinking and feeling in their own languages and writing in another" (316)"

Political Discourse India Overview Anita Desai Overview In Custody

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002