Thursday, 17 January 2008

English language in South Asia

Radha Chakravarty is an indian writer and is currently Reader, Department of English, Gargi College, University of Delhi.
Her latest book is Feminism and contemporary women writers - Rethinking subjectivity, published by Routledge India on 31 December 2007. The book attempts to deal with the problem of literary subjectivity in theory and practice. The works of six contemporary women writers — Doris Lessing, Anita Desai, Mahasweta Devi, Buchi Emecheta, Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison — are discussed as potential ways of testing and expanding the theoretical debate.

On 4th January 2008, the weekend magazine of Daily Star (english newspaper in Bangladesh) printed an interview with her.
This is a short excerpt, here you can read the full interview

How do you see English in South Asia, a place where the language has once been forced upon its people?

English may today be counted as one of the South Asian languages. It was indeed extraneous to our culture once, and introduced for political reasons, but today it has been appropriated and adapted to our contemporary needs in ways that have given it a new character and I think a new lease of life.

The relationship between English and other South Asian languages was not a one-way street. It was transactional, and remains so to this date. The influence of English language and literature challenged but also gave a great impetus to the modernization of our indigenous languages. In turn, these languages also enriched English with a vocabulary and range of expression that continues to grow, as recent versions of the OED acknowledge. Today the best writing in English comes from regions where English is not the people's mothertongue. And we have reshaped the language in creative ways. To borrow the title of a well-known book, “The Empire Writes back,” as it were!

So English has now acquired these extraordinary regional flavours, but it also remains an international language, and in some important ways, our link with the non-South Asian world. In a multilingual society such as India where I belong, English, and translation into English, also provides an important common platform for people of diverse languages to know and understand each other better.

The politics of language are of course linked to larger issues and it may be argued that the privileging of English perpetuates the colonial mindset. The solution I believe is not to do away with English, but to treat it on par with other languages in our region, as one more facet of our multilingualism. That calls for a change of attitude for which many South Asians don't seem ready yet.

Whether English is perceived as an asset or a stumbling block depends on how we make it instrumental to our specific regional needs. If it is merely a matter of aping “the West” and losing our cultural independence, which is what upholders of “pure” identity seem to fear, the language and the culture it is taken to purvey may indeed continue to enslave us. But if it empowers us to be effective citizens of the world without surrendering our distinctiveness as South Asians, English is a language to be embraced without embarrassment.

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