Vithal Rajan

“It’s a blow job! I mean – ‘Blow Me Down!’

It’s after all a foreign language, more like a dead language, not that it was wasn’t spoken all round and all over the world when I was growing up, but round me it was almost always spoken wrong, if there is such a thing as speaking wrongly. What I mean is it wasn’t spoken the way it was supposed to be spoken far away in England, we had all heard how they sneered at the way Indians spoke English in the old colonial days when I was a boy, there were jokes in circulation and even decades later when I was in England, immigration officials would copy Peter Sellers when speaking with me, half in joke and half in contempt. So, in brief when I first learnt English I learnt it very much as English boys learnt Latin or ancient Greek with imagined pronunciations and accents.

And you almost always got the preposition or the idiom wrong, natural – what? But the feeling that followed was always lowering, you felt a fool, especially when you knew there were millions out there who had put no effort at all into it and who got it right every time.

With language at the centre of being truly human – or even maybe being truly animal for now we know that almost all living beings communicate, have languages, of sound and gesture – well, come to think of it, even plants talk with each other at necessity through or by releasing chemical signals; so life means language, and as far as I was concerned the colonial experience meant that I was inarticulate and illiterate in all languages. Yes, all languages, for my own mother tongue was not the language of teaching, or of science, or of administration, or, in short, of getting ahead in life. Even poor rickshaw pullers even these days want even their girls to be taught in English – they have no choice if they wish to survive in our independent country sixty years after the British left India. So it is understandable how my parents and my teachers wanted me to think and work in English no matter how insecure I would always feel, and my mother tongue was relegated to being spoken badly when communicating with servants or street venders. Surprised? Look, watch the Indian bourgeoisie today talk English with their dogs. Well this was nothing special to Indians, all colonized people did so, even the Russian aristocracy one believes if Voltaire is to be trusted spoke badly in French. So this means something but what does it mean exactly?

But deep within you, through the foreign language badly learnt and the only language you know and the only language for you, you stood bereft of all certainty. Culture and values of an alien culture seized your soul. The moment the culture of your land taught you what was right and what was wrong, the superior culture – it had to be the superior culture for it was the culture of conquerors, and nothing is more real and certain than that you were at the wrong end of a gun – this superior culture told you the opposite, told you what you learnt from your grandmother and the poor you met everyday was wrong and you should do the opposite. Far fetched? Not at all. You were taught in India to live simply – or that was what was taught when I was a kid, not any more now – and that the best was a spiritual life, and that one should first give in in a disagreement and share, and so on and so forth, but the new conquering people said you lost because of all that stupidity and it was best and wise to be aggressive, to accept an adversarial system of justice, to be individualistic and not communitarian – well you get the picture. So you tried in a ham-handed way to make your own peace with both systems, and almost always picked the wrong value for any occasion. Yeah, that’s how it was and is. So you said no when you should have said yes, and you said yes when what the moment needed was a firm no.

But the flip side or the up side depending which way you are looking it is that you are released from the hobgoblins of certainty and linear rationality. You begin to see the other guy’s point of view even before he mentions it. You are willing to mediate from his side even against your own interests, for you see he is trapped as well as you, and in a strange way this ambivalence of values the colonial experience leaves you with reinforces in an odd circular way what your grandmother told you in the first place that this world’s values were relative, and everything changes as the Buddha said, and the truth of anything was to be found inside yourself through right living and contemplation and compassion.  So, even the forbidding eminence of scientific rationality holds on terrors for an ex-colonial brought up at the crossroads of value systems, for we know one man’s fish is another man’s poisson, and that another’s objectivity is the third fellow’s subjectivity, and so forth. Certainly we all agree that inter-subjectively transmissible knowledge counts for something in day-to-day matters, but not very much more beyond the practicalities of life. But we do remain comic figures cross-gartered in yellow stockings by history.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Mar 2010.

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