R. K. Narayan’s attitude towards the English language:
a postcolonial posture, a utilitarian gesture
This paper is intended to examine R. K. Narayan’s attitude towards the English language as reflected in his essays. Narayan (1906-2001) was born and grown up in a period when English education was already institutionalised in the Indian Sub-continent. Like other Indian writers in English, such as Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand, he received English education and used to write in English from the beginning of his literary career up to the end. However, he is seen to have used the English language and literary form to scrutinise colonialism and depict the Indian society continually under change due to the colonial rule. A part of this endeavour seems to be evident in Narayan’s attitude towards the English language. Narayan’s position in this regard is deemed quite ambivalent and complex —he is aware that English is the language of the colonist, yet he is found to have accepted it for practical reasons. That is, his attitude towards the English language appears to have resulted from and shaped by the reality prevailing in the postcolonial setting.
Key words: R. K. Narayan, attitude, English language, postcolonial posture, utilitarian gesture
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The study of the English language and literature in the postcolonial context seems to be “a densely political and cultural phenomenon” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffins 1989: 2-3) and consequently comes under the purview of the postcolonial writers. One of the fundamental assertions of postcolonialism is that the English language and literature have played a very significant role in propounding colonial ideology aimed at the survival and consolidation of the colonial rule (Walder 1998). In other words, the construction of English literary education is part of the colonial cultural design (Viswanathan 1995). Many postcolonial writers have attempted to address the issue of cultural domination through the English language and literature. For instance, Thiong’o (1995) opines that the central position given to the study of the English language and literature in Africa emanates from the assumption of the cultural superiority of the West. This is why, he prescribes that the English departments should be abolished from the universities in Africa. Indian novelist Raja Rao (2000: v) states that English is the language of the intellect, not of emotion; and in India English should therefore be appropriated to the level of “a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American”. Hence, postcolonial writing uses the language of the colonists but adapts it to the discourse of the colonised. It is performed by two processes: abrogation and appropriation (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffins 1989). Abrogation stands for challenging the notion of universality as claimed by the colonists with regard to the language. Appropriation, on the other hand, is the use of the imperial language to express the cultural experience of the colonised. This is a process by which imperial English is made to encounter vernacular languages. Standard English words are used in many new meanings, and, in turn, the English language receives many new words from indigenous languages. Besides, postcolonial literature emerges out of the tension between these two pulls. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (1989: 39) rightly maintain-
… in one sense all post-colonial literatures are cross-cultural because they negotiate a gap between ‘worlds’, a gap in which the simultaneous processes of abrogation and appropriation continually strive to define and determine their practice.
Thus, challenging and overhauling the Eurocentric notion of language become an essential part of literary decolonisation (Loomba 2001).
As Boehmer (1995) illustrates, almost all the aspects of the world of the colonised including the language of instruction and commerce were dominated by the empire. The colonial education of the middle class people then tended to create ‘mental colonization’ among them: “English-language and -literature instruction played a key role in naturalizing British values” (Boehmer 1995:169). By the early 20th century, students from the colonies were heavily influenced by the excellence of the English language and literature. This factor seems to account for the “syncretic” nature of the postcolonial society, which cannot be compartmentalised into either a purely traditional or a purely alien. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (1989: 110) contend, “The construction of ‘pure’ cultural value is always conducted within a radically altered dynamic of power relations”. Therefore, a postcolonial reading of R. K. Narayan’s works, especially essays with regard to his attitude to the English language would likely to reveal that he endeavours to formulate a synthesis between the Indian element and the colonial one.