Language Dilemmas

Reading Chetan Bhagat in Dhaka: the anxiety of English literature

Choosing what to read is playing a crucial role in the uneasy conflict between the mother-tongue and English.

The fact that people read Chetan Bhagat in Bangladesh might be a source of consternation for many Indians, but it speaks to a concern shared across the subcontinent about English’s place in the nation’s future. At a conference last week hosted by the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), one of the country’s 80-plus private universities, the question of language was front and centre.

For a country born out of resistance to proscription of their mother tongue, the choice of language is not an incidental one. Even today, Bangla bears an emotional resonance for many Bangladeshis that is unparallelled in other countries. Yet today’s young Bangladeshis also know that in order to find employment and increase opportunities for themselves, learning English is a must. These are the types of paradoxes that Bhagat’s novels thrive on. And so, even while reading Bangla literature and nonfiction or enjoying Robindra Sangeet, people find time to consume Chetan Bhagat in Dhaka.

A repeated theme throughout the conference, raised mostly by the young Bangladeshi faculty in the audience, was the relationship between language training and literary study. The Department of English and the Humanities, the conference’s host, offers degrees in literature as well as in English Language Training (ELT), raising questions about how practical the study of English should be. While the literature faculty maintained that language training should take place during primary and secondary education, giving students the ability to access literature in English by the time they reach higher education, many younger folk insisted that it was possible to combine the two, to use literature as a means of learning the subtleties of language. This utilitarian approach to literature bothered some: it smacked of a world in which Shakespeare was recycled for pragmatic ends.

Bhagat of course is a ruthless advocate for a pragmatic English education, a position that keeps getting him into trouble, especially in India’s metropolitan centers, where although English is the de facto language of social mobility, it’s not fashionable to advocate it so openly. Bhagat’s straight talking also suggests that the privileged position of English is a done deal, and there’s no point contesting it, thus diminishing the genuine hard work of filmmakers, artists, writers and others in the bhashas who are doing their part in keeping India’s rich cultural and linguistic traditions alive.

But sitting in Dhaka, it struck me that in a somewhat ironic way, this pragmatic approach to English actually leaves a space where the intense love of one’s mother tongue might coexist with a pragmatic approach to social advancement. Ideally, literature should not be reduced to social advancement anyway. So why not reserve literature for Bangla – for emotion and beauty and memory and loss – and English for interviews, self-help books and the internet? It is a compromise, but a workable one at that.

The god of loss

But the fact is, Chetan Bhagat is not the only author Bangladeshis read in English. At the conference, speakers referenced Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai and many others. At one panel on crises of masculinity in contemporary Bangladesh, both speaker and audience members quoted whole passages of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things from memory. There was a long discussion on Allen Ginsberg and William Blake. At times, the atmosphere was dizzying.

And ULAB is not the only space where discussion of literature flourishes in Dhaka. Pathak Shamabesh is an expansive bookstore in Shahbagh that doubles as a publisher; their bestselling books include Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know and Mashrur Arefin’s translation of the Iliad into Bangla. Unlike many bookstores in India’s big cities, their selection offers an equal number of English and Bangla publications. One section contained a wide range of fiction from India and Pakistan, though fewer than expected by authors of Bangladeshi origin.

Right down the street is Dhaka University (DU), founded in 1921 and situated on a beautifully manicured campus identifiable by its characteristic Indo-Saracenic architecture. For a long time DU was a leader in higher education in East Bengal and played a significant role in the nationalist movement of 1971. Now some say it is in decline, faced with factionalism and political agitations that make other private options more appealing for those who can afford them. ULAB’s liberal arts model requires that students study a range of subjects in order to graduate, a model inspired by the liberal arts institutions of the United States.

ULAB has a clean, modern campus, top-notch faculty, and the newest technology. But its campus is essentially an urban high-rise perched over the intensely trafficked Satmasjid Road in Dhanmondi. A small price to pay? Yes. For many students, a no-brainer. DU’s Curzon Hall looks increasingly like an architectural ruin; the well-lit halls of ULAB are a hive of activity and debate.

A collective future

What Chetan Bhagat’s novels convey, in Dhaka as elsewhere, is the rich, contested, and uncertain relationship among literature, the English language and futurity throughout South Asia. This was stated in the conference theme but given flesh in the discussions that unfolded over the two days.

Can there be a future for Bangladesh without English? What type of English will it be, one that is pared down and pragmatic or one carrying the traces of Shakespeare and Keats? How exactly will English and Bangla coexist? These questions are not unique to Bangladesh but transcend the various regions of the subcontinent, occupying a domain where India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have more in common than we usually acknowledge. They demand a collective endeavour that has less to do with the shared traumas of Partition and more with envisioning a livable future in the decades to come.

It is his interest in these questions that makes Bhagat such a popular writer, albeit much maligned as well. Without explicitly saying so, his works shift attention from the traumas of South Asia’s past to the shared anxieties of its future. These are concerns that have the potential to realign Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis as allies in the endeavour to master English but not let it master them.

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