Is it not possible that the entire society is seen as a vast university, every community in it an open treasurer of knowledge, as if they were collectively a vast reference library, and the institution of learning a co-curator, a co-supervisor of that knowledge?

— Ganesh Devy

It must have begun as some kind of transaction. Otherwise, how would a 15-year-old have been expected to teach? I lived with my parents at that time in a house that left me quite ashamed. The house was perched on a mound in a colony that was next to a defecation pit. We called it tekre vaaro ghar. The house on a mound.

Our next-door neighbour, whom my mother called Savitri Bhabhi, would on and off lend money to my mother for ghar-kharch, household expenses. My father was out of business. And my angry brother was trying in vain to make ends meet for us.

As the youngest person in the house, there was not much else I could do, but, at the very least, I could help Savitri Aunty’s children to study in return for the money and kindness she extended to my mother. So, I would go to the house next door and teach Savitri Aunty’s two children English and social studies. Frankly, I seethed with resentment and felt quite poor. But, each time I came out of their home, I also felt a strange sense of power.

Teaching is power. It was also an escape from a grim home where we tiptoed around unhappy and angry men. Transaction, joy, power, refuge and, to a certain extent, inexplicable helplessness and vulnerability – these characterise, even today, some of the primal feelings I have in a classroom.

There are profound experiences attached to our lives in the classroom, regardless of our being a ‘student’ or ‘teacher’. I use both terms tentatively for students also teach and teachers also learn. This does not mean a denial of the power equation that characterises this relation; this equation has more complexity and a greater dialectical dimension that does not get captured in unidirectional phrases like a teacher’s power.

As such, every transaction – however functional it may appear – is underpinned by a social experience. The transactionality of giving and receiving knowledge in a classroom is also an experience-produced and experience-producing phenomenon. The tendency to extricate ‘knowledge’ from the experiences that students and teachers come with – the ones that produce the texts taught in class – draws my attention in particular. This is not only the result of my own deep investment in this profession but also an investment in questions of knowledge and conditions producing it, institutionalising what can be legitimately considered ‘knowledge’.

Enriching and humbling, unsettling and despairing, the ‘experience’ of being in a classroom in India is multifold and, frankly, unsummarisable. This, by itself, is not an object of study for me or a site
of research and publication. It is rather a mediation with the self and a self that mediates a relation with the classroom.

Many discussions in this book stem from reflections inspired by and constrained by the classroom. And I use the word ‘classroom’ as a shorthand to include physicality of location and also acts of engagement over knowledge with students. These engagements have held me deeply, sometimes scarred me, sometimes led to adulation in frightening ways, but almost always brought lessons on what constitutes knowledge and its democratic moment.

The self-exclusion of the subaltern student (which I later discuss through Aniket Jaaware’s essay) or the privilege of the ‘paying’ student at the elite university where I teach form two extreme ends. Between the two ends are also many forms of mediations informed by situations that cannot be easily captured through sympathy or censure.

Almost 30 years ago, when I was in my early 20s and struggling as a Sindhi in an upper-caste vegetarian joint-family Gujarati household, I took up my first job in the old city of Ahmedabad. Smt Sadguna C U Arts College for Girls had Dalit and Muslim girls to whom I had to teach literature. It was clear to me on the first day that I had to teach William Wordsworth and John Keats in Gujarati – a language with which I was developing a new relationship. Hitherto, I had not received any formal education in Gujarati.

But this memory is not about me; it is about those girls who were learning English poetry in a native language. Was this a postcolonial condition of agency or one of tragic dissonance? The same college had a teacher of Persian to whom no students went, and I witnessed one of the last teachers of Persian vanish, taking with him knowledge we had ceased to have use for.

During those years, I merely processed my job as a transition towards better things in the future. However, when I now look back, I can think of several instances in divergent institutional contexts when the conditions of its production have imperceptibly interrupted my relationship with knowledge. Neither from my own nor others’ experiences do I take knowledge and ‘merit’ for granted; they almost always involve lives that have a greater relationship with labour. The English language, which forms the basis of my livelihood, has a particularly complex place in that context.

This awareness that the source of my livelihood – the English language – had discursive effects and relations has been central to the way I see knowledge and what passes off as legitimate knowledge. Simultaneously, the inalienable connection between subjectivity and experience on the one hand and knowledge on the other is also an important fulcrum of the humanities. That is to say, the ‘truth’ of the humanities is inseparable from its subjectivity and experience, as also the conditions framing it.

As teachers and students of English in India, we have come into this linguistic–literary zone by embracing the most dominant sign of symbolic power and, at times, at the cost of other languages that have shaped us – provided us with subliminal idioms and metaphors. They did not, for a number of reasons, have the power to beckon us into their world, but it is a relation that is manifest for many of
us in the uneasy translations we make of meaning between English and our other selves.

Entering Lecture Room 25 in St Xavier’s College as a literature student, I left my film songs outside the room. It was the only tangible inheritance I carried – one that informed me that hyperbole was to say, ‘I can pluck down the moon for you’ or that there was no oxymoron in the idea of meetha dard (sweet pain).

But these lives of the bhashas were distant from English learning and teaching. Over the years, they infiltrated my classroom, now fighting, now collaborating with the English language. In fact, English seldom appears by itself in India, there is nearly always a chhaya or shadow of another language lurking behind it somewhere. Really speaking, no language appears by itself; each is haunted by acknowledged and unacknowledged shadows of other languages.

It is useful to think of Anandavardhan’s concept of dhvani (suggestion or hint) here, for meaning carries itself as a trace of something unintended, inhering in elements that are not always identifiable. They may well be other languages we thought didn’t matter.

Meanwhile, when I taught at St Xavier’s College (Ahmedabad) for almost 17 years, I saw how I wielded a powerful language that had not only brought me out of a conventional Sindhi home but also given some of my tribal students the jobs of a teacher or talati in villages they came from. Some of them accessed the power of language because their families were part of a Christian parish. Occasionally, they would continue to worship their own gods, and early on, I learnt a lesson that different gods give different things.

This was not a phenomenon of the way liberals celebrate religious fluidity but also a pragmatism that characterised religious conversions. St Xavier’s College’s own commitment to the goals of social justice made the rich and well-to-do students feel that their goals of learning ‘pure’ literature were getting marginalised, and competing forms of democracy played out in that unusual and valuable institution that taught me some of the most formative lessons.

In his moving and very pointed essay, ‘The Silence of the Subaltern Student’ (1994), Aniket Jaaware says that it is common for teachers of English in urban centres of education to find that their classes are divided from the word go into two groups who define themselves as essentially different from each other – the urban and the rural students. Jaaware troubles the category further down in the essay as he thinks through ‘oppositional structures: urban / rural, dominant / subaltern, coloniser / colonised, legitimised-intelligence/illegitimate- power to think, privileged/underprivileged, etc.’

At the Jesuit missionary college where I taught the longest, these divides were also troubled by Dalit and Adivasi students (as opposed to ‘rural’ students). The students came with Gujarati, Vasavi, Chaudhari, Rathvi and a host of other languages in Gujarat that do not make it to being considered standard ‘Gujarati’. There were also pre-novices wishing to join various Christian orders, who came with languages such as Kho and Santhali.

The affective and psychological, cultural and political words produced through these languages became invisible, and what mattered to most teachers and the students themselves was how they needed to learn English. Caught between the goals of making students experience the ‘love of literature’ and strengthening the English of marginalised students who could find empowerment through jobs and mobility, the English department at Xavier’s and elsewhere lived with multiple forms of dissonance. In some sense, dissonance is what my journey has been about, and the discipline was emblematic of that state but not its only site.

I wish to talk of one particular category that functioned under a non-identitarian label but revealed to some of us the most bitter truth about the English language in the subaltern constituencies. For students coming to the urban centre of Ahmedabad from tribal towns in South Gujarat such as Dediapada and Zankhvav, the road to literature was inconceivable. They were the ‘B’ stream students, that is, they had been made to drop English in their tenth and twelfth standards so as not to fail and thereby bring disrepute to the schools they came from. Our tasks as teachers of English were to cover the range of tenses and articles for the ‘B’ stream students.

In another section called the ‘A’ stream students, we could do simple exercises and storytelling in English. The ‘A’ stream students (like the ‘B’ stream students) also belonged to the Gujarati medium; however, they had passed their tenth and twelfth standards with English. In fact, ‘with’ and ‘without English’ were common phrases found even in a Gujarati sentence and conveyed their own graded inequality.

If the ‘B’ stream was predominantly tribal in its composition, the ‘A’ stream students were mostly Dalits. The ‘literature’ class had a mix of some upper-caste and well-to-do students as well as students from relatively marginal constituencies. The same language performed different empirical and symbolic functions – preparing some to pass an examination and become school teachers or talatis and others to go on to do graduate studies in the United States.

Within the literature class, they were always students who, in the words of Jaaware, marginalised themselves and remained silent. Apart from what such day-to-day complexity does to an academic is also what it does to academic knowledge, which on some days appears a highly specious entity. Jaaware rightly points to the ‘silence of the subaltern student’ produced through academic knowledge. He encapsulates the condition with the following equation: Language of Knowledge = Knowledge of Language.

After the year 2007, I joined a premier private and management institution where a student once asked me, ‘Professor, what is the ROI [Return-on-investment] of learning Kabir in your class? How is that going to help in my job in the industry?’ I have often wondered whether the overt instrumentalism of the latter or the non-English speaking students’ demand for Gujarati represent a conundrum about privilege and knowledge.

The demand for another language is from the lack of privilege, the demand for another knowledge is from excess of it. And as teachers of the humanities what contextual apparatus do we possess to understand these? Cut to another context of a technology institution where I taught before joining Ashoka University. A senior colleague said to me, ‘Arre aap aurton ki expectations hame samajh mein naheen aati. We, engineers, are straightforward people.’ Subjectivity stood not just erased but pronounced as an illegitimate, messy business, which in the ‘straightforward’ path of skill education had clearly no place. Both the humanities education and gender I represented collapsed into each other.

Clearly, different disciplines construct their own versions of truths. As a student of the humanities, I am thankful for the room it makes for subjectivity and experience; also, as Martha Nussbaum has persuasively argued, for making societies more democratic.

However, the conditions of inequality that drive some of the research in the humanities are also ones that shrink the possibility of disseminating that knowledge. The marginalisation of the non- metropolitan student who studies texts in a language and idiom that is distant from her affective and lived reality makes even the humanities education violent.

In effect, I carry both belief and cynicism in the project of the humanities, and this makes my relationship with my own discipline of English particularly ambivalent. The belief stems from possibilities of social transformation I have witnessed in the lives of vulnerable students; the cynicism stems from the way knowledge produced and flaunted gets disembodied from our own experiences and the experiences of those we claim to ‘teach’.

Really speaking, the metropolitan theory has no room for the homes we come from. Those experiences must order theory. A student who evidently experienced this disjuncture between her lived reality and theory during her studies at Ashoka University, later remarked to me,

My home holds the absence of a sibling, Kashish, younger than me, who we lost way too soon. If there is ever pain in my or my parents’ lived experience, it’s almost always linked a little to the trauma of losing a child or the trauma of watching your parent lose a child. When I decided to pursue a liberal arts education, I had to fight my way into it. I have been trying to find theory on that but so far I have only been able to gather concrete lived experience of Muslim women having to fight so hard for their needs.... First two years of college, apart from courses in politics, I read just about women from the west. They talked about beauty and law and male gaze and the politics of a woman but it swiftly moved past their home. They can never equip me to deal with my very Indian, very Muslim parents who are not letting me move out of the house without threatening to cut all ties. And me? I am also not like a theorist. I am here, in this house, with a family I can die for but for the life of me cannot live with. Because I cannot afford to cut ties with my family. Theory equipped me to debate feminism vs misogyny in a conference, on the internet, in a paper, with men and women. But it failed me in my own home. Theory did not equip me to tell my parents that they are hurting me. 

— Varisha Tariq, personal communication, 18 October 2020

Varisha’s sense of dissonance is not unique; and yet we must refrain from universalising it and asking ourselves which analytical categories are missing in how we teach that lead to such dissonance. It might seem that Varisha and, by extension, I are looking for a theory to provide recipes and answers from a theory that it does not provide. However, Varsiha may well be looking for resonances of her South Asian urban Muslim home in the concerns of ‘gender’ theory.

Perhaps the entire category of home is missing in a theory class, consigned as it were to a discussion of particular novels in a literature class, if at all they are taught. As someone who has had to spend a considerable amount of time cooking for different generations in an undivided large family, I have begun to notice how the domestic is missing as an analytical category from our discussions of theoretical literature. Projecting the cosmopolitanism of the immigrant, the traveller and the troubadour, literary theory has ignored what came into the house and transmuted the self that lay flattened by banality.

Analogous to this is a language of movement; of heroic action; of tragedy-as-death rather than non- action and ennui; of repetition and recursiveness of being-at-home. The ‘home’ occurs as a site of diasporic longing and not as-its-own epistemological and experiential site. One of the major theme of this book is experience and how that mediates the production, dissemination and naming of knowledge. In fact, the marginalisation of experience in the institutionalisation of knowledge makes us not name experience as knowledge.

The sites of this reflection are certain texts, classroom situations and many episodes from outside class, but from within life stories, including mine. Hence the business of being a teacher of texts is particularly important, even though every chapter in this book is not about pedagogy. And while I ruminate on this, a horrific video has been leaked from IIT Kharagpur where an English teacher who writes on subalternity and postcolonialism abuses her Dalit students in class.

In a situation where signposts of meaning are lost because life is fragile and short-lived, this development imbues our discussion on shaping forces with a sense of urgency and relevance. It’s worth asking how a powerful upper-caste English teacher has so far concealed such forms of epistemic violence?

This is not to say that caste abuse does not happen in other languages, but it gets projected as exceptional when it happens in a prestigious institution with English-speaking teachers. The exceptionalism is evident in the element of ‘surprise’ and ‘indignation’ many of us feel, instead of thinking of this as business-as-usual. Underlying this phenomenon is our investment in emancipatory goals in education of a particular kind. In fact, this is also our blindness to experience. Human beings don’t change by using postcolonial jargon; they remain the prejudiced people they have been.

Not to recognise this is also to not see what shaping role experience performs.

Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience and Indian Literature

Excerpted with permission from Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience and Indian Literature, Rita Kothari, Bloomsbury.