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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.