In this paper I would like to dwell on the subtle interiorization of coloniser’s culture by the educated Indian in the postcolonial city space as reflected in Bhavani Prasad Mishra’s poem ‘Kya Karte Rahte hain’. This poem can be read as a document of fractured modern identity of the educated class in Indian cities at the threshold of post Gandhian era. Gandhi had criticized this class for becoming obsessed with Englishman’s language and ways. Bhavani Prasad Mishra, a Gandhian in thought and by practice, is deeply disturbed by the Englishman’s parting gift, the poisoned sweet that is being spread by the modern education system. The poem is about a class which is obsessed with English language and culture. It describes how the Western mode of education and work patterns have shifted our attention and energy away from our more urgent problems to pursue the goal of becoming a ‘Developed Nation’, an idea propagated by the West. Mishra’s poem questions this belief and undercuts the notion that achieving the status of a developed country would provide us with immense power and endless zones of comfort and convenience.
Adoption of English language: Imitation and alienation
In this poem, Mishra reflects on the problems of adopting English language as the official language in India. The unheedful and blind imitation of the behavioural patterns of English people by our educated class results in individual and social alienation.
The mother tongue plays an important role in formation of our individual and social identities. Khubchandani describes how through the process of learning mother tongue we learn to understand ourselves:
A child acquires native speech as a living phenomenon by progressive differentiation of the integral whole, gradually differentiating its perceptions to ‘know’ the environment. In the process of socialisation a child, at an early stage, recognises the patterns of verbalisation, enabling him/her to participate in a particular social environment. He/ she learns to locate himself/herself, i.e. where does she/he belong to on the social map. (Khubchandani, 1988, p.30).
The ideas of ‘knowing the environment’, ‘participating in the environment’ and ‘locating the self in the environment’ are important because human beings are social and emotional beings; and language is the medium through which sharing of social and emotional concerns takes place. The effectiveness and thoroughness of this sharing is significant for a fulfilling coexistence. The most fulfilling moments are those that bridge the gap between thought and word. The mother tongue helps to bridge the aporia between thought and expression and has the capacity to deliver an emotion in its fullness. The simple reason for this is that the language of a particular region is pregnant with all the nuances of its historical past from the time of its inception. The antiquity of a language has the capacity to hold and convey a wide range of human emotions of that particular geographical and cultural space. Hence the individual who does not speak the language of his living space is living in a superficial layer with no access to the deeper and more intense aspects of day to day living. Using the mother tongue is like looking at daylight and becoming aware of a hidden rainbow. Mishra’s poem specifically talks about how our educated have moved away from their mother tongue:
Words that he utters are perhaps
More in number than the stars in the sky
But the effect that they leave
Is that of a heavy sigh or of pure resentment
These educated ones do not understand each other’s writing
or the documents of their fancy
They have long forgotten
The language around them
As even amongst themselves
One’s language does not match the other’s1
Mishra has here indicated that this class in post-independence India suffers alienation on account of its distance from native tongue and also on account of the living style that it has adopted. The English educated person situates himself in an elitist position and finds it difficult to communicate with non-English speaking classes like the farmers, artisans, craftsmen, vegetable sellers and grocers. This cuts him off from a major part of life around him. Mishra says that such people live a meaningless life crowded with words in their heads. Whatever they express through their words is merely a depressive sigh of helplessness or resentment. They inscribe a record of their loneliness and alienation through their words which are unintelligible to others because they are different from the language of common people.
Appropriation of foreign culture
Issues of language are deeply linked to the problem of cultural imperialism. Mishra addresses the issue of depletion of our culture at the hands of English educated class which prefers everything English over Indian and points out with sharp irony:
How can we spill our hard earned money
On hundreds of these people like barbers, blacksmiths
Moreover why should they receive our money,
Our money is needed by the foreign blade company!
If everything we own, is not imported
From our blade to our brain-
Something in us will remain our own, No!
And then we will not, even in loneliness, become a crowd
Then we will not be able to announce -‘We are Modern’
Mishra poignantly describes how this class suffers from emotional emptiness, meaninglessness and a loss of identity:
From head to toe and
Throughout - is a crowd
In the background of the poem there is an acute awareness about pre-colonial culture which is being continuously displaced and threatened by neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism. For Mishra culture is synonymous with a sense of inner completeness. He witnesses with pain the decline of a compassionate and selfless society which he has experienced. He has lived in times when inner fulfilment had been derived from within the complex system of dependence and sustenance of communities. For example, the interaction and cooperation within various groups in a village community was not merely a professional economic exchange but also an exchange of emotional energy. The process of giving, receiving, supporting and thereby sustaining each other has been an integral part of channelisation of human emotional energy. The barber, the goldsmith, the ironsmith, the carpenter, the cobbler, the local shopkeeper and the school master- all have been threads in the web of community existence. In postcolonial India, the aspirations of middle class changed in view of the new education system introduced by the administrators of the empire. Unfortunately the aspirants for education and progress needed to make a break from their community web and this led to estrangement between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, city-dwellers and village- dwellers etc. The resultant fragmented social formation has created a disconnect with the basic web of life.
Mishra describes the gaps and fissures within the cultural web and the resultant alienation through images of an office-goer in postcolonial India. There is an ironical almost prophetic reference to how multinational companies, taking advantage of Indian reverence for imported things have played a huge role in creating a break with our own way of life.
A reminder of Macauly’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ is useful here, that aimed to create clerks to serve the English administration, and not to fulfil the needs of Indian people as it had no system of training farmers, ironsmiths, goldsmiths, barbers, jewellers, carpenters, weavers or artisans. It degraded our existing system by removing shram, the creative labour, from our lives. This led to elitism of the English educated who started to believe that any kind of physical labour is work of servants. The dignity of shram which is the hallmark of Indian life was erased from modern education. The poem begins with a typical picture of an educated middle class Indian male’s daily routine; he needs ‘bed tea’ to be served by his wife, and goes to office to while away time and not to work:
What do we do
We wake up late in the morning
That the day has dawned, we come to know
Only when the housewife brings tea to our bed side
Then we do a slow shave, a bath and dress up
To reach office
Where there is no compulsion to work
Where we just have to sit here and there
- Often even this is unnecessary
The poem depicts the laziness that has crept into the entire structure of Government offices and affecting their working style. This laziness that has come to be associated with the ‘dignity’ of the educated class removes them farther from their own immediate reality and snaps their link with community and nature. This physical inertia of the educated class gradually develops into a kind of mental inertia. They lose their individual capacity of thinking and their minds are being run by neo-colonial powers operating through high powered industrialists and corrupt politicians:
That these few
Can announce through such platforms
Their authority, their supremacy,
Even their meanness and bad taste
In our share they let fall, it seems
Only a silent spectatorship -that too from distance,
And we return home thoroughly exhausted
So our mind and intellect cannot even think
- About the futility, the vanity and the exploitation involved in all this.
This machine like existence that deprives this class of any active thinking is the reason behind its acceptance of things around with a horrifying passivity. Complete degradation of ethics is seen at all levels, and they keep watching it helplessly, mostly due to weakness of will to bring about change. Mishra describes a picture of this modern urban existence:
Only smoke enters through the windows
And vulgar voices
And if one peeps out
The spectacle is far from
What can be called pleasant
Fast moving vehicles,
Obscene sequences of dirty songs set to music
Naked people - deprived of clothes or of taste
Mishra’s answer to problems of modern life that is wrapped up in poverty, deprivation, alienation, corruption and crime is ‘a strong will to do selfless work’. He invokes solidarity among those who have a desire to bring about change. He urges them to shed off their small comforts and luxury in order that all may live in dignity and with a sense of contentment. In the last lines of ‘Kya Karte Rahtein Hain’, Mishra implores people to wake up to bring about the much needed change in society:
The way is simple and easy-
Some of us have to wake up
And have to keep awake day after day
And leave behind
Our masks, our dresses
And our worries about many such things
We have to dissolve
Sweet primitive fragrances of pure dawn
Into our dust and smoke filled surroundings
In Mishra’s opinion, we don’t need a Christ, a Buddha, or a Gandhi for this task. We only need a few willing individuals from amongst ourselves who are ready to shed off personal comfort zones and leave behind the masks of false identities which we have been wearing since the colonial invasion on our psyche.
All the translations of Mishra’s poem given in the article are mine.
Bahadur Singh, V. (Ed.). (2002). Bhavani Prasad Mishra: Rachnavali. New Delhi: Anamika Publishers and Distributers.
Khubchandani, L.M. (1988). Language as an everyday life activity. In L.M. Khubchandani (Ed.), Language in a plural society. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Alka Tyagi is Associate Professor in Department of English, Dyal Singh(Evening) College, University of Delhi. She is a poet, translator and critic.