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Hartosh-Dalrymple spat: Reading between the lines

Last updated on: January 20, 2011 13:21 IST

Hartosh-Dalrymple spat: Reading between the lines

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Rupa Subramanya Dehejia

"The colonial hangover afflicts not us, but them." So says Will Heaven of the UK Telegraph, reflecting on the spat between Hartosh Singh Bal and William Dalrymple.

For a quick recap, Bal wrote a provocative essay in
Open magazine, arguing that the Indian literary world is in thrall to a latter-day English elite, singling out Dalrymple for criticism. Dalrymple, who organises the Jaipur Literary Festival, in full swing this weekend, retorted with an accusation of racism and a colourful scatological metaphor unprintable here.

This prompted a
rejoinder by Bal, a 'regret' by Dalrymple for the racism charge and amongst others.

Click on NEXT to read further...

The views expressed in the above article are of Rupa Subramanya Dehejia, an economist based in Mumbai.


Image: (Left) Hartosh Singh Bal (Right) William Dalrymple
Photographs: Images used for representational purposes only
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The stinging rebuke by Heaven got me thinking. If you look at race relations in America today, who is more affected by the history of slavery -- the former slave owners or the formerly enslaved?

Obviously, it's the latter, and even to this day, African-Americans lag way behind in income and every conceivable social indicator. By the same token, two hundred years of colonization left us weak and impoverished, and despite the progress we have made, we're yet to catch up.

So Heaven, you're right. The formerly colonised still bear the burdens of colonisation more than our former colonisers and this is surely to be expected. The lingering effects of colonial rule show up in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways.

The Oxbridge-educated Indian, who sounds more British than the Queen herself, is prominently on display in the cocktail parties of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Equally, those who react with anger against this dying Anglicised elite themselves are prisoners of colonisation to some extent.



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One could argue that all of this will soon be irrelevant as a youthful population, which has no memory of the British Raj will come into their own.

The picture gets clouded as the post-colonial situation has been supplanted by globalisation as the main force influencing the values and behaviour of young urban Indians.

For them, it's no longer the clipped Oxford accent but American-inspired slang that carries cachet.

But having said that, the after-effects of colonisation still linger.

So Heaven is right in another sense as well. Unlike China, India's institutions still bear the stamp of our colonial legacy. Some of these have clearly served us well, such as our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, which, despite its flaws, no one in India would want to replace.

But there are less desirable institutions we have hung onto and failed to reform, such as our education system based on rote learning, our penal code, or more subtly the servile attitude and rigid hierarchies that characterise Indian society.



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Take the penal code, for instance, which is still largely the legacy of the colonial period. The vague and opaque sedition law was designed to keep Indian resistance to colonisation in check, but today the threat of its use has a chilling effect on dissident voices.

There is a much deeper question here, which Bal did not explicitly raise, although it is implied by his piece. As literary theorists such as Edward Said remind us, our thought and discourse itself is conditioned by the language in which it takes place.

The fact remains that despite the increasing importance of Hindi and the regional languages, the principal language for elite discourse in India remains English.

Does this represent the last frontier of colonisation?

If this sounds far-fetched, let us not forget that nationalist and separatist movements throughout the world stress the importance of language, whether it is the Basques in Spain or Quebec in Canada. This underscores the point that language is central to identity and culture.



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Take the example of Quebec.

Although the separatist Parti Quebecois has been out of power for many years and not likely to be re-elected anytime soon, its lasting legacy has radically transformed Quebec society and culture in the last forty years: the replacement of English by French as the official language.

This ranges from something as trivial as the language you order your morning coffee in to the efflorescence of literature, theatre, and cinema, all in French.

Talk to any Quebecer today, whether separatist or not, and they will tell you that the French language is absolutely central to their identity as Quebecers and is what makes them distinct in a sea of English-speakers in North America.



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Here in India, what language or languages are central to our identity?

For many of the urban elite, it is probably English and not Hindi or their regional language. While this may be a radical thought, perhaps our true liberation from the colonial hangover will only come when English ceases to be dominant in our society and culture.

This is not to say that we shouldn't speak English, for it is the lingua franca of our globalised world. But in what language do we express our innermost thoughts, desires and aspirations? If that language is English, then we'll probably reach for a metaphor in Shakespeare and not Kalidasa.

The views expressed in the above article are of Rupa Subramanya Dehejia, an economist based in Mumbai.



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Source: ANI