Monday, March 12, 2012

Reflections on Learning English Literature


I could not have expected a greater honour from the Department of English of the Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, than being invited to deliver the Prof. Hrdya Kumari Endowment Guest Lecture 2011-2012. I had dreamt as a teenager that I would speak English like her one day. Today, at least, I speak in her name, though not like her. I bow my head to this extraordinary teacher and an exceptional human being. To our delight, “Age cannot wither her” and she remains active and engaged.

The topic of this talk to honour Prof.Hrdaya Kumari could not be anything other than “Reflections on Learning English Literature” as she was a towering presence in my five years as a student in the University College. But I must say that the final title of the lecture is a product of hard negotiations with the organisers. The process reminded me of an old Egyptian story of a fish vendor, who put up a board, “Fresh Fish Sold Here”, but ended up without a board as each wise man who passed by suggested one word after the other as redundant. In my case, I managed to retain the main part of the title, though I had to change the scope of the talk each time a word was dropped!

Believe it or not, it was precisely half a century ago that I made a crucial decision in my life. Instead of pursuing a professional course with a clear career option, I decided to chase a Foreign Service dream my father had by joining a course of study in English Language and Literature. I had no idea how it would help me reach my goal and I did not know how it would help in a Foreign Service career itself. I was happy to be rid of science subjects, particularly Mathematics, and nothing else bothered me as I registered myself in the University College for BA (English), which not many others seemed to want. At that time, as of now, the best and the brightest went to professional studies, leaving the rest of the world of opportunities in sciences and humanities to those who did not make the grade. Our protestations that we joined English for the love of literature and to compete for the Civil Services did not carry any conviction. But we claimed elitism over our poor brethren in History and Economics and gloated over our central location in the college and the attention we received by the abundance of the female of the species in our midst. Some of us also dabbled in student politics and became prominent.

Looking back at those years, 1961 to 1966, memories of events, personalities and experiences come to mind in an endless procession. As the most decisive years in shaping our lives, philosophies and thoughts, recalling them is an adventure in itself. Recording them after half a century is hazardous in the extreme, as events and people merge into each other and separating the different strands is difficult to accomplish. I can share only the overall impressions, fully aware that the important events may be hazy and the less consequential ones may get exaggerated. Personalities may emerge in black and white, though they were actually in colour, with the bewitching shades of an artist’s palette.

My overwhelming recollection about those times is that none of us, neither students, nor teachers, appeared to have a vision or mission about the knowledge imparted to us. The prescribed books for both the bachelors and masters courses belonged to different genres and different ages and there were no efforts to establish historic interlinkages either in terms of movements or literary crafts. We focused on texts without their contexts and we were unaware of the vast world of knowledge out there, outside our books.

The biggest weakness of teaching a course in English language and literature was that there was no effort to develop communicative English in the classrooms. We lived in two distinct linguistic worlds. We spoke in Malayalam the whole day except when we spoke to the teachers during lectures. Private conversations were strictly in the mother tongue and we were quite proud that neither our mother nor our tongue was English. In the process, the felicity of spoken English eluded us even after finishing five years of English language and literature. No group discussions were ever organized either to develop the language or the analytical ability of the students either at the graduate or post graduate level. The English Associations, which were supposed to provide such opportunities were mired in politics and were used by the student organizations to bring their favourite people to interact with the students. In fact, the language aspect received no attention. Grammar, usage and idiom were unheard of. We developed a bookish form of English, which should have been conducive to literary writing. But creative writing was totally outside the curriculum. I cannot recall a single significant creative work done by any of the students, even though we had people with the talents and linguistic skills for creative writing. One of them, Mani Jacob, who became an educationist and unfortunately passed away recently, had the skill to add cadence and colour to the most prosaic statements. For instance, I recall that when he had to say that Bacon made skillful use of aphorisms, he wrote, “Bacon was not inadept in the art of incubating aphorisms.” I do not think he developed his creative writing skills in later life. Creative writing, perhaps, had no place in his career as an educationist. I wonder whether Kerala was the only University in the world, where a student could become a Master in English Literature, without writing a dissertation or a literary piece or acquiring proficiency in spoken English.

The focus was on prescribed texts at both the graduate and post-graduate level and there was no incentive to read. The library was stocked with literature and literary criticism of an earlier era and we did not know the contemporary literature in English. The infamous question, supposed to have been asked by a professor of English, “Who on earth is T.S.Eliot?” may be apocryphal, but reflected the reality of the impression that English literature came to a close with the Victorian period. We had a book on British history in the BA class, but it was not linked to the literary movements or the nature of the society in which those movements flourished. How could we understand Shakespeare without the knowledge of what shaped his mind and what his preoccupations were as a playwright?

We had the most talented of teachers in the University College at the time, but we did not have the ability to understand them in the early years. With one year of English medium of instruction behind us, we did not grasp much of what they tried to convey. But they helpfully gave us notes on various topics both at the BA and MA levels to prepare us for the examination. This reduced our involvement further in the learning process. By the time we discovered the talents of our teachers, it was too late to benefit from their abilities.

The English teachers at that time were not anonymous, but people with established reputations, but we could see that their talents were not fully utilized in assigning their work. Two established poets among them taught us most prosaic subjects like British History, English phonetics and Old English. The senior professor, who taught us Shakespeare, was rather prosaic and depended heavily on his old notebook, neatly covered in brown paper and labeled. He was totally lost without his notebook. We tested it by hiding the notebook for a day! At one time we had a head of department, whose passion was not poetry, but ornithology on which he was an authority. He knew who T.S.Eliot was, but when I suggested to him that the English Association must meet to condole the passing away of the famous poet, he did not see any point in it.

When I reflect on the faculty that we had at that time, I distinctly recall what we admired best in each one of them. A teacher with the eloquence of Hrdaya Kumari, the depth of knowledge of Ayyappa Paniker, the creativity of G.Kumara Pillai, the friendliness of Sudhakaran Nair, the motherliness of Chellamma Joseph, the sprightliness of Santhakumari the smile of “Punchiri Mathai”, the good looks of Gopakumar and the simplicity of K.Srinivasan would be a perfect model. But one thing common for all of them was their enthusiasm for teaching. Their sincerity was beyond question. But the system of learning and teaching was such that there was no scope for innovation. They taught us the way they learnt as no thought was given to the nature of the professions for which the graduates were being educated. The skills, which we acquired, were good enough only to turn us into teachers without the special talents our teachers had.

One person, who seemed to care as to whether we will fit into the wide world was not in the English Department, but our Principal, Dr. N.S.Warrier. I remember him calling some of us to his room one day in 1964 to ask whether we had understood the full implications of the Chinese nuclear test that had taken place that day. We had not, and we had not cared. Today, we know how that single incident had transformed the world we would live in. Even our policy makers in Delhi had not grasped its impact as Dr.Warrier had done! The space age had just begun and Dr. Warrier appeared bewildered by it. He asked me once whether I had ever thought of flying in space and landing in a country I knew nothing about. Would I be equipped to deal with that situation, with the education I was receiving, he asked. Indeed, I lived in a dozen countries in different continents and discovered that it was important to develop a global view even when one is young.

The variety among us, the students who spent five years together, was great. They ranged from hard working and ambitious men and women to those with no particular goals in life. Those who came from the Thiruvananthapuram aristocracy had airs about them till the “outsiders” overtook them in the university examinations. I remember a classmate, who was confident about facing an exam on the basis of what I could tell him precisely five minutes before entering the examination hall. He asked me to tell him the story of ‘ The Twelfth Night’ so that he could take the examination. He had neither read the play, nor listened to the lectures on it. I obliged, but when he began telling the story in answer to a specific question, he could not remember what the respective genders of Orsino and Olivia were. The way out he found was to describe them not as ‘he’ or ‘she’, but as ‘it’, much to the consternation of the teacher, who valued the paper.

College was a pastime for some of the students and they fell by the wayside, but found their own way of making a living. We know from experience that dropping out of college need not necessarily a tragedy. Honorary degrees have been awarded to dropouts by the same universities when some of them became millionaires or political leaders. Some among my classmates, who may not have been good students, turned out to be reputed teachers as the years went by. The “glorification” course in the University Department of English gave them a second chance to qualify themselves as teachers.

One thing that puzzled me most was why we were taught Old English as part of the Masters Programme. The effort was as strenuous as learning a new language with no possibility of the dead language being used. If learning of the old literature was important, it could be done in modern English. The option that the University offered to study American Literature in lieu of Old English was not exercised in the University College. I cannot recall having had any use of the Old English we learnt in subsequent years. The other irony was that Dr. Ayyappa Paniker, the most modern of Malayalam poets, taught us Beowulf. We were unaware that even as he was teaching us Old English, he was creating a revolution in Malayalam poetry with his ‘Kurukshetram’. We only heard that he recreated ‘The Wasteland’ in Malayalam and we were not even inquisitive about his contribution. Now, many years later, we are discovering Ayyappa Paniker and finding the meaning of what he said to us half a century ago.

Learning literature for the joy of it was rare those days. It turned out that our graduation coincided with the advent of junior colleges in the state and all of us found jobs as lecturers even without applying for them. I was invited to teach in the Mar Ivanios College even before the results of my MA examination came out for a princely sum of Rs.125 per month. Privately, I taught a group of school teachers, most of them double my age, who wanted to move from school to college with a Masters degree in English. English MA Degree was an employment bonanza without much learning of literature. If employability was the purpose of a masters degree, nothing was better than an English degree at that time.

In my Foreign Service career, I often wished I had done politics, economics or international law in college, as these were the disciplines one needed on a daily basis in the business of diplomacy. But it is also true that many inadequacies can be covered with felicity of language. To speak without saying much, an art that is the hall mark of diplomacy, one can resort to flowery language and quotes from Milton and Shakespeare. Moreover, learning of literature expands your vocabulary and linguistic skills to your advantage. I can recall many situations in which I got away with language what I could not have accomplished with substance. But I have also seen an Ambassador, who filled his dispatches with literary embellishments being considered a man without substance.

I have no doubt that learning of English Literature in Kerala has undergone many changes since 1966. I understand that there is greater emphasis on spoken English and creative writing. Modern Indian writing in English, rather than Old English, is part of the curriculum. Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth should be part of any English literature course. I would go further and say that contemporary writing in Malayalam should also be familiar to the students of literature. The focus should be on research and innovative thinking.

The Kerala Higher Education Council intends to promote clustering of colleges in different cities and one of the activities that we are planning is to encourage lectures by outstanding teachers and men of letters for all post-graduate students. To make a beginning in sharing of intellectual resources among students and teachers, I have invited the heads of departments of English in the city to discuss ways and means of collective learning. The programme will be extended to other departments also. Our “Erudite Programme” will be redesigned in such a way that the availability of renowned scholars benefits as many students as possible. Students and teachers exchange programmes with foreign universities are also on the cards. Prof. Hrdaya Kumari herself is heading a Committee to remove the anomalies in the semester system at the undergraduate level.

In my view, the semester system, which has stabilized elsewhere in India and abroad, permits a broad perspective on the subjects of choice and stimulates thinking and the spirit of enquiry. I had found our system of intensive studies of a few works, instead of a comprehensive knowledge about each author a liability in answering questions in the Civil Services examination. The semester system does impose higher responsibilities on the teachers and the students, but the new teacher-student relationship envisaged in the system will be beneficial to both. I would like to see the system implemented in the state with the necessary correctives that we are in the process of shaping education for the future generations.

I shared my reflections on my own days in the university, not only to savour the old days, but also to show how much we have moved forward in higher education and how much more we have to do to give our students world class education. I am grateful that I have been given this opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

Thank you.

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