The Centre Cannot Hold

How GN Devy challenges our concept of knowledge

01 July 2018

ONE DAY ABOUT SEVEN YEARS AGO, I visited one of the infamous photocopy shops near Delhi University’s south campus. I had just enrolled in a master’s course in literature at the university and needed to buy textbooks. The shop sold pirated photocopies of DU’s prescribed readings at about one-tenth the price of the original books, which were out of reach for most students.

I remember standing at the shop, flipping through the syllabus. It was clear why the course was called “English literature” and not “literature in English.” There was “Poetry from Chaucer to Milton,” “Eighteenth-century English literature,” “Seventeenth-century English drama” and an entire paper on Shakespeare. By contrast, there was just one compulsory paper on Indian literature, summing up thousands of years of literary output in four short texts.

I recalled an essay by VS Naipaul, “Words To Play With,” on the education he received in Trinidad. Naipaul complained of having to endure William Wordsworth’s daffodils and Charles Dickens’ London rain. There were no daffodils in Trinidad and instead of rain, the Caribbean island had tropical downpours. Every piece of literature he read at school became a work of fantasy, as “we could not hope to read in books of the life we saw about us” and, further, that “until they have been written about, societies appear to be without shape and embarrassing.”

Martand Kaushik is an associate editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: literature language vernacular