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.”

Fifty years after Naipaul wrote that essay, it is still relevant in contemporary India. In my years spent studying literature from that photocopied material (rather apt since the course drew so heavily upon the curriculum in the United Kingdom), I was amazed at how little of the life around me was illuminated by this education. In time, I also realised that the reason I had read literature produced in and about another society was because the university system did not consider literature produced in India to be the real thing.

What ought to be given the status of knowledge, and thus deemed worth studying, is a deeply political question for any society. While many writers and authors, from Rabindranath Tagore to the poet and scholar AK Ramanujan, have taken up this issue, there are few who have delved as deeply into it as the scholar Ganesh Narayan Devy. Over his four-decade-long career, through books and papers written at the intersection of linguistics, literary criticism and anthropology, Devy has consistently questioned the terms on which knowledge is produced and consumed. Recognition for Devy has come from several quarters: a Sahitya Akademi award, a SAARC Literary Award, the Prince Claus award, the international Linguapax prize and the Padma Shri, among many others. And yet his name can evoke blank stares, even among those within academia.

Martand Kaushik is a senior assistant editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: literature language vernacular