The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Salvaging, Indianizing and improvising Europe
To fashion a world of their own

It was from my grandfather that I first heard of Europeans. Or “Euro-peans”, as he called them, his emphasis on the “Euro-” an unintended prophecy of the Europe to come.

My grandfather was a schoolteacher in a small village in Kerala. He was a practising Brahmin, and his forehead, arms and chest were marked with ashy stripes that confidently declared to the world his religious identity and caste pedigree. The world, his world, was full of differences: he was aware of this, he was by no means ignorant or parochial, although he lived in a village the length of a city-street. But he knew his place in it. He may have taught English literature, painfully annotated the linguistic and cultural mysteries of Shakespeare, Browning and Lamb, but his languages — the languages of real life — were Tamil and Malayalam.

Seated in his favourite reading place, an “easy-chair” placed at the receiving end of a skylight, he gave me my first notion of the European. What he communicated to me, through what he said and what he chose to leave unsaid, was a frightening and exciting welter of impressions. The European was privileged; the European was a tyrant. The European produced superior things, from tweed coats to poetry. The Europeans (and the European woman finally made an appearance) lived in a haze of decadence, luxury and immorality.

Perhaps I exaggerate a little. After all, much of the received wisdom of childhood is painted in bold strokes to make up for the simplistic quality of its truths. But it certainly is true that my first “vision” of the European world was a charged one. Simple lines of differentiation were being drawn to make sense of a hopelessly variegated universe. At a very early stage of my life, the European became my Other. A relationship began that was to persist, with all its tumultuous ups and downs, all through my life.

So if I looked over my shoulder, I could see a blurred European shadow, the overexposed and bleached outline of a mysterious white man. European and English were still synonymous. The Americans did not exist yet.

Then at the age of eight, this shadow and I had our first rendezvous. After this one-to-one encounter, the shadow would be fleshed out for always, brought to life with an articulate voice. It would change the medium — the language — through which I looked at the world.

Till this point I was called P.H. Githa and I studied in a school where the medium of instruction was Tamil. In the traditional south Indian manner, my initials indicated who and where I came from; or where I belonged. P for Perinkolam was the village my father came from; H for Hariharan was the pater familias himself. We lived in Matunga, a part of Bombay that was a south Indian stronghold. You could live a whole lifetime here and lose very little of your ancestors’ linguistic, culinary and other assorted cultural legacies. Then my father, a journalist, became the founder-editor of a national financial newspaper, The Economic Times. We moved out of Matunga, about 10 km away from South Indian School. My days as P.H. Githa were numbered.

In Nepean Sea Road, a new world populated by Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati speakers, but above all read and written in English, unfolded for my bewilderment and delight. In school, Tamil was non-existent; and I did not know a word of English. The class monitor, a boy several times my size, said to me: “Oh, your name is P.H., is it' Then your father’s name must be Githa!” I did not need to know English to understand that my old self was no longer my old friend; it was only going to be an impediment. I went home with a note from my teacher, asking for a “surname”.

The exotica-wallahs given to waxing mysterious about the “Orient” have it all wrong. India is really pragmatism personified at a very fundamental level, absorbing everything into its sponge-like mouth. In a year’s time, I had learnt the lines that went with my new cosmopolitan name, which would make it easier to fill out international application forms that took you places, the kind that begins “first name' family name'”

I was not to know this till many years later, but I had been selected to become one of Macaulay’s (step)-grandchildren. Though many of the young in India today (reared on MTV and Nike) think English is American, Indian English has a different grandparent, or perhaps I should say foster-grandparent, a rather cold-blooded, calculating one. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay wished a whole section of the Indian population into existence in the course of a minute. In his Minute on Indian Education, he articulated an important colonial strategy: appear to be including some in a “forum” to keep the others out of the “fortress”. The great objective of the British government was declared to be “the promotion of European literature and science” and available funds were to be henceforth employed in “imparting to the Native population knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language.”

So many of history’s dreams are double-edged: one man’s dream, another’s nightmare. Luckily, Macaulay’s dream travelled via bye-lanes that did not exist in his world. It spawned scenarios he could not have envisioned for all his foresight. The English language gave my Indianness a “European topping”, drew some dividing lines between non-English speaking Indians and me. But it also brought with it valuable imports — enrichment in the form of literature, ideals and ideas, the generally invigorating perspective of other worlds. I was in a sense trained to be part of a “European forum.” An Irish nun with a stoop read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to me; Macbeth thundered in Bombay as if he knew he would be deported when it turned into a chauvinist Mumbai. I learnt how to argue in the scholastic tradition of St Thomas Aquinas, cheered on by sharp-tongued Jesuits.

But the European forum I was being trained for was a fortress not so easily penetrated, especially from a distance, especially for a dark-skinned woman. Besides, the battleground had shifted. The colonial dream no longer occupied the centre-stage of action; though too soon to be forgotten, it would be relegated to a prop, a soiled backdrop. The colonized dreamer had inched to the foreground, trying to fashion a dream of his or her own. In an adult world where Europe was no longer the centre of the planet, I could use my Eurocentric education as a base from which to make my own “European discoveries” — the ideas of Freud, Marx and the feminists.

I could discover the challenge of adapting these ideas for a different place and time. I could embark on the enterprise of a lifetime, charting out my own painful route of salvaging, Indianizing, improvising; learning how to live a “multi-cultural, post-colonial, metropolitan” existence as a modern Indian woman. Despite our bigots who claim to know the correct brand of Indianness, a hyphenated existence is very much part of our layered existence: several simultaneous pasts, several presents. And a present that speaks in many tongues, voices, and communities.

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