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Would Caliban Have Renounced English after Prospero Had Left?

The belief that English is a “foreign” language, throttling India’s native languages, is dated and parochial.

Attending conferences on the preservation of indigenous languages in India always brings about ambivalent feelings in me. I often find a speaker charging at English-speaking Indians as traitors to their mother tongue. In the dark recesses of my mind, there is a lurking guilt in response to such speeches which imply that service to the mother tongue can only be done by abjuring the use of English. It appears as if English is a redundant colonial leftover, the only villain throttling native languages one after another. As an English teacher in India, I have often felt as if I too have betrayed my mother tongue. I could have bypassed the guilt by convincing myself that I am professionally bound to teach English. But there’s more to it. I feel passionate while teaching the works of authors prescribed in my English syllabi. I am reminded of Caliban—a character in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest—who was taught English by his colonial master Prospero. Am I a Caliban who continues to speak English even after Prospero is gone?

I was born and raised in Rourkela, a small and cosy industrial city in Odisha. Odisha is named after the Odra tribe, and the current territory of Odisha was assimilated by the regions sharing a common tongue, Odia—my mother tongue. For the last two decades, Odisha has been governed by a chief minister who is more comfortable in English than Odia. He occasionally speaks in Odia in public events, albeit with a thick English accent. The people of Odisha, proud of their language, do not seem to mind a chief minister who does not speak fluent Odia.

Rourkela is home to people from across India, boasting of a moderate multicultural vibe. But it is not devoid of its share of language politics. It has witnessed several campaigns led by fervent linguistic warriors who claim Sambalpuri (also known as Kosali) to be a separate language from Odia. The name Sambalpuri derives its origin from the town of Sambalpur (a town in western Odisha) while the name Kosali is associated with the ancient kingdom of Kosala. While some consider Kosali to be a distinct language, others consider it to be a regional dialect of Odia. By speaking a somewhat standardised Odia (as opposed to Sambalpuri) in Rourkela, am I acting as a linguistically privileged person? Can my mother tongue be a threat to someone else’s mother tongue?

I can’t speak about my mother tongue without talking about my mother. Fortunately, she has absolutely no objection to me speaking in any language I fancy. She knows only one language, Odia. But her Odia is different from mine. My schooling, and proclivity towards Odia literature, has given me a standardised Odia. I don’t share her accent. She sounds more “authentic” than me, her speech peppered with bits and pieces of Odia scriptures, stinging one-liners and acute satire, mostly at my expense. I know that there is a world of literature in Odia she is blithely unaware of. But I am also not the complete possessor of her entire linguistic and literary heritage. Strictly speaking, I don’t speak my mother’s language. But guess what? She doesn’t speak her mother’s language either.

So, which language should I be faithful to? There is no single variety of Odia that is spoken all over Odisha. Nor is there a uniform dialect that all my family members speak. I am talking from the perspective of one who knows only one mother tongue. What about those families where each parent has a different mother tongue and the only common language they have is English? What about those who stay in border areas like Balasore or Medinipur? Their’s is a mixture of Odia and Bengali. A 15th-century poet Kabikarna from Medinipur wrote a beautiful syncretic text named Shola Pala in a language that was a mixture of Parsi, Hindi, Bengali, and Odia.

When I tell myself that my mother tongue—a particular variety of Odia—is getting poorer by my use of another tongue, it is egoistic. Odia enjoys the status of a classical language. This mighty language has been on this planet for a long time before my arrival and will survive me too. Why should this mighty language feel threatened by those of us who speak in other languages as well?

Let me pose this question to the father of our nation. M K Gandhi, who studied law in the United Kingdom, led an anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and returned to India as a middle-aged man. He wrote extensively in English and his mother tongue Gujarati. I wonder if he ever felt guilty of speaking in English. Let me ask this question to the curator of our Constitution, a mighty hefty linguistic monument. Every word in its preamble is held sacred by the people of India. The chairman of the drafting committee B R Ambedkar was eloquent in both Marathi and English. He never perceived one language as infringing upon the territory of the other. Rather, he understood the emancipatory potential of English, especially for the marginalised communities. The rise of Dalit literature, first in “regional” languages and then in English, provided Dalits everywhere a common literary heritage depicting their shared history. For many communities in India, there’s no weapon stronger than English to fight historical, systemic oppression.

Let me put this question to the polymath whose poems became the national anthem of not only my motherland but also of the neighbouring Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore became the first Asian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his maiden anthology of English verses, Gitanjali. Every Bengali I have come across has vouched that Tagore was matchless in Bangla, his mother tongue. What he wrote in English, many believe, captures but a glimpse of his genius that flourished in full bloom in Bangla.

If these people, who exhorted the masses to fight for the righteous cause, composed poems that could soothe a baby to sleep or spark a debate among philosophers, authored voluminous works of prose regarded as classics, competently expressed themselves in languages more than one, and felt confined by none, why should I feel guilty at all? English is not my mother tongue, but at the same time, it is no more the “other” tongue. I know what the intentions of Thomas Babington Macaulay were. Many Indians under the British rule were forced to learn the language. But many learnt the language on their own. That brings me to the question: What would Caliban do after Prospero left? This immortal Shakespearean character presaged the angry and righteous colonised. He said, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.” At the end of the play, Prospero returned to his native place, setting Caliban free from bondage. Now that there was no one to be cursed in English, would Caliban have abjured the language? Shakespeare left that to the imagination of the readers.

A language is not a tenant one can force out of one’s consciousness. It is a part of one’s being. Did Caliban use English only to curse Prospero? No, he was most poetic in describing the beauty of his motherland in English. When he described the illusions of the isle, its “sounds and sweet airs” to Stephan and Trinculo, he was eloquent. It was this very language in which he conspired with them to overthrow Prospero. I believe Caliban would continue to speak merrily in his own version of English. He might even write poems in remembrance of his mother Sycorax and tales asserting his story of resistance during the long period of colonisation.

Umesh Patra ( teaches English at the Mahatma Gandhi Central University, Motihari.


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Updated On : 28th May, 2022
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