It is next to impossible for literary interests to survive in an Indian household. Perhaps I should qualify this assertion that this impossibility is most present in Indians who have taken root in the West, whether England, Australia, or most close to home for me, the Bay Area. But why should this be the case? On the face of it, it doesn’t make sense. India is the home of many great stories – the Ramayana, Rabindranath Tagore’s great Bengali poetry, part of the Bengal Renaissance, to name a couple. So why do literary talents and interests fall flat? We (Indians in the West) often are of well-to-do means, implying that we had and have access to good schools, and by extension, resources that should allow us to cultivate literary interests. My friend, who is Indian and a year younger, went to my high school, and took 12 AP classes (or was it 9?), of which AP English was one, in order to secure admission at a prestigious Ivy league school. So he had access to the best literature; works such as “Animal Farm”, “The Scarlett Letter.” I myself read classics like “Brave New World” and “Fahrenheit 451” as a senior in honors English, though my memory of those books are hazy. Taking English AP was the “done” thing by Indians, though I did not. I was overwhelmed by AP calculus, AP US history, and AP statistics, finding teachers to write my letters of recommendations (and trying to behave good enough to deserve one), and navigating the nightmare of the social scene. Yet not one of my peers majored in English in college.
This puzzle – as to the general apathy regarding literary interests in Indian households settled in the West – is only heightened when you put a spotlight over the fact that many Indians did speech and debate in high school – an intensely literary thing to do, especially if you were giving speeches about fictional characters like witches or giving presentations about mushrooms and fungi and how the deliverer of the speech is a “fun-guy”, and in my case, musical instruments who could think and speak, as opposed to debating some obscure economic fact, which was what debaters did. I considered myself an “interper” (“interp” stood for interpretation), and both components – interp and debate -- made up the speech and debate program, and there were Indians in both components. Yet as far as I can see, no one, not even Indian interpers majored in English. They majored in a pastiche of “practical” majors like biology, economics, psychology, etc.
But the practicality argument is unconvincing. You can do stuff with the English major. I went to Saint Mary’s career fair for English majors last semester, and there were no authors who spoke at the panel! Everyone who spoke had “real” jobs, like teachers, librarians, start-ups, and oddly enough ,engineering.
English is practical, so that can’t be why the Indians chose not to major in it. I personally think the explanation has something to do with the fact that literature was introduced to us was as way to excel , in a way essentially similar to taking Calculus BC and not Calculus AB (another thing the Indians I knew did). Speech and debate was seen as a way to put another notch on our accomplishment belts, rather than an opportunity to explore a potentially infinite literary universe. I have heard, to my mind horror, stories of Indian kids memorizing dictionaries to win national and state spelling competitions. The last year a non-Indian won the national spelling bee was in 2007!
(http://spellingbee.com/champions-and-their-winning-words) This is to some Indians, a testament to the power of perseverance. To me, I look upon this with some horror because I think if you view the dictionary as simply a way to accrue acumen on your resume for college, then the dictionary’s wider possibilities are neglected. What if you want to write a love poem to a girl you like? A sonnet? What if you want to run for student government and want to use the right word in a speech? What if you want to talk your 4th period physics teacher from Texas out of giving you detention for eating in class (this has no anecdotal relevance to me, in any way, shape, or form)? The Indians who cram the dictionary and win spelling bees are not thinking about all these down-to-earth purposes, such as I mentioned. And that makes me sad, because truly, something is lost. I have yet to meet an Indian who is a communications major. As a matter of fact, I have not met another Indian in the English department at Saint Mary’s (though funnily enough, I have met an Indian who is an economics professor. Go figure). As an Indian in the English department, I’m like a unicorn: rare and a strange aberration from the ordinary laws of social reality. An anomaly to be tolerated.
I had a phase in my life when I was obsessed with Bangladesh, and reformers within than country. Bangladesh is culturally similar to India, so perhaps that’s what drove my interest. Muhammad Yunus, whom I’ve written about in another article, is a Bangladeshi Nobel Prize winner. He won the prize for starting his own bank in Bangladesh (The Grameen Bank), whose purpose was to combat the evils of the loan sharks, which disproportionately affect poor Bangladeshi women .In the early days of his mission to bring loans to poor Bangladeshi women, he would go door-to-door. The problem was the culture is conservative, and it is frowned upon for a man to talk to a woman (if the woman is not in your family), unless it is in your job. So Yunus being a professor of economics, had his female students talk to the women on his behalf, and try to convince the poor woman to accept a loan from him, to escape the loan sharks. It struck me that this kind of conservatism in Bangladesh regarding implicit gender seperation (not that one gender is superior to another, but they should not mingle) is prevalent in Indian culture too.
When I used to take Indian music lessons, there were only guys in my class. My sisters’ class had only girls. I thought this was normal. And the message I took away from this separation that our teachers encouraged (all of whom were female) was that there isn’t a need for guys and girls to interact much, outside of academic settings. What each of us should be doing is focusing on our future and focusing on getting good grades, and this is why when we went to music class, it wasn’t seen as weird that there were no females in my class. To me, there was something neat about voluntarily restricting contact with the opposite sex, save for school, and dances; but there wasn’t any big urgency to go to the mall with the girl next door on the weekend – not for me anyway, and that is a byproduct of conservative Indian culture, which not unsurprisingly, is found in Bangladesh too, given that Bangladesh was actually once a part of India.But it turns out that from the point of view of fostering literary interests, this is sure to backfire (though this gender separation may help one “focus” as my friend put it, in the critical years of high school). What’s the reason for the backfiring? An illustration may help to explain why. According to “Why Women Read More Than Men” by Eric Weiner (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14175229)
“A couple of years ago, British author Ian McEwan conducted an admittedly unscientific experiment. He and his son waded into the lunch-time crowds at a London park and began handing out free books. Within a few minutes, they had given away 30 novels.
Nearly all of the takers were women, who were "eager and grateful" for the freebies while the men "frowned in suspicion, or distaste." The inevitable conclusion, wrote McEwan in The Guardian newspaper: "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead."”
This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but other books like “The Trouble with Boys” have shown that males “check out” of English classes at a much higher proportion than females. (There are always exceptions but I’m trying to make a point.) Going back to my point, a conservative culture which is suspicious of guy-girl interactions – such as Indian culture – can produce a great dearth of opportunity to interact with the gentler sex, and learn from those who are the pros at navigating the contours of language.
Another reason for the lack of nurturing literary passions is that there are no venial sins, in Indian culture. I’m using religious vocabulary, but the point is this: An Indian parent is likely to draw the following conclusion, upon observing a family friend’s Indian children eating at a restaurant: The boy/girl who leaves no left-overs on his/her plate will go to MIT and work at Tesla. The two are connected. Hence, there are no venial sins. There is no aspect of your life which – according to this logic – does not affect getting the best job later on. In a way, this Indian mentality is totalitarian because there are no “unregulated” parts of your life. But the totalitarian nature of the scrutiny is not very different from the totalitarian nature of college applications, which stick their shrewd eyes into every corner of your personal life to determine whether your extra-curricular activities and hobbies and interests (and let’s face it, what you think about before you go to sleep) are good enough for the college board people. The Indian mentality matched what the colleges were anyways doing, so there was at least consistency in high school.
The trouble is, when there are no pardonable sins, the innovative spirit dries up, like a well whose waters evaporate after being buffeted by the austere sunlight from the heavens.
You can’t make up your own expressions or use slang, because these, according to the Indian mentality, are indicative of a dangerous desire to flout the rules, which will not serve one well when one works for a corporation. In this universe, sloppy grammar is, through the laws of Karma, punished with homelessness. If you don’t use the comma properly, or say “on accident” instead of the proper “by accident”, you’ll end up homeless or on the streets – this is what we are taught. But how can you acquire literary license – the fun of language, the joy of word-play – with this sort of ethos? When grammar mistakes are punishable with homelessness (or at least you believe the two to be linked), you cannot be the Leif Ericson of the literary landscape your heart so desires.