What Buddhadev Bose, one of the pioneers of Bengali modernism, thought of English

On 14 September, the Vice President of India, Venkaiah Naidu, said that "English" was an illness left behind by the British. He was speaking on the occasion of Hindi Divas Samaroh 2018. Naidu also suggested that it is not possible to progress in the country without learning Hindi.

Keeping Naidu's comments on language and a future language policy of India in mind, we publish an excerpt from the book An Acre of Green Grass and Other English Writings of Buddhadeva Bose edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri. Bose was a pioneer of modernism in Bengali literature and arguably the foremost editor, writer and critic in the post-Tagore era in Bengal.

This extract shows that he was not enamoured of English but is not provincial like Naidu either. He set up one of the first comparative literature departments in India and was, all along, one of the best writers of English prose, as this extract shows.  In times of increasing Hindi nationalism, Bose's writings show that there are better ways of being critical of English, much better than calling it an "illness".

Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers. That they are a nation of poets is equally true. The poetry of England is the greatest in the world; no other country has produced so many great poets. Emotion, held in leash in their personal and social life, has leapt up to fantastic heights in their poetry. It is the reverse with us: we are habitually emotional, and our poetry is shy, gentle, and tender. Rabindranath, thinking of the days of his youth when the vogue for English literature had just started, has made some very illuminating remarks:

‘… Glancing back at the period of which I tell, it strikes me that we had gained more of stimulation than of nourishment out of English literature. Our literary gods then were Shakespeare, Milton and Byron: and the quality in their work which stirred us most was strength of passion. In the social life of Englishmen, passionate outbursts are kept severely in check, for which very reason, perhaps, they so dominate their literature, making its characteristic to be the working out of extravagantly vehement feelings to an inevitable confl agration. At least this uncontrolled excitement was what we learnt to look on as the quintessence of English literature. ‘In the impetuous declaration of English poetry by Akshay Chowdhury, our initiator into English literature, there was the wildness of intoxication. The frenzy of Romeo’s and Juliet’s love, the fury of King Lear’s impotent lamentation, the all-consuming fi re of Othello’s jealousy, these were things that roused us to enthusiastic admiration. Our restricted social life, our narrower fi eld of activity, was hedged in with such monotonous uniformity that tempestuous feelings found no entrance; all was as calm and quiet as could be. So our hearts naturally craved the life-bringing shock of the passionate emotion in English literature. Ours was not the aesthetic enjoyment of literary art, but the jubilant welcome by stagnation of a turbulent wave even though it should stir up to the surface the slime of the bottom…. The first awakening is the time for the play of energy, not its repression.’

That ‘uncontrolled excitement’ referred to by Rabindranath, that ‘jubilant welcome of a turbulent wave’ is now a thing of the past; into that wildness of intoxication’ Rabindranath brought the power of restraint; through him, through his works, we have taught ourselves to gain nourishment from English literature. We have left those days far behind when the English schoolmaster taught us to idolise a third-rate English author and hold our own writers in contempt. Writing private letters in English, and rewarding favourite authors with the names of English literary celebrities—these two habits have perished in the same flame: the Scotts and Byrons of Bengal are long dead, and we are able to look at English literature with some amount of detachment. Rabindranath has recorded what struck him as a defi ciency in English literature:

‘… in English literature the reticence of true art has not yet appeared…. Human emotion is only one of the ingredients of literature and not its end—which is the beauty of perfect fullness consisting in simplicity and restraint. This is a proposition which English literature does not yet fully admit. ‘Our minds from infancy to old age are being moulded by this English literature alone. But other literatures of Europe, both classical and modern, of which the art-form shows the well-nourished development due to a systematic cultivation of self-control, are not subjects of our study; and so it seems to me, we are yet unable to arrive at a correct perception of the true aim and method of literary work.’

It is likely that Rabindranath was not naturally very sympathetic to English literature, but what he says is substantially true. This excessive intimacy with English literature has harmed us in various ways. The most noteworthy is the injury done to our criticism. Though we no longer openly label our authors with the names of Scott or Dickens, we still mentally measure them by placing them beside English authors. Yet the unit of measure cannot be the same; the English and the Bengali author must be judged by diff erent standards. It is as great a mistake to expect Rabindranath to write Romeo and Juliet or King Lear as to expect Pound to write Ode to a Nightingale. The standards we apply in our criticism are, on the whole, those of English literature; when we try to avoid them, as we sometimes do, we fall back on Sanskrit poetics. Both are wrong; for neither the standards of classical Sanskrit nor those of English are quite suitable to Bengali literature; the critic is often at a loss where to hide the loose ends.

The cover of the book | Image courtesy: OUP India

Every literature has its own temper and accordingly develops its own standards of criticism; but we have yet to achieve that. We do not yet know where to look for our critical standards; critics would be paralysed if Sanskrit, Persian, and English literatures are removed from their eyes. The time has come to create our principles of criticism by comparing one Bengali author to another; and if we have not yet been able to attain independence on this point, one of the reasons certainly is the glaring presence of English literature in our minds. The second injury has been in the narrowness of our culture. It is still true that ‘our minds from infancy to old age are being moulded by this English literature alone’. It is commonly said that the English language has opened for us the portals of world literature, nor can it be denied that through English, we have gained some access to other European literatures. But translations can only suggest, but not impart, the glory of the original. The world where we enter on paying the English gatekeeper his fee is not a dreamland but a shadowland.

There are few among us who are really at home in French, German, or Italian literatures in the original—leave aside Greek or Latin or Russian. We merely take little walks here and there, only to return to English. We are tied to it; and it matters little that the rope is somewhat long. We look at world literature with English eyes, judge non-English authors by English standards, and sometimes make grotesque mistakes. The drum of English literature, constantly beating in our ears, blurs our judgement and distorts our sense of proportion so that we even blunder in comparing an indiff erent English writer to some great writer of some other country or our own. In this sense, English has really debarred us from world literature: we have not yet acquired the habit of seeing English or our own literature in the perspective of world literature. The root of all this lies, of course, in our political condition. From our very childhood, we are made to learn a foreign tongue, and through it are introduced to diff erent branches of learning. This has imposed an intolerable strain on our mental faculties; this has made our education feeble and perverse, and fettered all intellectual activity. Even our natural love for English literature is often poisoned by the horror of text books and the nightmare of examinations. It is marvellous that so much genuine love has survived that horror. It is our innate genius that has expressed itself in this love. I have said that the greatest gift of the British to our country is their literature; but ‘gift’ is hardly the right word, for a gift is voluntary. The British did not bring us their literature out of the fullness of their heart; they did so simply because they could not help it. Macaulay taught us English not to enable us to read Shakespeare, but to produce cheap clerks for British merchants. It is we who took to Shakespeare. We turned the language forced down our throat into a bridge reaching out to beauty, to a joy forever. But after all these years it has become a thorn in the flesh, and the sooner it is plucked out, the better. Michael Madhusudan had declared (in his time, rightly) that Bengali must sever the bonds of Sanskrit; today it would be equally right to say that Bengali must sever the bonds of English. I know there are many who would diff er on this last point. There are many who say that the English language will have to be current in India even after our political connection with Britain has come to an end. That, they argue, would be our opening to the great world. But there is no country (except those which have geographically fallen into two or three linguistic areas) where the common man has to learn any other language than the mother tongue. This is the most natural and most normal arrangement; and it is only under this condition that the mother tongue can attain full maturity. As long as we shall remain convinced that a knowledge of English is essential for scientific or commercial activity, it will not be possible for a Bengali to equip herself for those spheres of life. It is not merely political independence that we want: freedom from the cultural domination of English is also our aim. The British say that everybody who is worth knowing in India speaks perfect English: so they do not think it necessary to learn a word of our tongue, though they spend years—often entire lifetimes in this land. Not until we begin to forget English will they (and all foreigners) begin to learn our language. The idea persists to this day that the Indian who does not speak English is uneducated—and what can be more illustrative of the slavery of our mind? In England, too, there was a time when a man was deemed a rustic simply because he could not read Latin. Just as European countries, following the decline of the Roman Catholic Church, gradually freed themselves from Latin fetters, in the same way the currency of the English language is bound to cease in India after British rule in the country is ended. Education will never become real in our lives as long as it means merely acquaintance with the English tongue—one should say, with a certain number of English words. The sooner, therefore, we begin to cease to think of English as indispensable, the better. It is not to be thought of that we shall regain complete mental health as long as we have to depend on English for anything. When we shall have only the mother tongue and nothing else, everything will be done through it: in fact, that is the best way of making it independent and self-contained. Of course, this does not mean that we shall say goodbye to English forever. The selected few—intellectuals, writers, and scholars—will till learn English: for others, for the common man, it will be useless. No longer compelled by fear of hunger, but impelled by the spirit of delight, they will learn it better, and to better ends. But not English alone, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish—we shall fling open our doors to all European languages, as well as the Asiatic ones. Some scholars will specialise in one group, some in another; lovers of literature will have a wide range of choice and acquire whichever language or languages they like. Thus will the stream of all literatures nd cultures, springing from original sources, mingle in our mind; we shall be removed from this stifling contiguity with the British and at last released in the great open spaces of the world. Only then shall we be able to realise the ultimate value of English literature, and look at our own literature without blind sentimentality or blind contempt.