The Daily Star reprints Keki Daruwala‘s “engaging account—originally a talk delivered at Internationale Literaturtage in 1988 at Erlangen, West Germany and which he said was ‘a cursory attempt to explain to a German (and international) audience what Indian poetry in English was all about’—of his own ongoing tussle, and delight, with the English language”; it describes the progress of his encounter with the language of the former colonial power, beginning with his father’s library and continuing in various schools (at one of which he was mocked for speaking more correct English than his classmates):

The next threshold was crossed when one encountered boys from public schools. These were situated in the mountain sanctuaries of Murree and Simla and Nainital. The boys wore blue blazers and school neckties. Their speech was more clipped, their smiles more condescending. They even spoke their Hindustani with an anglicized accent. They could hardly pronounce the names of the towns they lived in. Nainithal, as it is pronounced in Hindustani, got twisted to ‘Nainitoll’. And they used slang. It was old slang of course, shipped some three decades ago, which had got lost on the seas, then lay rotting on the docks like dry fish, till it was dispatched by steam rail and later on mule back to those public schools in the mountains. But the fact is that they used slang and if you did not latch on to a phrase, you were held in contempt.
And then came my first conversation with an Englishman. He had to repeat himself three times to make himself understood. What an exotic accent, I thought. Why couldn’t the fellow speak English as she ought to be spoken?
No other trauma intervened for the next fifteen years or so. Then as one started publishing poetry in English, critics shook their heads in disapproval. Yes, fiction, essays, articles, even pornography one could write in English, they said (though nothing like Punjabi for robust abuse). But poetry was another cup of tea. You could write it only in a language you had imbibed with mother’s milk. This line of argument gave rise to what I chose to call the Lactatory School of Literary Criticism. Another august body called the Royal School of Dreamy Criticism asked me if I dreamt in English. The trouble was I dreamt in images mostly and seldom in language. My dreams were often silent movies. When once in a while, they did turn into Talkies, they were like me, multi-lingual…

He goes on to describe the problems of using subcontinental English for poetry:

Admitted that the Indian has his own way with English syntax, but it is no way comparable to the Caribbean patois. The Indian way of speaking English is to mix the languages—half a sentence in English and the other tattered half in Hindi or Marathi or Bengali. Writing in that manner could bring on numerous problems. Pidgin is fine but a half-Hindi-half-English amalgam becomes impractical.

The whole essay is well worth your while. And I quite like his poetry; here’s the end of “Requiem For a Hawk“:

…The small bustard is clever, he knows the kestrel
is aloft, dawn-sniffing; manoeuvres with half-wing flaps
and evades both hawk and the printer’s devil.
Not so the Great Indian bustard (poor bugger,
often mispronounced), he can’t cope with the attack.
He flies in the hawk’s shadow, till falling shadow
and hawk meet rasping on his back.
You don’t need effort here, you merely descend
when dogs flush out the game, and if it lunges
for cover, the Sheikh himself will bend
and serve you the bird. But it’s dusk and the Sheikh claps;
low whistles follow; the trainer looks up and cries
as if speaking to Allah. The falcons fall
into a lowering gyre and leave the skies.
The dark hood falls and obscures the view.
As the scrub returns to its solitude and crickets,
accept, as token, this requiem for you.

My thanks to Grant Barrett for the link.
Addendum. See Bemsha Swing for examples and counterexamples of “lactatory criticism.”


  1. In my dreams, people always speak the languages they speak in real life. Isn’t it odd to dream of people speaking languages that they don’t know? (Perhaps my subconscious lacks imagination).

  2. So you never dream of people whose languages you don’t know? Or is it that in your dream you know they’re speaking a given language, even though you don’t speak it yourself?

  3. There are plenty of poets who’ve written effectively in a non-native language. Apollinaire was Polish. Kerouac’s native langauge was Quebecois French.

Speak Your Mind