Beyond English

Posted on Mar 18, 2018

Renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o visited India in February 2018 on the invitation of Seagull Books and the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. He addressed and interacted with the students of the Seagull School of Publishing on 13 February 2018. This is a report by one of the students.

Beyond English[1]

Vidur Sethi

A Prelude against Their Selves

I have always felt at a loss when it comes to language. My grandfather, when in Pakistan, wrote Punjabi in the Nastaʿlīq style and spoke Punjabi. After migrating to India, he had to literally become a Hindu—in his language and mannerisms. That’s what most of us are forced to become these days in India—a Hindu. As his grandson, I felt like I was in a labyrinth because people in my family spoke in Urdu, Hindi, Hindustani, English and Punjabi, while I was forced to speak in English at my school. After a point in time, speaking in English became a matter of pride, and with that came the pride in lifestyle, mannerisms and my ‘superior’ hybrid identity. Despite trying to wear a mask, every now and then, I felt at a loss. What kind of loss? I am still to figure that out. But it was lingering around me, sometimes hiding, at other times standing—stark naked, its voice being rendered gibberish by my English self. Questions pertaining to language and identity troubled both my mind and my tongue:

What is it about language that binds and divides us? What happens when one language bleeds into another? What experiments are we doing with language? What about translation? When and how does a language die? What about those Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi texts that I cannot read any more? What about so many other languages that remain untranslated, unrecognized, getting lost in a fathomless abyss, along with the voices, identities, communities attached to them? Is chutnification of language enough to decolonize the Indian mind?

There was never an easy answer to any of these questions, but that never meant that these questions weren’t critical enough to be asked or thought about.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has been an important figure in making me raise these questions about and to various languages, particularly English. The more I read his works, the more interested I became in establishing a connect with the progressive writers of India who were raising these concerns at a particular point in time. But now hardly anyone is paying attention to their voices. Reading these texts and finally having the opportunity to listen to Ngũgĩ fortified my belief that these issues are relevant in India and it is essential that we assert the need to talk about them. What Ngũgĩ rendered in these sessions was more of a performance piece (in the form of storytelling), an art form very central to the oral cultures of Africa, through which he took us back and forth to particular moments in his life. These were tales about Ngũgĩ changing his name from James to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; the West’s interest in Africa; the outflow of various resources being more than the inflow, resulting in a huge disparity; how confinement and exile didn’t stop Ngũgĩ from writing; the need to write in one’s own language or mother tongue; translation being the language of languages; and Mahabharata being a significant source for many of his writings and characters. One of the stories that stayed with me was about the Pen Conference in New York in 1966. He said:

‘In one of the sessions, Pablo Neruda of Chile was sharing the podium with the writer who authored Bread and Wine. He was complaining about the dearth of Italian books being translated into English. He had acidly remarked that Italian is not like one of those Bantu languages which had one or two words in the vocabulary. I was so disturbed after hearing that, as it wasn’t true. So, I raised my hand, got up and made a point that Bantu didn’t just have a two-word vocabulary. This was my way of protesting against the attack on Africa, a continent that I was representing.’

This hierarchy has existed vis-à-vis many languages in India. But who all are expressing their concerns against the attack on a ‘minority’ language? And are we even listening to the ones who are trying? English has been feeding on Hindi; Hindi, on other ‘minor’ languages. In the process, many languages are lost, left unrecognized, judged and, as a consequence, this has changed the identity of many communities and individuals. Ngũgĩ’s concerns are relevant to that of India and many other colonies. There is no easy answer to what is to be done, for most writers would say that since it was not their choice to write in English, there is no point in struggling. But is there no point in struggling? Is there no point in providing an opposition (rooting from one’s native language) to the power?

British sociologist Anthony Giddens, on his views about power, says that power is exercised by human agents and is also created by them, influences them and limits them. Colonialism, which brought with it strategic plans of cultural domination, used language—both as a process of communication and cultural formation—as a medium of power to exert force on various sections of society, controlling and giving boundary to a culture. This language, though, as a tool of power, also possessed the potential to undermine power, for it was both a medium of power in and behind a particular discourse. But is that enough?

Secure the Base answers this question. It brings together essays spanning nearly three decades raising Ngũgĩ’s concerns for the place of Africa in the world today. He talks about the place from where Africa has emerged, its struggle for decolonization of the mind, what Africa has failed to do and the crimes it has brought upon itself. Most importantly, it speaks of securing the base and suggests that people should avoid being intellectual outsiders in their own land. He urges African artists to reconnect with their African memories, their folklore, their literature, experiences and languages. He mentions that it is only because we all had to learn the European languages that we use them. ‘There is nothing inherently global and universal about them; they just happen to be the language of power.’

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The following piece is my response to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s sessions on Secure the Base at the Seagull School of Publishing and Victoria Memorial Hall on 13 and 14 February 2018 respectively. It is an attempt at exploring different aspects of a language and how these have come to influence the people of India in particular and the world in general. A quest to make the self question its own privilege and choices, vis-à-vis language in particular, the piece is written from the perspective of the powerful. It is a criticism of my own self by the other within and outside the self. It attempts to direct a gaze inward—to question, unearth and unsettle my own position as an upper-caste, English-speaking man in India. These questions, as they howl within the four corners of this paper and/or this/your screen, attempt to incite an introspection and then glare—long enough—at the English-speaking bourgeoisie. It attempts at discussing the art of killing, eating and replacing languages by the authority that aims at rendering the powerless helpless and a little more lost.


The Art of Linguicide and Glottophagy Attempted on the Other

An Address Given at the Organization of the Selves

Friends, Selves and Conformers,

The only prerequisite for learning the art of linguicide and glottophagy is to be aware of the Book of Genesis. Most of you are well versed with the Book of Genesis, and so are they—those who have been and still are to be tamed. It is our duty to civilize the uncouth through language. So, if they are ignorant about the creation myths in the Old Testament, tell them not to panic! For it shall be slowly drilled into them. The main objective, we’ll tell them, is to cultivate them and their tongues. After that we can even instigate violence and inspire them to eat another minor tongue. The Organization of the Selves is aware that it has to put a halo of its self around the other, through myriad strategies by making them feel ignorant and at a loss. This has happened for long and should be taken forth with utmost sincerity.

I am not going to define linguicide and glottophagy for your convenience. I want you to look it up in the dictionary so that you start working towards learning about the movement of struggle which aims at our survival with an intention to intimidate. How does that make you feel? Halt, think and then proceed. It is, therefore, urgent that you constantly push yourself—to manipulate, throttle and master the art of killing a language.

I’ll make it easy for you by breaking down the process of learning this art. The case of the Golden Bird, a beautiful land on the other side of the planet, is particularly worth mentioning in this context. This address will talk about the Golden Bird as the other which is below us and lacks that which we have and they can never have. It is crucial to learn how we pushed it to the periphery and made it an other so that our other selves can subjugate many other others. Language in the Golden Bird, as it is now, was formed by reversing the order of the creation myth. First came temptation, deflowering, exile and then they started to use our language and make their own universe. They think they are successful, but we are the real victors because we have survived, flourished and uprooted many of their languages. So let them be on a wild goose chase! They won’t get anything out of it. Their design is, and will always remain, a copycat.

The story began with the earliest recorded translation of Panchatantra from Sanskrit to a number of European languages. That remains the earliest recorded transaction between the self’s and the other’s literature (5th century ce). This was followed by the translation of Yajur Veda (by Voltaire) and the Upanishads. In the 1780s, we took over and translated texts (led by William Jones and Sir Charles Wilkins) to cause what Raymond Schwab calls an ‘Oriental Renaissance’ in the empire. This was a quest for the supreme romanticism in the Orient by us. However, our regard for others’ texts declined with our increasing military victory, and then followed our attempts to make them learn English. Macaulay’s appropriation of the ambiguity of the 43rd section of the Charter Act of 1813 and his famous minute, in which he stated, ‘We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’, and the 1835 English Education Act of Governor General William Bentinck to establish the exclusivity of learning English language and literature started the proselytization and caused the advent of a ‘renaissance’ in the other. With this act, English became the official medium of instruction in other’s Education, manufacturing babus and bibis who would start the process of writing in English. Clearly, our motive was to make sure that the impact of English was much more than any other language and we used it not only as a cultural and literary influence but also as a strategic and comprehensive act of hegemonic oppression. Our motive was and remains only one—imperialism.

So far, we have been able to drill in the culture and lifestyle of the selves into the others. They are talking in English and being English. Most of them have come to conform, have started wearing white masks and those who haven’t are often being rendered jobless. Students are being forced to speak in English, the base for departments of literature in most states of the other is literally English, and English can save them from innumerable struggles. Or so they think. So why not kill your own language and train yourself in our language? We have been successful in creating hybrids who are dying to become more of us and less of themselves. Every day, new hybrids!

But there is something that chokes this proselytization. Imagination! Osip Mandelstam, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and the biggest threat of them all—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. His original name was James, though. Just saying. His writings have influenced many to ‘decolonise’ their minds. They have been passing through various phases to subvert and challenge our language. A few are even getting inspired by Ngũgĩ and are attempting to write in their own language and carry out translations from English to other Indian languages and vice versa. But, it is a minuscule number. Some of the writers have been successful but the Radcliffe Line[2] and many other lines have been successful in creating a delightful divide. With partition comes pain and spite. With spite comes revenge. Linguicide has been one aspect of our hold at the centre; the other is glottophagy. That is even more gratifying.

It is a pleasure to see one language eating another. English eating Hindi; Hindi eating Urdu, Tamil, Assamese and other languages has by far been the most supercalifragilisticexpialidocious sight for the self. What? I am not here to make you feel comfortable, my selves. I am here to make you, me and us realize the importance of doing this with language and make one experience loss. The act of glottophagy, the way one language sucks in another, absorbs it and replaces it, once it has licked every single piece of the other, gulped it down its throat and excreted the waste other, has always made us sturdy and strong. The language of the other’s intellectual make-up is surely a threat, no doubt about that. But they still look for validation from the self. From awards mostly. This reinforces our position, again and again, as the language of the world. And that we are. Whenever a Sea of Poppies loses to a White Tiger,[3] a Ngũgĩ loses to a Bob Dylan and people buy into and firmly believe in the Booker Prize, the self others the others and reinforces its supremacy.

Students, artists and intellectuals, though sometimes a threat, hardly unite to struggle, translate, unlearn the selves’ mission or relearn their own language. What is the need to bother about a language, when something universal is being talked about in every book, every story? Right? It is important that we tell this to the others and not our own selves. Doing that (not caring about our language) will be a sacrilege and the organization won’t spare the perpetrator of such an ideology in the land of the pure. So, be wary of this, my conformers. We have our own ways to purge those who rebel against that which is sacrosanct.

The education system of the others still serves us well for it teaches English through our canon. The readers, as a result, continue to serve and feed our many selves, while 1599 other languages are ostracized by the majoritarian others themselves. Loss, pain, unemployment, identity crises prevail, but most ‘radicals’ turn a blind eye to this ‘unresolvable’ issue and say: ‘How unfortunate!’ They use language as a tool to shave their armpits, groom their texts and not as a weapon[4] to lead, to expose, subvert and overturn the hierarchies of language. We do have a few exceptions like Mahasweta Devi. But she’s dead now and her stories are too real to be read. So who cares? They are not going to read her anyway. As long as the abolition of the English Department does not take place, as long as the canon is taught, promoted and put on a pedestal, we are safe! The progressive others are lost and forgotten and they are not coming back any time soon. We continue to flourish, making a hybrid even closer a copycat to the selves. Soon the others will feel like they’ve come closer to the selves by oppressing the otherness within themselves and in the other others (non-Hindi-speaking audience).

Come closer my friends,

Come closer to the Selves,

Conform to Excellence.

Even more close, closer than ever! Look at me. But, no matter how much they try, they would always feel at a loss or so we shall make them feel by (not) giving them awards. The gist of the art of linguicide and glottophagy thus lies in luck, manipulation and pulling down the others to make them yearn for the selves. It lies in colonization of the mind and creation of a hierarchy. It lies in shaking the others’ base and never letting them feel secure. Pull them down to maintain the arrogance of the lucky races and it is a victory.

May the sun never set on the Empire!

Cheers to the Self!

(Applause and uproar)

To the Self!

Your Ruler of the Other

Major Self.


Bhabha, Homi. ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. October 28 (1984): 125–33.

Chaudhari, Amit. Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008.

Cheele, Ellie. ‘The Booker Prize: Scandal, Controversy and Marketing Tool’. The Journal of Publishing Culture 1 (2003). Available at: (last accessed on 11 March 2018).

Clark, Anna. ‘Language, Hybridity and Dialogism in The God of Small Things’ in Alex Tickell (ed.), Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’. New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 132–41.

Narang, Harish. Colonial Influence, Postcolonial Intertextuality: Western Literature and Indian Literature. Modern Language Studies 43(2) (2007): 121–33.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1986.

——. Petals of Blood. London: Penguin, 2005.

——. Secure the Base. London: Seagull, 2016.

Viswanathan, Gauri. ‘The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India’. Oxford Literary Review 9(1–2) (1987): 2–26.


1 The title is inspired from Agha Shahid Ali’s Ghazal ‘Beyond English’, published in the New Yorker on 1 July 2002, in which he is waging a war (no, jung) beyond English.

2 The boundary demarcating India and Pakistan is often known as the Radcliffe Line.

3 The Booker Prize, which grew to prominence after a scandalous speech where the winner of Booker 1971 denounced the Booker corporation as a colonialist enterprise built on the backs of black plantation workers in Guyana, sets its one most important criterion for selecting the winner as being the ‘best’ original full‐length novel written in the English language. Multiple debates have emerged regarding how one decides what is this ‘best’. Moreover, the Booker is also considered as a marketing tool, for it is now aired as the most popular award show on TV. For instance, one could analyse the statistics of White Tiger by Arvind Adiga. Between 12 weeks prior to winning and after it, the novel saw a sale increase of 32.38 per cent, which shows how big a brand name it became. The Daily Telegraph has, in the past, described the Booker Prize as an embarrassment to the entire book trade, with the Economist declaring it as a ‘sad and shoddy farce’. One, then, does not need to wonder why Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea Of Poppies, full of indictment of the Western culture and their exploitation of colonies for the opium wars and which provides a rich chrestomathy (a term coined by Ghosh himself, for his lexicon in the novel) of words that are neither italicized nor glossed to attract the Western audience, lost to Adiga’s White Tiger.

4 In the 2001 documentary titled ‘Mahasweta Devi: Witness, Writer, Advocate’, directed by Shashwati Talukdar, Devi asserted: ‘Language is a weapon; it’s not for shaving your armpits.’

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