Amal Kiran (1904-2011), the gifted author of more than 50 books on literature, poetry and history wrote a very valuable essay in the early 1950s on the significance and future of the English language in India.
“The synthetical and assimilative Indian genius meets in the English tongue a multiplicity and pliancy of temper and tone which give that genius all the more chance of taking hold of this tongue for living self-expression”.
The Significance of the English Language in India
India’s decision to remain a member of the Commonwealth in spite of being an independent sovereign Republic gives a new lease of life amongst us to the English language. Until recently English was apt to be regarded as the remnant of a foreign imposition, an inappropriate growth in the way of an authentic indigenous literature. Today it seems an appropriate and desirable link between us and the group of English-speaking nations with whom we have formed a voluntary association: it has become the medium of a larger existence in which we have elected to share. This is all to the good especially as America with whom we shall have more and more to deal is English-speaking. But we shall be underestimating the significance of the English language in India if we think that it is only a valuable means of promoting our political, economic and technological interests in the democratic world. English is, above all, an immense cultural asset. And it is such an asset not simply because it renders available to us magnificent countries of the mind, but also because it renders possible to us the most magnificent expression of our own soul.
The first impulse, vis-a-vis this statement, will be to cry, “Absurd paradox!” and to follow up with the question: “Can India really take to the English language as an instrument of her Indianness and make her utterance in it anything more than an exotic curiosity?” The answer, surely, cannot be given with a facile pointing out of the great increase in the number of Indians who talk and write fair English. The answer can only be given by seeing whether there is what Galsworthy termed “flower of author” . The disclosure of inmost individuality through the subtlest potentialities of the language: this is “flower of author”. Such “flower” need not be in one particular style as opposed to others. Simplicity and complexity, plainness and richness, urbanity and intense vibrancy – all these can equally allow it. Can we affirm that, in any style whatever, ” flower of author” can be shown to be possible in English-writing India as something more than a rare, almost accidental, growth? Yes, we can. For two reasons.
The Indian Soul and the English Language
What is called Indianness possesses as one of its main characteristics a power of multifold assimilation arising from a manysidedness, a globality, in the unique penchant that is the Indian genius. The Indian genius is, of course, best described as spiritual; but it is not spiritual in a narrow way: it is an urge of synthesis of a hundred approaches to the Eternal, the Infinite, the Divine. Not only does it spiritualise everything in the long run: it also spiritualises everything without depriving any term of its own essential quality. It annuls nothing by the transforming change it induces: it induces the change by raising all things to their own hidden heights of Supernature, as it were – heights at which they are most authentically themselves by being spiritual, by being facets of the Divine, the Infinite, the Eternal. Wonderfully synthetical and assimilative, it can also embrace and Indianise the quality of any race, the force of any culture; hence it can make both the mind and the movement of the English language part of its activity. This mind and this movement do not confront it as utterly foreign: they come to it striking sympathetic chords in its multi-rhythmed heart. That is the first reason why “flower of author” in English can be an Indian growth drawing not unnaturally or accidentally its nourishment from the soil of the Indian soul. .
The second reason is the character of the English language itself. No other modem language is so varied in mentality, so diverse in turn. It is a fusion of many strains – the Celtic, the Roman, the Saxon, the Teuton, the French, the Italian have mingled in it, and the Greek soul and the Hebrew soul have also coloured it. As a result, it is an extremely plastic and versatile instrument capable of being expressive of multifarious types of consciousness. No wonder it does not have any marked tradition of persistent mood or manner – as, for instance, French has; no wonder, too, it is notable for numberless idiosyncrasies; and no wonder, again, it has proved so adequate a medium for every innovation of outlook and in-look, whether it be the adventurous imaginative gusto of the Renaissance, the gorgeous oriental religiosity of Hebraism, the passion and wonder and Nature-feeling of the Romantic Movement, the vague poignancies and dim wizardries of Celtic Paganism. The synthetical and assimilative Indian genius meets in the English tongue a multiplicity and pliancy of temper and tone which give that genius all the more chance of taking hold of this tongue for living self-expression.
There is no doubt that “flower of author” is, for Indians, possible in English. This does not, of course, imply possibility for all and sundry. Such possibility is not there for Indians in even the indigenous languages: every Indian is not a literary master. And, where English is concerned, it is quite to be expected that “flower of author” should be less common than in those languages. But to maintain that Indian utterance in English can only be an exotic curiosity and never an organic unfolding of genuine Indianness is to indulge in a sweeping superficiality. What now remains to be shown is that true Indian utterance in English is more than just possible and that it can be in quality finer and greater than in any language spoken by Indians today. This is the supreme paradox we have to elucidate – and if we can elucidate it we shall have dealt the death-blow to all efforts by our educationists to minimise the importance of English in our cultural self-expression.
The Fittest Body for the Indian Genius
English is unquestionably the most highly developed of modern languages both by virtue of the large variety of racial and psychological strains in it and by virtue of the extraordinary crop of poets in English history. Poetry is the sovereign power of all language: where poets of high quality abound, there the language reaches the highest development, especially when the language itself has immense potentialities. No student of the world’ s literature will deny that England stands head and shoulders above other modern countries in poetry. Neither in modern Europe nor anywhere else do we find such a poetic galaxy as Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Swinburne, Francis Thompson and Yeats. Inconsequence of the intensely inspired impact of poets like these, the versatile English language has acquired a unique capacity for strangely suggestive effects – the super-subtle phrase, the packed visionary phrase, the phrase of indefinable intonation. Even in prose the unique capacity has its play and, within the less daring terms proper to prose, English still surpasses all modern languages, including those of India herself, in the immediacies and intimacies of intuitive speech. If this is so, then English is bound to be most valuable to the genius of a country which is not only synthetical and assimilative in the extreme but also spiritual to the nth degree; for, a speech with extraordinary potentialities of strangely suggestive effects suits most the magic, the mystery, the depth, the sudden and sublime revelatory reach of the spiritual consciousness. English promises, therefore, to be the expressive body par excellence of our true soul.
What adds to our conviction about this promise is the fact that the strangely suggestive potentialities of English have already been pressed into service of the spiritual consciousness by English writers themselves. Herbert’s religious simplicity, at once piquant and passionate – Crashaw’s rich sensuousness kindling into ecstatic devotion – Donne’s nervous intricate power troubling the Inscrutable – Vaughan’s half-obscure half-bright straining beyond thought into mystical vision – Wordsworth’s profound contemplative pantheistic peace – Blake’s deeply delicate radiance – Coleridge’s glimmering occultism of the weird and the haunting – Shelley’s rainbowed rapture of some universal Light and Love – Keats’s enchanted luxuriance, through allegory and symbol and myth, in the Sovereign Beauty that is Sovereign Truth – Patmore’s pointed polished ardour of the intellect for “the unknown Eros” – Francis Thompson’s restless and crowded and colourful heat of response to “the many-splendoured Thing” – Yeats’s bewitched echo to the Immortal Loveliness in its world-wandering – AE’s crystalline contact with superhumanly populated twilights within and divinely inhabited dawns above – all these quickenings of the spiritual consciousness are already present in English and have turned it to what may be called Indian uses. Doubtless, the uses are still somewhat elementary in comparison to what the Indian genius has achieved in the ancient Sanskrit of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita. But the fact stands that English lends itself as the fittest body to this genius with an actually accomplished functioning, however initial, along our own national soul-trend. Hence, if we are to fulfil that trend, the most natural no less than the most desirable act on our part is to find voice in English.
The Supreme Destiny of English
Not that the indigenous languages should be neglected. They must be developed. But English at present comes to us with a face of supreme destiny. And what that destiny is can be seen even now. For, even now, before our very eyes, it is being wonderfully worked out. A band of Indian poets remarkably gifted are uttering in English the mystical experience with an intense fidelity and felicity, and at their head is one of the greatest figures of the contemporary world and he has banished all shadow of doubt regarding the destiny we have spoken of. Sri Aurobindo has given the world what is at once the finest and grandest literary achievement of modern India and the deepest and highest articulation of Indian spirituality today – the epic with which he is occupied in the spare hours of a Yogi and which has already been published to the extent of nearly twenty-thousand lines: Savitri, a Legend and a Symbol. In Savitri, we have proof as ample as we could wish that, while our vernaculars more easily provide us with footholds for climbing beyond commonplaces into the revelatory intensities of literature, English alone enables at present the soul of India to attain the absolute peak of self-expression.
And from that peak the soul of India will communicate, to the whole Commonwealth and to all America and to whatever country is in touch with them, the harmonious rhythms of its own greatness. Far and wide, by means of English, the Indian genius will spread the word born from the occult immensities that are the luminous source and support and goal of its unique history. Embodied in this language by India, Inspiration
“..with her lightning feet,
A sudden messenger from the all seeing tops …”
will conquer the heart and mind of humanity. Not through translations from Bengali, Gujerati, Marathi, Tamil or Hindi – beautiful and powerful instruments of truth though they may prove – but directly through the tongue that was Shakespeare’s and is now Sri Aurobindo’s, the peoples of the earth will most vividly know India as the creative bride of the Divine and as the mighty mother of a new age which shall justify the light on man’s upward face.