About the Book
In The Sexual Life of English, Shefali Chandra examines how English became an Indian language. She rejects the idea that English was fully formed before its life in India or that it was imposed from without. Rather, by drawing attention to sexuality and power, Chandra argues that the English language was produced through conflicts over caste, religion, and class. Sentiments and experiences of desire, respectability, conjugality, status, consumption and fashion, came together to create the Indian history of English. The language was shaped by the sexual experiences of Indians and by native attempts to discipline the normative sexual subject. Focusing on the years between 1850 and 1930, Chandra scrutinizes the English education project as Indians gained the power to direct it themselves. She delves into the history of schools, the composition of the student bodies, and disagreements about curricula, the way that English-educated subjects wrote about English and debates in English and Marathi popular culture. Chandra shows how concerns over linguistic change were popularly voiced in a sexual idiom, how English and the vernacular were separated through the vocabulary of sexual difference, and how the demand for matrimony naturalized the social location of the English language.
About the Author
SHEFALI CHANDRA is Associate Professor in the Department of History. the International and Area Studies Program. and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality' Studies Program at Washington University in St Louis.
Learning Gender, Knowing English
In 1995 the Marathi-Language playwright and novelist Kiran Nagarkar penned Ravan and Eddie, an exhilarating satire on the class, caste, and communal politics of contemporary Bombay city. Nagarkar devoted an entire section of his novel to the mystique of the English language: There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who have English and those who don't the haves and the have nots English is a mantra, a mahamantra. It is an "open sesame" that doesn't open mere doors, it opens up new worlds and allows you to cross over from one universe to another. English makes you tall. If you know English, you can wear a "suit boot," do an electrician's course or take a diploma in radio and refrigeration technology. If you know English, you can ask a girl for a dance. You can lean Eileen Alva against the locked door of the terrace and press against her, squeeze her boobs and kiss her on the mouth, put your tongue inside it while slipping your hand under her dress.
The versatile allure of English, its ability to signify and thus materialize mysterious resources of social mobility, comes alive in these lines. With a few deft strokes, Nagarkar illustrates how the power of English supersedes form or textual identifications, how it exceeds grammatical, linguistic, or literary definitions. It is more complicated than either its colonial past or its ability to ensure social mobility. Most striking, perhaps, is the narrator's reference to Eileen Alva, a signifier that, in the context of Bombay city, suggests the role of sexuality in carving distinctions between religiously marked communities: the Goan Christian girl next door, in the narrator's mind, is both sexually alluring and sexually available. A deliberately vague Notion of English thus produces sexual power and is amplified through it. The language is, indeed, an "open sesame." It is a sign that has disciplinary, especially pha1locentric, value. Nagarkar exposes the complicities between class and sexual power, between regional culture and religion, and he does so by stressing the centrality of "woman" in cohering otherwise disparate forms of desire. This is the selective, sexual, and symbolic axis upon which Indian English revolves. Himself a bilingual writer, Nagarkar recognizes that language can never be an unmediated mode of communication, or merely a collection of grammatical rules and lexical signs. Rather, he evokes the swirling world of English, a historically configured constellation of symbolic practices, expressions, possibilities, and prohibitions; an entire world manifested through social and sexual access and expressed immediately in local, communal terms. Assessments such as Nagarkar's go to the heart of the investigations I undertake here.
The Sexual Life of English traces the indigenization of the colonial language of power, the process by which English became an Indian language. My study breaks with commonsense assumptions that the prevalence of English in India marks the lasting success of British colonial culture, the inevitability of an Angle-American globalization, or the rise to dominance of a pan-regional and cosmopolitan middle class. Instead, I argue that the English language was disciplined and materialized through the unfolding politics of a rigorously policed and sexualized modernity. No simple story of accelerating numbers, of widening social power, or of a mere rupture from a pre-colonial past, I argue that it was India's sexual politics that domesticated the authoritative power of English. This was accomplished by an array of social actors: colonial and "native," men, women, students, teachers, and writers alike.' They first brought the language to a select group of native women, and then they laid down new demarcations between indigenous and invading cultures, vernacular and English languages, normative and prohibitive sexuality, and the parameters of sexual desire itself. In the process, they universalized upper-caste strictures on knowledge and proliferated discourses on sexuality. The disciplinary power of English, its ability to stake differences between social groups and to produce the consenting Indian subject, was generated by the discourses of sex and gender. The ambition of some men to share the language of power with their women and the vociferous outrage that this provoked within native society consolidated existing social hierarchies and built fresh consensus on caste, sexuality, and knowledge. This magnified distinctions between English and vernacular languages. English became the native womanhood. In this way it was repeatedly unleashed to assert cultural difference not only from the "West," but from other Indians as well.
Women Make English an Indian Language
The Sexual Life of English emerges from a simple observation: far from widening the reach of English to those castes and classes historically excluded from learning, British India's English-educated subjects taught English to their own women. In doing so, they transformed the language. Bringing English to their wives and daughters, British India's English educated men successfully secured the language of power within their class and caste location; they turned English toward consolidating, even fixing, the standards of caste, sexuality, and prohibition. The investment in gender enabled some Indians to stake early control over the symbolic power of the language. English and normative sexuality converged, in the process augmenting distinctions between indigenous and foreign, feminine and masculine, labor and knowledge. It was the normative Hindu and upper-class Parsi woman who anchored this selective modernity, and she did so by naturalizing the "regulatory fiction of heterosexuality." This idealized female figure was key to the Indian elite's quest for cultural equivalence with Europe, its distinction from "other" Indians, and its ability to speak in the name of a national commonality. Despite its sexual potency and its bonds with the colonial project, English could and would be subsumed within the gender logic of upper-caste India to augment indigenous power. The history I track here thus demonstrates that far from characterizing the triumph of colonial culture, Indian English is a critical effect of native gender regimes.
Put simply, this book demonstrates how English became an Indian language. That English is fundamentally embedded in the history of modern Indian social stratification is no surprise; how it has become so requires greater scrutiny." I deliberately break with those sociolinguistic theories that maintain the primacy of language in shaping and expressing human culture; rather, my contention is that social context determines the value, reach, and meaning of language. My analysis aligns with poststructuralist, anti-caste, and queer critiques of social power. Following Nagarkar, I maintain that languages are historically shaped signifying practices and not predetermined, transparent, or value-free forms of communication.' "English" is a powerfully ambiguous sign that spans knowledge, literature, desire, fashion, virtue, labor, and sex. Rather than accepting that Indian English is entirely determined by its linguistic structure, or by its origin in colonial policies and literary texts, I pursue "English" to learn what people say it is and what it does." As becomes evident in the pages of this book, people were not primarily focused on the linguistic, literary, or grammatical nature of English. Instead, they deliberated in great measure on its power to change the parameters of Indian culture." Hence, I do not take its contemporary disciplinary location as evident, nor do I set out to rehearse its history through an examination of literary texts." I draw attention instead to the vexed process by which Indian English sprang from the fierce debates over Indian authenticity. How did native codes of gender and sexuality shape the history and symbolic power of English, and how, in turn, did English infuse conjugality, desire, and caste " The meaning of English was, I argue, produced through the proliferation of discourses over sexuality. English accrued traction through the nineteenth century and through an interest in fixing the parameters of normative sex.'? I am thus concerned less with how English operated as the colonial language of power; rather, I explicate its ability to take on a native phallogocentric power vis-a-vis so-called vernacular languages and native standards of gender. 11 The book exposes how some Indians symbolically and materially reinterpreted English through the vocabulary of gender in order to produce sexual difference, sexual desire, and thus new regimes of caste exclusivity.
The story takes place in the western Indian cities of Bombay and Poona between 1850 and 1940, urban locations characterized by the colonial economies of opium and cotton and by unprecedented higher-education facilities. From the work of a diverse range of historians we know how the colonial state and missionary agencies attempted to extend the reach of English studies, Christianity, and the Western education project. 12 Scholars of colonial discourse, on the other hand, have delved into the intricacies of English studies themselves, eliciting the symbolic power of English literary texts in strengthening the fiction of colonial power." More recently, literary scholars have examined the way that Indians used the language to shape transnational, spiritual conversations or how they reevaluated, even resignified, English literary texts." English operated in different registers for an array of constituencies; it could be a means for securing employment a vehicle for Christianity a rout to humanist equivalence with European power, or a break with upper-caste hegemony. Stepping back from a literary or form-bound definition of English, I investigate the contours of the English-education project when Indians gained the power to direct English studies for themselves. This approach has taken me to the terrain of education itself, the formation of schools, debates over the composition of the student body, and the determination of the curriculum. By tracking the relationship between a rather amorphous idea of English and the production of subjectivities, I reconstruct how English cohered over the course of ninety years through native attempts to discipline the normative sexual subject.
This book thus looks at the dynamic, changing history of Indian English in relation to pedagogic efforts on the one hand and the shaping of new subjectivities on the other. It details the formal, institutional efforts of some of these first English-educated native subjects to control English studies between 1850 and 1930. Through analyses of school reports and colonial education department files on native-managed English schools in Bombay and Poona, along with a close examination of debates in English and Marathi, popular cultural sources, newspapers, and plays, I track the convergence in debates over respectability, chastity, mimicry, liberalism, Hindu nationalism, and sexuality. These debates coalesced to keep English studies from moving beyond the caste and class location of the first native proponents of English education. What becomes most clear is that even in contestations on curricular content, English is referenced neither as a collection of literary texts nor as a mere language form, but as a sign that supervises behavior, sexual power, and caste. The early history of native pedagogic efforts reveals how English is managed by the modernity of Indian tradition, how historically contingent ideas on the relationship between sexuality and social power materialized the function and purpose of English.
The schools that I discuss in part I sought to disseminate English. But as chapter 2 discusses, through their curricula and ceremonies, the schools demonstrated that English would not disrupt caste power; in fact, it would educate its students to comply with caste strictures of monogamy, chastity, and the male monopoly over knowledge. I read this history critically, noting the performative power of English: its ability to operate as a sign that reinforces the very sexual norms that contain the language within upper-caste groups." Chapter 3 turns to wider cultural debates that focused on the dangers of English, particularly on its ability to destabilize the relationship between women and sex, and between caste power and chastity. In the process of debating who should learn English, popular and literary sources reveal how anxieties over sexual difference were put in the service of protecting upper-caste power and how ideas of sexual difference served to inflate the distinctions between languages. The final chapter in part I shows how transnational debates over female sexuality were used as ammunition to redirect the caste project of Indian English toward managing sexual difference. Overall, part I exposes how upper-caste Indians invoked standards of gender to control the power of English, hence imbuing it with a native phallogocentric authority. They used sexual associations to establish hierarchies between languages, a process that I call sexual-citational grafting." Together these revelations show the long history by which upper-caste power served to present itself as secular and undisputed.
By policing the "fact" of gender difference, a variety of subjects reinforced the exclusivity of Indian English. Part 11 tracks changes over the same locations and time period, 1850-1940, but looks to different sources and a different methodology. Here I turn away from a socio-cultural study of school curricula and popular cultural debates to analyzing book-length studies-biographies, autobiographies, and novels-produced by a range of English-educated subjects. These works corroborate assertions in part I on the sexual power of language, the deployment of sexual associations to rank hierarchies between languages, and the way the investment in sexual normativity restricted English within upper-caste groups. By shifting my method in the second part of the book, I seek to destabilize any easy narrative of English and to reveal the complex way that English emerged amid a host of related sexual, sartorial, and affective formations. Part 11 thus elicits the "subject effect" or the networks between knowledge and subject formation, between English, liberal individuation, and caste, and between culture, consumption, and sexual desire."
The chapters in part 11 reveal how caste strictures dovetailed with the seemingly willing turn to conjugality, how the engineering of sexual desire by the English-education project rendered caste power into something transparent, even secular. "Secularization" is widely characterized by the delinking of the religious from the political, although I use the term to indicate that upper-caste status was being delinked from religious ritual. Hence, in its alliance with English, caste was itself secularized, a process that served to normalize-even universalize-majoritarian power. Chapter 5 specifically illuminates how the virtuous woman appears to willingly tether English to the requirements of Hindu upper-caste culture. In chapter 6, I elucidate the careful, albeit ambivalent, engineering of desire within the marital bond so as to limit English to the new secular, upper-caste couple. Chapter 7 focuses on the tightening relationship between English and liberal cosmopolitanism at the turn of the century and the ways in which the secular subject operated in transnational registers. The final chapter tracks one woman's nationwide and multinational search for English. Although the quest ends with her self-declared failure to learn the language, the story corroborates the triumph of caste-specific gender requirements over English, and with that explicates how gender limits the disciplinary power of English.
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