What does it mean to be an Indian teacher of English and American literature? How may one, as a student of English and American Studies in India, overcome the wall of research and pedagogic limitations that encloses these disciplines in the South Asian context? These are some of the questions that Sambudha Sen asks in his Introduction to this volume of essays.
One of the best examples of how the study of foreign literatures has survived and, in fact, thrives despite the constraints of the Indian classroom is provided by the work of the legendary teacher A.N. Kaul, author of two internationally reputed works of socio-literary criticism, namely The American Vision and The Action of English Comedy. Several of Kaul's students are now themselves illustrious teachers, theorists and practitioners of cultural and literary studies, both in India and the West. In this volume, they come together to offer original essays on diverse and specialised areas of research-ranging from studies of Shelley's metaphysics to Toni Morrison's politics, from the writings of early activists against censorship to textual representations of nationalism, trade, missionaries, and lesbianism.
Ranging over a vast terrain of ideas, this volume demonstrates the diversity of ways in which Indians have 'mastered' the Western literary text. According to the editor, this has happened most notably by relying less on research materials (which are often locally scarce) and more on subtle critical ideas that have been brought to bear on the texts being analysed and contextualised-e-an intellectual legacy, for the essayists here, of the work of their teacher, A.N. Kaul.
This volume will interest all students of English and American Studies; colonialism and nationalism; culture and gender issues; the complex relation between literature and society; and the even more complex relationship between Western texts and Indian readers.
Sambudha Sen teaches at the Department of English, Delhi University. His essays on the novels and print culture of nineteenth-century England have appeared in English Literary History and Nineteenth Century Literature. He has recently edited a students' edition of Hard Times and is the author of Dickens's Novels in the 'Age if Improvement' (2001).
Eight or nine years ago I, a college teacher of English in Delhi, caught up with a scene so familiar that it might have emerged from my own student past. I was on my way to the English Department office of Delhi University and crossed Room 61 the room that has remained the unchanged venue for M.A. (Previous) English classes for as long as anyone who has studied that discipline in Delhi University can remember. What made me stop and retrace my steps to look again was the sense that the classroom I had just passed was extraordinarily full. In fact the class was not just full, it was full of students who were clearly most interested in what their teacher was saying. The racing hands holding pens, the shining eyes, the sudden shared laughter that I saw and heard through the open window of Room 61 could belong, I thought, only to those who had freed them- selves from the many frustrations that so often impede the study of English literature in India. It did not take me very long to figure out the identity of the person responsible for creating this extraordinary classroom atmosphere. For almost anyone who studied English literature at Delhi University during the 1970s and 1980s, the experience is more or less synonymous with the teaching of it by Professor A. N. Kaul. Passing by my old classroom in the mid 1990s and seeing it as lively and animated as my friends and I had known it so many years earlier, under that same teacher, I was struck once more by Professor Kaul's ability to not only draw a very large number of young men and women to his classes, but also to instil in the most indifferent student a sense of the intellectual possibilities, the everyday social relevance of the subject that she is studying.
What drew so many young, sceptical, often uninterested and directionless students to A.N. Kaul's classes? Any attempt to answer this must take into account, first of all, the most intangible elements in a classroom situation-those fragile assumptions that a teacher and students make about each other early on, and which determine to a surprising extent the quality of their subsequent interaction. A.N. Kaul's great advantage, at this level, was that he seemed completely relaxed, even irreverent, about his own larger-than-life reputation. Everybody knew he was the author of two very different but equally famous books, and that at Yale he had been a colleague of Re ne Wellek and Harold Bloom. In class, however, he not only joked and smoked, he also announced, usually within the first fifteen minutes of his opening lecture, that anybody who wished to was welcome to smoke as well. For many of us who resented the hypocritical and typically Indian assumption that it was immoral for young men and most certainly for young women-to smoke before their elders, Kaul's announcement had the ring of democracy. It also symptomised, as we learned later, one of his basic beliefs; that an interested student was far more valuable than a respectful one and that nothing, not even the brilliance of his own lectures, ought to disrupt the climate of relaxed, interested egalitarianism that he worked so hard-and so success- fully-to create.
A.N. Kaul's relaxed approach to classroom teaching was the more admirable because of the high degree of self-discipline he exercised over each lecture he delivered. It is impossible to think of a day when he was late for class, and, although he never seemed to hurry, every lecture covered exactly the ground it was meant to. Above all, Kaul worked very hard at articulating intellectually complex arguments in ways which would be comprehensible as well as interesting even to the weakest student in his class.
One element in Kaul's thinking that both justified this project and enabled him to execute it was his commitment to the concrete. Although he was implacably opposed to any theory of literature that separated it from the seamless, chaotic, lived experience of history, he worked in his classes outwards from the nitty-gritties of the literary text that he was analysing. Another feature was that he was never condescending in class he did not repress the complexities, the difficulties, the possibilities of the discipline of literary criticism in the interests of easier accessibility. A third was the measure of discipline he exercised over his lectures: and this was that he held back the major generalization about the text he was teaching until he had laid out the textual stepping stones that would lead inexorably to it. This is, in part, why we never found ourselves stranded, at the end of an A.N. Kaul class, with a burden of incomprehensible ideas. Rather, the ideas around which he built each lecture lurked beneath all he said; they gained substance and clarity as his lecture course progressed; and by the end of a course of lectures we found ourselves anticipating the withheld crystallization of his insights with that combination of logical expectation and wonder that one experiences in a chemistry laboratory when one is about to mix two colourless liquids that will, through an instant reaction, turn an iridescent red. A friend of mine, of musical bent, said the same thing using a different metaphor. Listening to A.N. Kaul's lecture courses, he thought, was a bit like hearing the movements of a Beethoven symphony: it all built to a cataclysm, a grand finale which seemed to tie together the threads of all the preceding movements. Even if this sounds exaggerated, which I do not believe it is, it has the merit of being deeply felt.
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