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Teaching R.K. Narayan's 'Swami and Friends.' (Practicum on Teaching Postcolonial Literatures)

One of my favorite books to teach is R. K. Narayan's Swami and Friends. Often it is hard for me to believe that the "crusty," cynical, silent, and shy Narayan wrote a light-hearted and airy novel about a young boy's escapades, which so many students enjoy and benefit from at so many different levels. Narayan himself tells us in his autobiography, My Days, that some of the experiences -- learning English ("A is for apple, B bit it, C cut it"), playing cricket, and experiencing the independence movement first hand -- are his own. Swami and Friends is technically not a postcolonial novel(1) because it was written while the independence movement was still in progress, and Swami often describes history in the making -- India's independence movement, an important historical moment that set in motion the breakup of the British Empire by shaking loose the most precious jewel in the crown. At the same time, Swami expresses awe and admiration for the British as well as an intense desire to be British in his cricket-playing and Western in his tastes -- such as Shirley Temple movies. The intermingling of cultures created immense confusion in the minds of that generation concerning their identity and belonging and their choice of language for day-to-day communication and creative expression. As Narayan switches back and forth between the standard English of his narrative and the Indian English of his characters, the reader witnesses the creation of Indian English, a variety of English that grew out of Britain's contact with India and is still the preferred medium of communication. It took on the tint and lilt of Indian languages and became an Indian language itself.

This short novel thus provides the opportunity to teach it at three different levels: the historical, the personal (dealing with questions of the evolution of the "self" and of the individual's identity resulting from the cross-cultural encounter of India and Britain), and the linguistic. The same three levels allow for comparisons with other third world or minority American texts. As I will show in the following discussion, the historical processes of colonialization, acculturation, and decolonization in Swami and Friends can be illuminated by comparisons with Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Weep not, Child, a novel about Kenya's independence movement, and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, a novel about Anglo-American colonization in New Mexico.

TEACHING THE HISTORICAL MOMENT

I teach the historical background primarily in graduate or advanced undergraduate literature classes that treat colonialism, postcolonialism, and the responses to colonialism by the peoples it affects. At this level I believe it is important to present students with actual historical facts such as dates and names of historical figures so that their analyses or mine do not seem ideologically skewed. It is often argued by radical Marxists interested in the relationships of power and oppression that colonialism should not be taught simply as discrete moments in history. Yet examining the facts of colonialization shows that certain consequent historical processes like linguistic domination were a result not so much of a desire for oppression and power as of culture contact. For instance, the coming of the Vedic Aryans to India introduced Sanskrit, which evolved into many Indian dialects. The Persian and Moghul conquerors brought Persian, which evolved into Urdu and left a literary tradition in Persian as rich as the Indian English literary and linguistic tradition left by the British. Raja Rao, in his preface to Kanthapura, points out that English is now an Indian language just like Persian or Sanskrit before it. Often we teach colonialism and postcolonialism only as a product of British or French Imperialism and forget the various other colonizers who affected the Indian subcontinent and Africa. Religious conversion was a factor in each of the conquests and the British, like the Muslims before them, brought their own religion.

The facts of various colonizations are easily taught. The British came to India essentially as traders. In an effort to protect British interests from the French because Britain and France were at war from 1740 to 1763, Robert Clive attacked a French fort near Madras in 1751. His success led Nawab Siraj-ud-daula of Calcutta to seek British protection militarily, causing British military influence in India to spread. Hence it is that British colonialism in India is often described in terms of a "collaboration" model. Similarly, the British arrived in Africa mostly as traders, militarily occupied Egypt, and, as Brian Lapping so aptly puts it in End of Empire, acquired Kenya by "the accident" of building the railroad to Uganda (398). After the British had built the railroad through East Africa in 1896, they proceeded to annex the area and by 1920 had renamed it Kenya. In the Southwest United States, ironically, the colonized people were once the foreign colonizing power, the Spanish and the Mexicans. The Spanish conquistadors, like the British, were essentially looking for commercial opportunities, though evidence seems to be mounting that some of the Spanish who came to New Mexico were Jews (conversos) escaping Catholic persecution. The irony of the situation of the Chicanos in the U.S. Southwest is that a group who had been an external, occupying, colonizing force became, under the white settlement, a colonized, subjugated group. And this irony is importantly played out in Bless Me, Ultima. Contextualizing histories with specific incidents and dates additionally enhances our students' knowledge of global history and promotes a form of cultural literacy.

TEACHING THE EVOLUTION OF THE SELF

Religious and educational acculturation were the first stages of colonization. In introducing English education in India, Macaulay had said in his 1832 minute to parliament that the claims of the English language as a means of educating the local people were supreme. But he also recognized not only that there were already many Indians who used English well but that by establishing it he was creating "the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws" (192-93). "Postcolonial" literature bears ironic witness to this last desire, not only by its very existence but in its themes.

Swami and Friends opens with the five- or six-year-old Swami going off to school at the Albert Mission School, which his father has picked with great care because he wants Swami to get an English education so that he can have a good government position in the Indian Civil Service, like his own. This same mentality is seen at work in the education of the Hispanic peoples of the Southwest United States. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio's mother and father are both anxious that he get an English education. Just like Swami, we see Antonio struggling hard to learn English and be like his Americanized classmates, or like the Catholic children of the town who have mocked him for his association with his adopted grandmother Ultima, with her Native American religious beliefs.

Seeing Rudolfo Anaya's Antonio in situations very similar to Narayan's Swami provides an immediacy for American students -- particularly minority students -- that is simply not there if they are looking at a third world text as depicting something out there on the other side of the world. They see that an American child born and growing up in New Mexico (albeit New Mexico of the 1940s) experienced the same pressures -- name change, difference of food, color, and clothing -- as did an Indian child in India or, if the comparison is extended to Weep not, Child, a black child in Kenya. Ironically, in all three areas, while the indigenous populations are in the majority, the desire to assimilate with the minority was powerfully created by the processes consequent upon colonization -- education, proselytization, etc. The headmaster in Weep Not, Child believes, for example, "that the best, the really excellent could only come from the white man. He brought up his boys to copy and cherish the white man's civilization as the only hope of mankind and especially of the black races" (115). In this same novel, two little children decide that their dead old folk had no learning because there was "nobody to teach them English" (37). The social historian Rodolfo Acuna writes that education is important to a colonized people as a means of assimilation. But like other colonized peoples, for the Chicanos this has resulted in negative self-images (146).

The question of the evolution of the "self" -- the growth of the character Swami toward the realization that he was essentially Indian and that he did not want to become Westernized -- can be taught at various levels. I have used this text frequently in freshman composition classes in conjunction with the personal autobiographical essay assignment. The minority students in my classes (my institution is 64% Hispanic) identify immediately with parallel selections from the Narayan and Anaya novels. Swami desires to excel at cricket to become like the white man. Eventually, however, he runs away from the match and disappears into a forest, only to wake up like Rip Van Winkle past the date of the match and wishing he was with his Indian grandmother. My minority students turn inwards to question the ways in which they themselves want to be mainstreamed in order to identify with what they consider the superior majority. I have had many Hispanic students weep externally and internally about the humiliation of not learning English fast or well enough or being forced to accept the precepts of a Christianity that was not their own. Swami at one point asks his teacher, "Why if Christ was so superior to Krishna, was he crucified?" (3-4). Students who are not from minority groups similarly question the assumptions they have had about the "others" both nearer home and farther away. Thus identifying with experiences from different parts of the world causes the students to feel liberated from their own assumptions.

It is because of the liberatory effect that these texts have primarily on my freshman students and because both Swami and Friends and Bless Me, Ultima are simple enough to be read by adolescents that I teach these two texts routinely in classes of Children's Literature for elementary education majors. My focus there is largely on how elementary and middle school teachers can use these texts with children to have them realize such simple things as wanting to retain the local forms of their names rather than anglicized forms, and the acceptance of their differences in food, clothing, language, or the accent with which they speak English. When Swami is being taught that "A is for Apple" he asks what an apple is. Was it like a mango (My Days 58)? Similarly, Anaya's Antonio hides his burntos from his sandwich-eating friends. These comparisons lend immediacy to a text that might otherwise seem foreign to American students. They can also see that what is familiar to them is foreign in a different culture.

Swami and Friends, like the two novels I like to teach it with, is a bildungsroman whose main characters' essential knowledge and maturation are expressed as an awareness of their rootedness within their cultures. The whole metaphor of Swami and his friends' immersion in cricket is that of internalizing the values of the colonizer. The boys who play cricket are the ones who know about so-called British justice and fair play. To play cricket is to be like the white man, to be superior. These values are completely internalized by Swami and his friends, particularly Rajam, the district police superintendent's son. In playing cricket and obtaining the right British education, one gained entrance to "the club" -- not just the club where one goes for tea and cucumber sandwiches but that of the Indian Civil Service and, in general, of rights of "citizenship" among the foreigners. These are the values that are inculcated in the boys of the Albert Mission school.

But Swami quickly moves towards seeing the sham in these values. He is expelled from the school because of his outburst against Christianity and must now go to the local Indian school, the Board school. His friends, especially Rajam, whom he admires so much because of his English cricket goods, remain at the Albert Mission school, and ironically, Swami remains on the Mission School's cricket team, which has challenged the boys of the Board school to a match. His loyalties are split. He caves in under the pressure and runs away from the whole experience. He walks into a forest where he falls asleep and wakes up only to realize that he misses his Indian Granny and her Indian rituals such as massaging his feet and feeding him by hand. He realizes that he is essentially Indian.

Analogously in Ngugi's Weep not, Child, Njoroge finds that his school masters, whom he respects so much, turn him over for questioning and torture in the killing of a white man. And Rudolfo Anaya's Antonio finds himself turning to the shamanism native to New Mexico, learning that the rituals of the Native Americans provide more comfort than Anglo-American Catholicism and its education. Knowing where they belong is the essential knowledge of these "colonial Adams." In the form of the bildungsroman and the consequent essential knowledge of the protagonists, postcolonial novels are very much like the American postcolonial novels described in R. W. B. Lewis's The American Adam -- an important factor for our students to know and realize. They and we often forget that America was the first postcolonial country. Hence teaching postcoloniality is not "Un-American."

TEACHING THE PLACE OF LANGUAGE

"Decolonizing the mind," or shaking off the shackles of colonial education and colonial cultures as they are imposed on the indigenous, or "the rejection of the internalized oppressor" is the historical and thematic message that can be taught by bringing postcolonial works together with American, particularly American minority, works. But it was Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn that set the example of throwing off the internalized oppressor by decolonizing the English language. Like Twain, Ngugi wa Thiong'o has said that a true decolonization of the mind cannot take place until the issue of the forms and norms of the colonizer's language is resolved. In this effort Ngugi has currently given up writing in English. However, in 1938, the Indian novelist Raja Rao adopted Twain's solution -- a solution that both Narayan and Anaya use effectively. In his preface to his novel Kanthapura, Raja Rao wrote, "One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own. . . . We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. The tempo of our Indian life must be infused into our English expression even as the tempo of American or Irish life has gone into the making of theirs" (vii). Swami and Friends in its alternation of Standard English and Indian English asks for careful attention to those passages that our students might consider "strange" or "ungrammatical." This is particularly useful in composition courses. Once students see the effectiveness of language variation, they can feel freer about expressing themselves in their "personal" voice. They can also see the ways in which languages come in contact, evolve, and develop. This is a particularly powerful teaching tool because it is the final step in showing the cousinship of the shared experience globally.

The liberatory experience of realizing the validity of different forms, uses, and varieties of English is enabling for students, whether freshman or graduate, who feel they must adhere to some standard norm of English. For freshman students, realizing the validity of writing in the English they know and speak encourages them to express themselves more freely. Advanced students find their own localized voice for creative or expository expression once they see how language is varied to depict local contexts. So in effect the language of Narayan's Swami and Friends becomes a challenge of self-expression.

The historical similarity of experience, the coming of colonizers to India, Africa, and the United States, lays the first foundation stone for showing that different parts of the world have experienced similar histories. Showing how individual characters within these three different cultures responded similarly to the historical forces that were acting upon them -- each of them turning to an indigenous sense of self -- underscores the globally shared experience of the "migrations" that created "a thousand plateaus" (Deleuze and Guattari). The final factor of language evolution and experimentation brings the third world experience closest to our students, who themselves are struggling to break out of their "prison-houses" of language. Swami and Friends embodies elements that help illustrate these three teaching principles because it is versatile enough to be taught at various levels and in conjunction with other texts, postcolonial and otherwise.(2)

It is interesting that a comparison of colonization in three vastly different geographical areas yields many similarities. Awareness of global colonial processes helps heighten our students' awareness of writers' sense of self in relation to the imposed other. Such a synthesis of the parallel experiences of colonization in the third world and in the Southwest United States helps American students see that their own history is not very different from that of the rest of the world.

NOTES

1 Choosing among the terms "commonwealth," "postcolonial," and "third world" literatures has troubled literatures written in English from the ex-colonies. Countries like India of course produced literatures in English before they became postcolonial or Commonwealth countries -- the direct result of British colonialism bringing English to those parts of the world. Raja Rammohun Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, etc. were writing in English in the 1830s. Tagore won a Nobel Prize in 1912, drawing from Yeats the comment, "No Indian knows English." The Indians struggled with a name for this literature, trying out such terms as Indo-Anglian, and even the absurd Indo-Anglican, literature. When the British began a systematic study of these literatures under Norman Jeffares at the University of Leeds, they used the term "Commonwealth Literature" to cover literature in English from the countries that were then part of the Commonwealth during the 1950s and 1960s. The writers immediately protested, as they now protest being lumped together as postcolonial or third world writers. What, for instance, do you do with writers like Narayan or Chinua Achebe whose work spans both the period of colonialism and postcolonialism? Writers tend to prefer to be known by the name of their respective countries. Hence, Indian literature in English, Kenyan literature in English, Nigerian literature in English, etc.

2 Swami and Friends can be taught also in conjunction with other traditional bildungsroman novels such as Huckleberry Finn. Narayan's creation of the town of Malgudi can be compared to Faulkner's creation of Yoknapatawpha country. More importantly, the connection of the bildungsroman and political knowledge can be made with other third world novels involving female heroines such as Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice Candy Man and Kamala Markandaya's Two Virgins.

WORKS CITED

Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America: The Chicano's Struggle Toward Liberation. San Francisco: Canfield, 1972.

Anaya, Rudolfo A. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley: Tonatiuh, 1972.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Lapping, Brian. End of Empire. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.

Narayan, R. K. My Days. New York: Viking, 1974.

-------. Swami and Friends. 1935. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986.

-------. Weep Not, Child. London: Heinemann, 1964.

Rao, Raja. Kanthapura. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1963.

Trevelyan, Lady, ed. The Miscellaneous Works of Thomas Babbington Macaulay. Vol. 19. London, 1907.
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Author:Jussuwalla, Feroza
Publication:College Literature
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:3281
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