Generations of Indian students have been brought up (or force-fed) on the plays of William Shakespeare, the quartercentenary of whose death is being marked this year. Shakespeare is still considered an indispensable part of the national curriculum, but many educationists today argue for a more broad-based approach, one in which world literature rather than English literature rules, so that native geniuses like Kalidasa and writers of countries like China and Japan, are given their due. Because of India’s colonial history, valorising Shakespeare, England’s crown jewel, above all other writers, is often met with resentment.
This ambiguous bond with the Bard has been explored with humour and affection in the Indian-English novel. It is at the heart of RK Narayan’s 1945 novel, The English Teacher, which evokes the tormented inner life of Krishna, who teaches King Lear to the junior BA class at the Albert Mission College in Malgudi. He loathes his job: “I could no longer stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry for the hundredth time into young minds and feed them on the dead mutton of literary analysis and theories and histories, while what they needed was lessons in the fullest use of the mind. This education had reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage.”
Krishna’s disgust, which reflects the defiant pre-Independence mood in the country, is not rooted in narrow bigotry. A student of literature, he doesn’t hate Shakespeare simply because he happens to be an Englishman. Rather, what he jibs at is the unimaginative educational system that has reduced Shakespeare to “dead mutton”. Ironically, Krishna is more than partly to blame for the situation. His attitude to his students is to bawl, “Shut up. Don’t ask questions.” But one day, while reading out the storm scene from the play in which the anguish of the old Lear, betrayed by two daughters, pours forth, Krishna loses himself in the “force and fury” of the language:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
“The sheer poetry of it carried me on,” says Krishna, while his students, moved by their teacher’s unusual ardour, listen spellbound until the bell goes.
It’s one of the loveliest scenes in the novel, the more poignant for being rooted in autobiography—like Krishna, Narayan too suffered deeply after the death of his wife, and like his protagonist, he loved the English language despite it being the coloniser’s tongue. English, he wrote, had donned a sari and become “a devotee of goddess Saraswati”. Eventually, when Krishna resigns to take up a more meaningful teaching job, he explains to the principal Mr Brown, “I revere them [the English writers] and I hope to give them to these children for their delight and entertainment, but in a different measure and in a different manner.”
Like the English language, Shakespeare, too, has been localised—and not just by Bollywood. In Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Lata Mehra, who is acting in a college production of Twelfth Night, finds herself thinking how easily the play, which revolves around a separated brother and sister, could be about Raksha Bandhan. “If the festival of Rakhi had existed in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare would certainly have made much of it, with Viola perhaps bewailing her shipwrecked brother, imagining his lifeless, threadless, untinselled arm lying outstretched beside his body on some Illyrian beach lit by the full August moon,” she muses to herself, as she rehearses her role as Olivia.
Lata’s super-conservative widowed mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra—one of the best-drawn characters in this magnificent novel—is sceptical about her daughter performing on stage. But, like Narayan’s English teacher, she is soon “carried away by the magic of the play”. When she hears Olivia on the inevitability of fate, “Fate, show thy force. Ourselves we do not owe: What is decreed must be; and be this so!”, it is as if her own widowhood is being addressed. She is deeply moved, and suddenly, the Bard and his strange English aren’t all that remote any more. “How true, she thought, conferring honorary Indian citizenship on Shakespeare.” But, a little later, when Lata-Olivia says to Malvolio, played by none other than Kabir Durrani, the tall and handsome Muslim collegian who is ardently pursing Lata both on and off stage, “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?’ Mrs Mehra is shocked speechless. “Shakespeare’s Indian citizenship,” writes a teasing Seth, “was immediately withdrawn.”
(This story appears in the May-June 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)