For my generation who grew up in ‘Calcutta’ as opposed to Kolkata, there is a certain sense of pride and belonging to the world of English ‘lettres’ (using the word in the French sense where it includes all written words in different forms like verse, prose and essays, i.e. the literary world of English language). We read and devoured English poets and dramatists with an affection which was devoid of any alien feeling of English being a language imported from elsewhere in the world. Calcutta’s intellectual and artistic life was buzzing with plays, literary discussions, café’s, writer’s workshops and individuals passionate about English literature. The plethora of debating societies, elocution contests, public speaking events only testified to this desire to speak the language with confidence and strut on the stage and moreover these events were taken seriously. Years later I would meet successful professionals like medical doctors who would proudly confess that they won the Rotary Club speaking contest or British Council debating society in the year 1985 or 1969 and they treat this as a badge of honour. I recollect vividly the pillorying received at the Rotaract Elocution contest held at the St. Xaviers School as a participant and then returning with a certain glum resolving to plunge into tedious preparation for the next event. Clearly, for us it was not good enough to read and write correctly the English language but to be able to express and articulate well; the culture which has sadly dissipated. This was prior to the rise of post-colonial literature when English was spoken and written by our ‘masters’ writers who commanded the language with certain felicity. Here I mean the likes of RK Narayan and Nirad C Chaudhuri. I feel the way one learnt the language in schools like St. Thomas School with its long tradition of Anglo-Indian education system was to make bold yet nuanced statements and expressing your thoughts which might question prevailing conventions and norms. However what really fueled the love of English language with our intellect and imagination were Shakespeare and British Council – two of the most iconic forces shaping our encounter with the language.
Being a student in an Anglo-Indian school, setting the task of learning English language well meant having learnt Shakespeare well, one’s knowledge of English is inadequate and incomplete without mastery over Shakespeare. The l’amour with Shakespeare started for me and many of us precisely in my 9th standard when the play “Merchant of Venice” was introduced into the English curriculum and stayed on till I completed ICSE which was the end of 10 years of schooling. In the next phase of the Shakespearean l’affair it was “Macbeth” which was part of the ISC course in English language and literature. In my case, “Macbeth” was taught by the venerable Ms Manjula Ray who would dissect and dramatize those lines mellifluously. Hence the entire Shakespearean dalliance lasted nearly four years with few sonnets thrown in and “Hamlet” being studied outside the ambit of school curriculum for staging plays. Reciting lines from Shakespearean plays with ease was the hallmark of brilliance. Acquiring mastery over nuances of the play, the theatrical plot and most importantly understanding the context was sine qua non for being able to lay any claim of learning Shakespeare. Our school premises would screen “Macbeth” and “Merchant of Venice”. Those days these films were screened on small TV screens connected to video recorders with huge reeled tapes. I recollect once I had to stand outside the classroom peeping through the window to watch “Macbeth” since the seats were fully occupied. Many of these films were stage productions which had actors and actresses mouthing dialogues with animated expressions in very staid settings. Needless to add, the thought of answering questions in English language papers in both ICSE and ISC on these plays made us enormously nervous and we thanked our stars when the Shakespearean saga was all over. I must admit that I cringed when recently someone shared with me that they were taught Shakespeare in narrative form rather thanbeing made to learn the entire play with its dialogues and I realized times have changed.
I feel the way one learnt the language in schools like St. Thomas School with its long tradition of Anglo-Indian education system was to make bold yet nuanced statements and expressing your thoughts which might question prevailing conventions and norms.
British Council embodied the finest, best and refined aspects of English language and literature. I used to travel down to the British Council where they had these small desks or workstations for watching BBC films and drama. The films were available on video format and I think during late 80s the first adaptation in colour format arrived of the Shakespearean plays which we had learnt at school. I was thrilled to watch the Macbeth production which was set outside the confines of stage and I guess it must have been Polanksi’s production of 1971. The iconic building of British Council was located on a busy arterial avenue with trappings of a boulevard called Shakespeare Sarani close to some of the old Victorian buildings and a hotel named Astor which was housed in an old-styled manorial edifice and was reputed for its kebabs and tandoor; quite ironic for the name and the architecture but then such was Calcutta’s magnificent cosmopolitan blend. It has always baffled me that most of the British Council libraries in India are located in rather modernist architectural edifices with concrete and glass. The British Councils staff were all very strict disciplinarians and had innate passion for literature and arts, hence one had to be careful with the books and tapes one borrowed. The staff was very eager to guide us through the collections. It was an absolute delight to be able to watch those drama films in dazzling colour formats.There was no digital sound but the baritone voice of the actors and actresses transported one to the eerie, hair-raising, magical world of Elizabethan world where murder plots and intrigues ruled the roost. As a matter of fact whenever I visited a Tudor building or tavern located in one of those timber buildings, a constant sense of ominous things happening in, Shakespearean plots would chase me! Apart from watching the films the next best draw were books on eclectic subjects like psychology, politics which were drawing my attention for the first time as one embarked to pursue university education. There is one habit which I picked up which persists till today and that is the regular and routine reading of the magazine, The Spectator, (British current affairs commentary magazine which has conservative leanings in its vision of society, culture and politics).
For most students like me coming from Anglo-Indian schools in Calcutta, it was not really an elitist endeavour to devour a whole lot of resources to learn and appreciate Shakespeare and Shelley. It was about the unwillingness to trade anything with the experience of learning English language. For those who eternally debate about the relevance of English language and Shakespeare in Indian context, I would just like to humbly quote from ‘All the World’s A Stage’ which encapsulates Indian karma philosophy so succinctly:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”