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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2013



Sana Niazi

English in the Indian Context in Poile Sengupta’s Keats was a Tuber

The emergence of women playwrights with innovative semiotics and sensitive treatment of social issues has opened new vistas in modern Indian drama. It becomes all the more important because theatre was considered as a realm belonging to the patriarchal setup. Many women dramatists who have ventured into this genre have written plays in vernacular languages, some of which have been translated into English. Poile Sengupta has written a number of plays, all of them in English, but set in very Indian contexts.
The importance of English in all the major Indian cities and towns has brought about a radical change in the present scenario. There is a scramble to learn English with ‘institutes’ offering to teach English and as these proliferate, the language seems to serve as a means of unifying the country.

Sengupta’s play titled Keats was a Tuber is a satire on Indian English – very relevant to the current scenario of a globalized world. It takes on the shape of a parody to question the relevance and ownership of the English language by Indians. It is simultaneously thought provoking and humorous. The method of memorising and rote-learning is painfully familiar to both the teacher and the taught in the Indian context. Sengupta makes a brilliant use of this method of teaching and learning to bring home the futility of such language learning. Further, she tactfully shows how English can be used as a bridge amongst people.

Poile Sengupta was born in 1948 as Ambika Gopalakrishnan. Today she is one of the foremost Indian writers in English especially well known as a playwright and writer for children. As a playwright, her first full length play Mangalam won the award for the most socially relevant theme in the Hindu-Madras players playscripts competition in 1993. In addition, she has been an accomplished actor on stage and owns her own theatre group named ‘Theatre Club’. The collection of her plays titled Women Centre Stage: The Dramatist and the Play, with an Introduction by Shashi Deshpande is valuable for varied reasons and Poile Sengupta’s passion for theatre is evident in her dedication: ‘To my husband Abhijit, who shares my theatre madness and helps me balance the formalities of the stage with its magic.’

The play ‘Keats was a Tuber’ is set in a college staff room in a small town in Tamil Nadu and the plot unravels in the context of the manner in which English is taught in colleges all over the country – this particular college serving more as an example than anything else. The mechanical memorising of facts, often not the essential ones, is what provides the title of the play. Students are taught to memorize the line ‘Keats was a tuberculosis patient’ by breaking it up into two meaningless portions – Keats was a tuber, Keats was a tuber’ and ‘culosis patient, culosis patient’. This method is familiar to Indians in a typically Indian context. It is clearly evident that the line so memorized has little to do with Keats’ claim to renown in the literary world, as Raghu rightly points out:

I am expanding their minds, helping them grow, that’s what teaching is about. Real teaching. Not this cramming and vomiting out that you and and your colleagues expect them to do. Memorise! By heart! Mug up! (Chants.) Keats was a tuber... Keats was a tuber ... Keats was a tuber ... culosis patient ... culosis patient ... Is that all you can tell them about Keats? That he had tuberculosis?

Before Act 1 of the play begins, a woman on the stage is shown addressing an unseen audience. She begins by acknowledging that English is not her language but something she learnt when she was sent to an English medium school. Now the same language has become the language of her thoughts, reasons and the language she uses for loving.
Scene 1 introduces us to the various staff members of the ‘English Dept’ who consciously or unconsciously are concerned about the plight of the English language in their college. The piece of polished wood with words ‘English Dept’ painted on it is shown to be constantly an object of envy. It is knocked down deliberately or splashed with ink by unknown people but obviously of the same college.  The attitude towards this language is typical of the response of some Indians who think that English is still a foreign language. A lot of debate, time and again, pushes the role of English in India into precarious situations.

How we in India have adapted English to our convenience is evident from the way we use it. When Iyer asks Sarala if she was looking for her attendance register, Sarala answers in a typically Indian manner: ‘Yes sir, I was finding it but ...’ and Iyer gently puts it right ‘You mean you were looking for it but could not find it.’ At another instance when Iyer and Sarala are discussing about the venue for the farewell function for Raghu, Iyer suggests using the staffroom instead of a class room. He wants to give a reason for his preference: ‘It would be more ...’ Before he could finish Sarala interrupts: ‘Intimate, Sir?’ and Iyer’s reply is : ‘It would be more informal.’ This method of error correction is different from the traditional approach as the correction is made without pointing out to the user that he is wrong. Another teacher Dr. Dennis, is shown exhibiting his knowledge of the famous English writers whom he can quote and make changes and adjustments according to the situations. When Ms. Nathan announces that her nephew would soon join the college Dennis replies: ‘What is this about a new face? Let me not to the marriage of new faces admit impediments ...’ He further adds : ‘Ah! Prepare to meet thy doom. Beware, beware his flashing eyes, his flowing hair ... How long do you think he will survive in our little Hades?’

When Raghu, Nathan’s nephew finally arrives we are certain of the much needed changes which would take place in this college. When Raghu enquires about the teaching system in that college he is informed that the syllabus has not been changed for many years. Sarala appreciates the fact that Dr. Dennis has maintained his notes from ‘those days itself’ and therefore is a good teacher. Raghu’s interaction with other faculty members reveals some flaws in our own teaching system which needs to be seriously looked upon. Although presented in a humorous manner, the point in consideration not only reflects how our students perform but also how ineffective our teaching is.

Sarala:    Oh, you should see how they write, Raghu. My remedial class does not know how to use English words at all. Today, I wanted them to write about a college excursion. See what this student has written ... one one boy sat on one one cycle.

Raghu’s objection to the type of syllabus being taught at that college results in an argumentative debate. He brings a practical vision in making changes in the syllabus. He argues to delete things like Charles Lamb’s essay ‘A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig’ as it does not benefit the students in any way: ‘And worse, much worse, I have to talk about the mouth-watering and irresistible taste of crackling of roast pork to a group of students, a great many of whom don’t eat meat and over half of whom are Muslims.’

Raghu’s suggestion of replacing the present prescribed texts with more practical material like ‘newspapers, magazines and advertisements.... Real life material’ to teach the English language seems a far-fetched idea in this college but at the same time full of hope and positive results.

Raghu:   First of all, this non-detailed text. It should be banned.
Dennis : So we are left no tools to teach with nor no stick neither?
Raghu : We put together small prose pieces which allow our students to learn language skills that they can use in their immediate environment.
Sarala : Oh Raghu. You are sounding so much like sir.
Raghu : And we simulate real life situations in the classroom where they have to weave together their knowledge of English vocabulary, sentence structure, the question form and so on.
Nathan : Raghu, you are again talking of big issues. We are a small department in a small college. How can we....

In his short span of stay at this college Raghu also brings to fore another important issue – that of teaching English to the non-teaching employees of our institutions. Raghu teaches English to Ramanan by making him write on a slate. ‘That’s right. C..O..F... Another F..E. Gone for coffee. Good! What else do you want to learn?’ When Mrs. Nathan finds Raghu teaching the peon she is both shocked and angry. ‘Ramanan! I have been calling you and calling you and this is where you are. Learning English instead of attending to your duty. Go! There are some more books in the second year class. Bring them ... Learning English ....’

Besides the teaching staff, a young BA Elective English third year student, Damini also enters the scene. She is an intelligent girl, courteous towards her teachers, self psossessed and is shown to interpret Jane Austen according to her own understanding. The pattern of repeated questions being asked in the exams is another characteristic in Indian colleges taken up by Sengupta. To the oft repeated question in the exams in that college ‘Justify the title of the book, Pride and Prejudice’, however, Damini brings her own interpretation. The college library is not well equipped to provide her the latest criticism.
Another interesting fact is brought to light when Mr Iyer tells Damini to read the text first and get her own interpretation of it before she reads any critical material on the author and the text. Damini shown as an exceptional student follows the advice but although not explicitly indicated it is well understood that it is a common practice among students to read the critics before reading the text or sometimes not reading the text at all.

Damini’s maturity of understanding can be seen in her assessment of Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’. She was taught this poem one year back as part of her core English syllabus by a teacher who made it appear quite dull. She questions the necessity of such a poem being taught to Indian students: ‘Why should I study something written by some Englishman who is talking about some bridge in London that I have never seen? If I write a poem ‘Upon Howrah Bridge’, will it be included in the English syllabus?’
As the human relationships unfold in the play, Sengupta makes brilliant use of the English language as a bridge among different characters. Even cultural differences are brought about which still exist in our country inspite of us speaking English and appearing to be modern. Sarala’s criticism of Dr. Dennis’ divorce without proper understanding of their personal circumstances and her blaming of Mrs. Dennis for everything reflects not only her immaturity but the cultural gap existing between the east and the west. In the play Damini acts as a foil to Sarala. Damini’s intelligence strikes Raghu to such an extent that before he leaves for Canada he announces his engagement to her on the occasion of his farewell organised by his colleagues.

The play comes to an end with the woman on the stage giving her views of the transformations the English language has undergone in post-independent India:

I have taken from the Englishman what was his. I have smoothed it and denied it, given it shape, polished it, fashioned it the way I want. And I know I possess it now......Macaulay, I have my revenge after all.


All citations are from Poile Sengupta, Women Centre Stage: The Dramatist and the Play, ‘Keats was a Tuber’, Routledge, Taylor  & Francis Group, New Delhi, 2010.