John Edgar Wideman, in a talk this weekend at the literature festival Écrivains du Monde organized by Columbia University Centre in Paris, mentioned the gap he felt in his literature classes while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. There was no African-American writer in the reading list he was handed. In his conversation with Christiane Taubira, ex-Minister of Justice of France, he mentioned the alienation he felt, also echoed by Madame Taubira herself from her experience of being educated in Cayenne.
I found myself reflecting on my own process of education, especially in Ahmedabad. In my Catholic school run by the Carmelite Order, my English classes were filled with characters from old Britain that we continuously sought to emulate in vain. Literature was to be a place where English was spoken; so our school banned us from bringing our own cacophony of languages ranging from local Gujarati to Malayalam to Punjabi and Bengali. To bring our brown identity into the school premises meant inviting humiliation, an experience that Edward Said highlights while speaking of his education at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt.
There was not a single Indian writer in the books we studied in our English class at Mount Carmel. We read India through the eyes of Rudyard Kipling, yet we were made to forget that we could learn to observe our land through our own eyes. Our eyes could not see the real India, we were educated to understand. Through the other texts we read, ranging from poetry by William Wordsworth that we had to recite for our final exams to the unfathomable Charles Dickens, I was made to understand that brown characters had no space, nor did the everyday landscapes of India that I was so used to. My everyday self and space in India was made banal, to be looked down upon, to be erased so as to create and recreate the scenes from Shakespeare’s works. The only original tragedy had to be the story of Romeo and Juliette. The local Laila and Majnoon, singing around the trees and kissing behind gardens full of roses were low-brow. It would be blasphemous in my school to even compare the two tragedies in the same sentence.
My education taught me to shut my mouth up and retreat, for my brown skin could not be a speaker. I was told to believe that I didn’t even have a voice; for the voice was reserved for the dead poets and writers long buried at the Highgate Cemetery. I think of my education as having played a deep role in colonizing my understanding of my life and thoughts along with my place in the world. And I am amazed to find that a colonial institution such as Mount Carmel school with not a single non-Indian soul running it today can continue the legacy – with such pride – of an act so silently subjugating.