Random Access Macaulayminiutemen: Cultural Semiotics Reading of Indian English Poetry
‘Bleddy Macaulay's minutemen! Don't you get it? Bunch of English-medium misfits, the lot of you. Minority group members. Square-peg freaks. You don't belong here. Country's as alien to you as if you were what's-the-word lunatics. Moon-men. You read the wrong books, get on the wrong side in every argument, think the wrong thoughts. Even your bleddy dreams grow from foreign roots.'
'Stop making a fool of yourself, Vasco,' said Aurora.
Salman Rushdie The Moor’s Last Sigh
In an essay titled, ‘On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture’ (1971), two noted cultural theorists associated with the Tartu- Moscow School of Semiotics, Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky state “… in their actual historical functioning, languages are inseparable from culture. No language (in the full sense of the word) can exist unless it is steeped in the context of culture; and no culture can exist which does not have, at its center, the structure of natural language.” If this proposition is accepted as true, than the question in the context of Indian Writing in English would be whether we can speak of something like ‘Indian English culture’ since both Indian English language and Indian English Literature exists. The question would be can we speak of ‘Indian English culture’ in the same way we speak of ‘Gujarati culture’ or ‘Marathi culture’ or even ‘Indian’ culture, especially when we try to contextualize literature in its cultural context. There seems to be an assumption that there is no such thing as ‘Indian English culture’ in the sense there is something like ‘Punjabi’ culture or ‘Tamil’ culture.
One of the complaints often made about Indian poetry in English and one of the reasons of its marginality is, in Anjum Hasan’s words, “lack of home... This constant search for a geographical analogue to a literature, this assumption of a primeval connection between language and land, has made a freaky vagabond out of Indian English poetry … However; homelessness need not be a bad thing (2009)”. The assumption that Indian English does not have a culture of its own seems to be at the back of such complaints. Hasan goes on to quote Dilip Chitre who says, “Indian English poetry is the poetry of a landless minority… A sense of exile has to be an irreducible part of the IE poet’s self-perception… He is therefore forced into an inner territory or surrogate landscape as a substitute for a linguistic homeland.” The shift from Chitre’s tragic rhetoric of exile to ‘not such a bad thing’ suggests a generational shift in attitude towards this question of rootlessness which Ranjit Hoskote has noted in his anthology Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Poets (2002).
In this article I employ the theoretical framework of cultural semiotics, especially the notion of semiosphere, developed by the Russian culture theorist Yuri Lotman to address this complex question. According to this approach, meaning generation is the ability both of culture as a whole (which is more than the sum of its parts) and of its parts (like texts, languages and codes). First I will provide a brief overview of cultural semiotics theoretical model of semiosphere, then discuss how we can conceptualize Indian English semiosphere and finally, I will go on to demonstrate how Indian English literature can be read as realization of Indian English semiosphere. I will be looking specifically at contemporary Indian English poems by the poets who have come into their own in the first decade of the twenty-first century, namely Anjum Hasan, Meena Kandasamy and Mustansir Dalvi to distinguish significant characteristics of the growing semiosphere.
(1) A Brief Introduction to Culture Semiotics
It would be useful here to provide here a brief outline of the theoretical model of cultural semiotics as elaborated by the scholars of the Tartu- Moscow School of Semiotics under leadership of the Russian cultural theoretician Yuri M. Lotman (1922-1993). Cultural semiotics or the Semiotics of Culture , a Soviet branch of poststructuralist cultural studies, critiques and goes beyond the Saussurean and the Peircean model of semiotics and communication by applying more holistic approach, and incorporating findings of information theory, cybernetics, natural sciences and mathematics, especially the ideas of chaos, complexity and system thinking. It also draws upon the ideas from soviet philosophical schools like the Russian Formalism and the Bakhtin circle and the thinkers like Vernadsky and Vladimir Propp.
Lotman in an article “Culture as a Subject and Object for Itself” notes that:
The main question of semiotics of culture is the problem of meaning generation. What we shall call meaning generation is the ability both of culture as a whole and of its parts to put out, in the “output”, nontrivial new texts. New texts are the texts that emerge as results of irreversible processes (in Ilya Prigogine’s sense), i.e. texts that are unpredictable to a certain degree. (Cited by Peter Torop, 2005)
Lotman argues that the Jakobson model of semiotics (1960) is largely ‘atomistic’, that is it starts from a single, simple element – a sign or a single communicative act based on the Jakobson’s model. Such a model is reductive one as it reduces the complexity of the object to be studied to a totality of simple. He points out, “A schema consisting of addresser, addressee and the channel linking them together is not yet a working system. For it to work it has to be 'immersed' in semiotic space. All participants in the communicative act must have some experience of communication, be familiar with semiosis. So, paradoxically, semiotic experience precedes the semiotic act. (1990: 123)”
The Jakobsonian mono-semantic systems do not exist in isolation. They function only by being immersed in a specific semiotic continuum, which is filled with multi-variant semiotic models situated at a range of hierarchical levels. Such a continuum Lotman, by analogy with the concept of “biosphere” introduced by V. I. Vernadsky, calls the ‘semiosphere’. (1984: 206). Against the traditional reductive and atomistic model of semiotics, Lotman proposes a holistic and complex model. He says, “Just as, by sticking together individual steaks, we don’t obtain a calf, but by cutting up a calf, we may obtain steaks, — in summarizing separate semiotic acts, we don’t obtain a semiotic universe. On the contrary, only the existence of such a universe — the semiosphere —makes the specific signatory act real (208).” The unit of semiosis, the smallest functioning mechanism is not the separate language but the whole semiotic space of the culture in question.
The Semiosphere: Definition and Characteristics
The semiosphere is that synchronic semiotic space which fills the borders of culture, without which separate semiotic systems cannot function or come into being. It is defined as, “the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of languages, not the sum total of different languages; in a sense the semiosphere has a prior existence and is in constant interaction with languages. In this respect a language is a function, a cluster of semiotic spaces and their boundaries, which, however clearly defined these are in the language's grammatical self-description, in the reality of semiosis are eroded and full of transitional forms. Outside the semiosphere there can be neither communication, nor language. (Lotman 1990: 122-123).”
Other two chief attributes of the semiosphere are its internal heterogeneity and asymmetry. The languages which fill up the semiotic space are various (heterogeneous), and they relate to each other along the spectrum which runs from complete mutual translatability to just as complete mutual untranslatability i.e. they are asymmetrical. With the mechanism of translation as the primary mechanism of meaning-generation, the entire semiosphere is considered as generator of information. (127). Lotman notes, asymmetry is apparent in the relationship between the centre of the semiosphere and its periphery. At the centre of the semiosphere are formed the most developed and structurally organized languages, and in first place the natural language of that culture. The discourses of self-description, including ‘criticism’ and theorization such as the one presented in this essay ( as semiosphere studying itself, as culture studying itself) can be thought of as one of the unifying mechanisms of a semiosphere.
Using this notion, we can visualize, ‘Gujarati’ or ‘Marathi ‘semiosphere with the natural language of self-description at its core and multiplicity of complete and partial semiotic systems (languages) like clothing, recipes, political systems, caste system, visual languages of cinema, TV serials, commercial banners, architecture, literary and folk traditions of art and so on.
Another significant attribute of the semiosphere is the notion of the boundary. Every culture begins by dividing the world into 'its own' internal space, and 'their' external space. Paradoxically, the internal space of a semiosphere is at the same time unequal yet unified, asymmetrical yet uniform. Composed as it is of conflicting structures, it none the less is also marked by individuation. One of the primary mechanisms of semiotic individuation is the boundary. This space is 'ours', 'my own', it is 'cultured', 'safe', 'harmoniously organized', and so on. By contrast 'their space' is 'other', 'hostile', 'dangerous', 'chaotic'. (Lotman 1990:131).
The notion of boundary, in cultural semiotics, is an ambivalent one: it both separates and unites. It is always the boundary of something and so belongs to both frontier cultures, to both contiguous semiospheres. The boundary is bilingual and polylingual. The boundary is a mechanism for translating texts of an alien semiotics into 'our' language, it is the place where what is 'external' is transformed into what is internal', it is a filtering membrane which so transforms foreign texts that they become part of the semiosphere's internal semiotics while still retaining their own characteristics (Lotman 1990: 136-137). The internal boundaries between multiple languages and the external boundaries between the semiosphere are semiotic hotspots, the translational sites for meaning generation.
The semiosphere is always a dynamic system. “So across any synchronic section of the semiosphere different languages at different stage of development is in conflict, and some texts are immersed in languages not their own, while the codes to decipher them with may be entirely absent. As an example of a single world looked at synchronically, imagine a museum hall where exhibits from different periods are on display, along with inscriptions in known and unknown languages, and instructions for decoding them; besides there are the explanations composed by the museum staff, plans for tours and rules for the behaviour of the visitors. Imagine also in these hall tour-leaders and the visitors and imagine all this as a single mechanism (which in a certain sense it is). This is an image of the semiosphere. (Lotman, 1990:127)”
(2) The Indian English Semiosphere
Indian English, as a language, obviously functions in a cultural context which is dissimilar from Anglophone native speaker varieties. If we are to conceptualize Indian English semiosphere we notice that it is steeped in the contexts of multiplicity of cultures and at its centre is the structure of English. It functions on the boundary lines of the bhashas (or non-English Indian languages) and is peripheral to the native speaker varieties of English. It may not have a territory of its own or community of its own, but has multiple territories and communities. This globalized semiosphere occupies non-bhasha spaces within bhashas cultures like dressing ( jeans, tea-shirts ,shirt, trousers etc), city planning and architecture ( there is no such thing like Marathi architecture today), technology, education, corporate work cultures, non-Indian films ( primarily Hollywood), news, television , media- Web1.0 and 2.0…in short contemporary urban cosmopolitan/metropolitan spaces and small town educational institutions. Though Indian English may not have a single community of speakers, it has a trans-regional ‘interliterary community’ or the communities, according to the Slovak comparativist Dionyz Durisin (1984), which share interliterary processes and the communities which are related in an interliterary way. These are the spaces and communities which have shaped and consumed the archive of Indian Writing in English to the large extent.
In the domain of Indian English poetry, as in other forms like fiction, you have writers from diversity of ethnic and cultural diversity brought together by a common language. There are Diasporic writers writing from abroad, writers writing from the urban and metropolitan spaces like Mumbai and New Delhi and the writers writing from small towns across the subcontinent. The poets like AK Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, R Parthasarathy, Vikram Seth, Sujata Bhatt, Imtiaz Dharkar, Jeet Thayil, Agha Shahid Ali and Tishani Doshi write from multiplicity of urban locations abroad, while poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, Eunice De Souza, Ranjit Hoskote, and Dilip Chitre write from urban locations like Mumbai in India. The poets like Robin S. Ngangom, Desmond Lee Kharmawphlang, and Anjum Hasan write about their location in Shillong. Poets like Manohar Shetty writes about Goa and Jayanta Mahapatra writes about the small towns in Orissa. Though these poets write in English, their works are in a dialogic and translational relationship to non-English Indian languages. This access to diversity of territories, cultural geographies, and heterogeneous semiotic spaces implies that instead of mourning over absence of geographical analogue or territorial locale, one can argue that Indian English semiosphere covers a great range of geographical territories and cultural locations. Hence instead of Chitre’s view that the Indian English poet “is forced into an inner territory or surrogate landscape as a substitute for a linguistic homeland”, we can see that she has an access to several geographical and cultural landscapes. She lives in a home with multiple homes.
While something like Gujarati semiosphere would cover Gujarat as a regional territory and a scattered Gujarati Diaspora, Indian English semiosphere would cover spaces like Shillong, Cuttack, Goa as well as many metropolitan locations across India and abroad. However, according cultural semiotics, Indian English semiosphere is not structurally very different from Gujarati or Tamil. What Indian English semiosphere lacks is its own traditional semiotic systems or what the Tartu- Moscow school terms as ‘secondary modeling systems’ (see Umberto Eco on secondary modelling systems in Introduction to Lotman’s Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Study of Culture, 1990) like myths, festivals, cuisine, religious customs, castes, and so on, which it usually translates into itself from the regional cultures. This cultural material translated from multiplicity of spaces is critical for its identity. This lack of a range of traditional secondary modelling systems is another pertinent characteristic of Indian English semiosphere. However, the presence of this semiosphere alters the contexts in which the secondary modelling systems from other Indian languages function, e.g. the Gujarati festival of garba in a corporate cosmopolitan setup.
English obviously is in an asymmetrical and unequal relation to bhashas, the non-English Indian languages. There is a widespread perception that it can provide an easy access to material success in life and it creates a boundary between people into ‘English haves’ and ‘English-have not’s, giving rise to lot of resentment. This historical asymmetry, as a mechanism, makes possible its dual and contradictory deployment as a language of oppression and othering (due to its use by the colonizers and postcolonial elites) as well as language of liberation and modernity (as often articulated by the Dalit, or even by some conservatives like Vishnu Shashtri Chiplunkar (1850-1892) who called English vidya ‘the Milk of Tigress’). Most of the political discourse regarding English in India works with this contradiction.
Indian English as a dialect of English is again in a hierarchic asymmetrical relationship with the Anglophone native varieties. This gives rise to the perception that proximity to the Anglophone variety implies intrinsic cultural superiority and the dialect-like variations are merely parodies or butts of jokes (e.g. Ezekiel’s ‘Very Indian Poems in Indian English’ or Rushdie’s comments about chutneyfication of English) or depicting ‘local colour’, necessary for representing one’s rootedness-basically implying its secondariness or inferiority.
There is of course a presence of asymmetries and hierarchies with the urban and modernist varieties having a privileged presence and the romantic and small town poetries (like from the North East) occupying the margins. These urban languages are in a translational relationship with non-English languages and translate multiple semiotic systems from the regional languages, and many of Indian English poets are accomplished translators from the regional languages. These asymmetries play a critical role in canon formation of Indian English literature. All semiospheres and cultures have in built mechanisms of asymmetries and hence Indian English semiosphere is no different structurally from other semiospheres.
The boundary English vs. non- English is a translational space and text-generating mechanism of great power and has played a significant role in constituting ‘world literature’ in the sense discussed by David Damrosch (2003), not as a canon of texts but as mode of circulation, reading and recontextualization in translation. In the context of Indian English this boundary marks off the space of English from non-English spaces which might be those of non-English Indian languages as well as non-English world languages. This is the translational boundary which assimilates non- texts and languages into English. This is boundary generates translated texts, idioms, codes, words from the bhashas ( non-English Indian languages) into English leading to its ‘chutnification’ or ‘ biryanification’ of English, as well as generation of translated texts from other Indian languages in English, e.g. translations of significant literary texts by poets like AK Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, Agha Shahid Ali and Ranjit Hoskote. It also generates texts from other global languages into English, for example, Vikram Seth’s translation of Chinese poetry.
This is also the boundary which generates texts in the non-English Indian languages and has played extremely important role in not only assimilating non- Indian texts, codes and languages into these languages but also translating texts from one bhasha into other via English translation. The translation from non- Indian texts, codes , languages into bhashas have played a critical role in shaping not just various literary movements like modernisms in Indian languages but also major literary genres like the novel , and the short story in non- English Indian languages. The reception and impact of World Literature in non- English Indian languages would not have been what it is without English. The ‘English’- ‘non-English’ boundary is constitutive not just of Indian Writing in English but also modern literatures in other Indian languages. Besides, this boundary is critical not only to literature but also other cultural phenomenon like films, TV soaps ( e.g. the ‘reality shows’ like the Big Boss), popular music and so on.
The boundary ‘Indian’ –‘non-Indian’ is a far more problematic phenomenon as what constitutes ‘Indian’ cultural space involves the contested and tricky category of ‘nation’. However, I would like to focus on what can be termed ‘Indian culture’ from a cultural semiotics perspective. In the article mentioned in the beginning of the essay, Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky define culture as “the nonhereditary memory of the community, a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions” whose function is to “in structurally organizing the world around man.” They point out that culture is the generator of structuredness, and in this way it creates a social sphere around man which, like the biosphere, makes life possible; that is, not organic life, but social life. But in order for it to fulfill that role, culture must have within itself a structural "die-casting mechanism." It is this function that is performed by natural language. Culture can be presented as an aggregate of texts; however, from the point of view of the researcher, it is more exact to consider culture as a mechanism creating an aggregate of texts and texts as the realization of culture.
As India has historically been a land of diverse communities, each with memory systems of their own, and with multiplicity of natural languages we obviously cannot conceptualize a monolithic ‘Indian culture’ with a single language and memory system at its core. However, English, as a pan- Indian language provides a translational space which assimilates these diverse cultural memories into its own. It also seems to generate some sort of ‘structuredness’ to this plurality by generating texts in Indian English. It should also be borne in mind that Indian English is the language of a very small minority and occupies a hierarchic and asymmetrical relationship with other Indian language. This textual production of India, therefore, is basically ‘new information’ and by an elite minority. However, in anthropological sense, following Ramanujan (2004: 348), Singer and Redfield one can conceptualize ‘great traditions’ which are pan-Indian high textual and ‘little traditions’ which are local, and performative texts, analogous to marga and desi systems, as two chief forms of expression of non-hereditary memory or cultural memory, and Indian English texts belonging chiefly to the former.
We can say that the Indian English semiosphere, like other Indian semiospheres, has its own internal heterogeneity and coherence (provided by English language and a dialectical relationship with the ‘great’ as well as ‘the little’ cultural traditions (or memory systems). It has its own internal and external boundaries, and though it does not have its traditional secondary modelling systems like rituals, festivals or cuisine, its presence plays a critical role of providing a different context for such practices from other Indian semiosphere to function in a different way. The presence and expansion of this cosmopolitan semiosphere on the eroding boundaries of bhashas cultures raises questions about whether this erosion signifies modernity or decadence.
In one place, Lotman notes that “The laws of construction of the artistic text are very largely the laws of the construction of culture as a whole (1990: 33)” and in the essay he co-authored with Uspensky he talks about the texts as the realization of culture. It would be pertinent to read some of the Indian English poems using cultural semiotics approach to see if we can infer what are the laws of ‘Indian English culture’ or ‘Indian English Semiosphere’ that have gone into the making of Indian English artistic texts.
(3) Indian English Poetry as realization of Indian English Culture
Using Lotman’s model of communication to understand poetry and art can have radical implications for the study of literature and arts in the social and cultural contexts. According to the Saussure-Jakobson model of informational communication, language is seen as “as a machine for transmitting invariant messages, and poetic language is then regarded as a small and, generally speaking, abnormal corner of this system. According to this approach poetic language is seen merely as natural language with an overlay of supplementary restrictions and hence a significantly reduced informational capacity”. Whereas according to Lotman’s model, “the creative function is a universal quality of language and poetic language is regarded as the most typical manifestation of language as such. From this point of view it is precisely the opposite semiotic models which then are regarded as a small corner of the linguistic space. (17).” It also becomes possible to view culture as a space made up of “the spectrum of texts” laid out on an axis, “one pole of which is formed by the artificial languages and the other by artistic ones.” Both these poles, Lotman warns, are ‘abstractions unrealizable in actual languages”.
I will be focusing on three artistic texts, from contemporary Indian English poetry written from different cultural locations. Meena Kandasamy (b. 1984) is a well-known Dalit feminist poet, activist, fiction writer and translator based in Chennai. Her collections are Touch (2006), Ms. Militancy (2010) and an e-Chapbook on the website Slow Trains. Mustansir Dalvi (b.1964) is a Mumbai based Professor of Architecture at JJ School of Architecture. His translation of the renowned Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal’s collections Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa as Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer was Runner Up for the Best Translation Prize at the Muse India National Literary Award. Brouhahas of Cocks, his first book of poems in English, appeared in 2013. Anjum Hasan (b.1972) is the author of the short fiction collection Difficult Pleasures (2012), the novels Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in my Head (2007), and the book of poems Street on the Hill (2006). She is currently the books Editor of The Caravan. She is from Shillong, Meghalaya and lives in Bangalore.
We have seen that according to cultural semiotics, communication is an unpredictable, translational process between two different semiotic systems. Lotman building on the process of bilingualism and translation goes on to define ‘the semantic trope’ like the metaphor and metonymy, which constitute the essence of creative thinking and which are inherent to all creativity. He defines the semantic trope as “a pair of mutually non-juxtaposble signifying elements, between which, thanks to the context they share, a relationship of adequacy is established’ (38).” He points out that the principle of juxtaposition lies at the basis of various branches of the avant-garde, however, what is important, according to him, is that the meaning generating principle of the text as a whole lies in the juxtaposition of segments that are in principle not juxtaposable. Their mutual recoding creates a language capable of many readings, a fact which opens up unexpected reserves of meaning. (1990: 44).
Meena Kandasamy’s politically subversive ‘Random Access Man’ (Ms. Militancy, 46-47) plays on the word RAM which is an acronym for Random Access Memory in computers and the name of the Hindu god Lord Rama who is also the protagonist of the great Hindu epic The Ramayana . This rather fortuitous juxtaposition between the language of mythology and religion and the language of computer technology is possible because of the chance resemblance between two unrelated semiotic systems. The third language juxtaposed with the language of computer technology and mythology is the language of man-woman relationship. Meena’s subversive narration about the woman sends her dysfunctional ‘dickhead husband’ who played ‘Gandhi to her waiting wife’s body ‘on a wild goose chase’ to get ‘musk from the testicle of a golden deer’ to arouse his manhood, as she picks herself ‘a random man’ to learn about love is told in urban English and ends with the urban slang word ‘Mamasita’ which means a hot mama or a hot babe but also puns with Sita.
The mutual recoding of the multiple seemingly languages- the language of computer technology, mythology, political history, fiction and urban slang is done with an obvious intention of subverting the traditional gender asymmetries in the patriarchal society. These seemingly multiple languages are also the ones that change at altering rates, a characteristic feature of the dynamics of the semiosphere: the language of slang and computers would change at a faster rate than the language of religion and patriarchal grammar governing relationship. The poet uses these different rates of change to comment on seemingly unchanging nature of patriarchy vis a vis languages which change faster. The boundaries separating the husband and the other man, Sita myth (with the patriarchal notion of ‘Lakshman Rekha’) and Mamasita, Gandhi and the adulterer, the Ramayana and the realistic narrative are deliberately transgressed and subverted to produce this text.
However, from cultural semiotics perspective, this text reveals the Indian English semiosphere built on these multiple languages. If culture is non-hereditary memory of a community, Meena’s poem reveals the oppressive nature of certain forms of memory like that of the Rama-Sita myth and the memory of Gandhi from point of view of caste and gender in India.
Given the fact that a very small number of Dalits would have access to English as language of creative expression, or as language of urban slang, or the language of computers and digital technology and even smaller number of Dalit women would have freedom to publicly subvert the religious and mythological language of Rama and the oppressive patriarchal restriction on women’s sexuality symbolized by the Rama-Sita myth, the Kandasamy poem not only indicates a class hierarchy within the contemporary Dalit communities (as only a person located in more privileged strata can have access to these things) , paradoxically it also becomes the poem which articulates quest for freedom which is available in art but not in real life ( Lotman on phenomenon of art in Culture and Explosion 2000)
Mustansir Dalvi’s ‘South Africa’s first Kokani Wicket-keeper’ (Brouhaha of Cocks, 41-42), is a tragic-comic story of the growing up and homecoming of person named Bilal Musa Parker who has become ‘South Africa’s first Konkani Wicket-keeper’. The boundary separating English from non-English is deliberately transgressed depicting Bilal’s journey from Konkan to South Africa and back. The poem begins by Bilal returning to this ancestral village by boat over the river Vashishti with the very one-eyed boatman named Mhamdu Deshmukh (who is a one good peeper with his own 20/20) who used to ferry him across the river in his childhood. The poem is replete with references to local geographical addresses, names of Bilal’s childhood friends like Zulfikar Chogle and Bandya Karandikar, local cuisine ( sandge and Karanji) and also uses Konkani dialects in places ( Tu Mushya cho na? Waatlach! Says Mhamdu Deshmukh). The poem talks in bawdy tones about how Bilal’s hard life as a cricketer in the village has stood him in good stead in the Cape.
The poem describes Bilal as ‘the prodigal Hrundi V. Bakshi’ the famous comic character in the Hollywood film The Party played by Peter Sellers, who returns to his village ‘anticipating vermicelli, sandge and karanji’. The poem is also about memory where Bilal remembers the village crier named Amin Miyan who was called Pichkya Khatib whose early calls during Ramazan were to the tune of ‘Ghar aa jaa pardesi’. Remembering Khatib reminds Bilal that he is ‘just another Kaffir in search of another Vaterland’ like his ancestors ‘accruing at six year intervals, material wealth and terminal emptiness’. This juxtaposing of the Biblical myth of prodigal son, local Konkani Muslim culture, Islamic myths, Hollywood and Bollywood films, cricket, vermicelli, sandge and karanji produces a comic trope depicting the cultural hybridity and also raises painful questions of identity and growing up in such a hybrid culture. The poem reveals a different dimension of Indian English semiosphere where such multiple languages collide. The poet deliberately plays off languages against one another to achieve his effects. The boundaries separating English and non-English, Muslims and non- Muslims, Hollywood and Bollywood, Konkan and South Africa, adolescence and manhood are primarily meaning generating spaces which are transgressed to produce this tragic-comic narrative.
Anjum Hasan’s poems in Street on the Hill (2006) deal with the themes of growing up and living in the small town of Shillong and the pain of nostalgia. The poems like ‘Coming of Age in a Convent School’ (8) or ‘Afternoon at the Beauty Parlor’ (33) are particularly interesting because they reveal how the urban cosmopolitan (and Indian English) spaces overlap with the small and largely rural spaces. In ‘Coming of Age in a Convent School’ we meet the girls in the year 1985( “The year of George Michael’s stubble/ the year of Stevie Wonder jokes”) who are ‘in love with Madonna’ and draw blue ballpoint ink moles on their lips and pretend not to love the sex education class. We also know that in a small town convent this is not the Madonna you are supposed to love. We meet Sister Carmel, the English teacher, ‘who refuses to believe that Boy George is not a woman’ and Sister Monica who shows “a film about an American teenager whom everybody bullies because he is still a virgin.” The narrator who suddenly is astonished to discover that there are only women in the entire school, is envious of the girl sitting next to her who stains her overall and longs to be ‘ part of this sisterhood’. This sisterhood is obviously not the kind of sisterhood the convent champions. The narrator of poem ‘Afternoon in the Beauty Parlor’ says that ‘here in this small salon where the sunlit dust/enhances the drowsy hum of distant traffic/ where jealousy, men and untruthful mirrors/ are denied entrance/ is genuine sisterhood established.’ The play on the boundaries separating the Christian moralist environment and the bohemian world of western pop, morals that are taught and the real aspirations of school girls, virgins and non-virgins, cosmopolitan spaces and the small town world, men and women, girls and women, and so on produce ironic effects in her works.
The life in the convent is a semiotically hybrid one where languages of orthodox Christianity, Hollywood films , western popular music along with its icons, of formal education and a language of girlish ‘ sisterhood’ in which the narrator discovers her gender identity. This world of convent and fashion, beauty parlors, though cosmopolitan, occupies space within the heterogeneity of the small town cultural sphere. This non-bhasha space within the bhasha culture is where very often Indian English finds itself housed.
Thus, when we analyze Indian English artistic texts using cultural semiotics framework, we get a clue of the dynamic ‘Indian English’ cultural semiosphere which has shaped this text. The poets utilize the boundaries, heterogeneity and asymmetries which constitute Indian English to produce their artistic effects .The semantic tropes in these texts juxtapose disparate types of semiotic systems ranging from English, Konkani, the language of computer technology and the language of the Rama-Sita mythology, the languages of cricket, Hollywood, Bollywood, western pop, local Konkani Islam, Christianity, fashion, sandge and karanji and vermicelli to produce their artistic effects and meaning. In Kandasamy’s text the asymmetries and boundaries separating the husband and the other man, Sita myth (the patriarchal ‘Lakshman Rekha’) and ‘Mamasita’, Gandhi and the adulterer, the Ramayana and the realistic narrative, Standard English and slang are intentionally transgressed and subverted to produce the political rhetoric. In Dalvi’s poem we find boundaries separating English and non-English, Muslims and non- Muslims, Hollywood and Bollywood, Konkan and South Africa, adolescence and manhood are the meaning generating spaces .In Hasan’s poem, the boundaries separating the Christian moralist environment and the bohemian world of western pop, morals that are taught and the real aspirations of school girls, cosmopolitan spaces and the small town world, men and women, girls and women, and so on produce ironic effects. This heterogeneity, these boundaries and the asymmetries constitute Indian English semiosphere and Indian English literature thus can be profitably seen as the realization of Indian English culture.
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