Farrukh Dhondy’s latest novel London Company (Hachette, 2012) makes for a mesmerising exercise in exploring the ‘uses and abuses’ of English by the Indian immigrant, no longer ready to live by the melancholic trinity of ‘silence, cunning and exile’ (to quote the arch Irish immigrant litterateur James Joyce). A fictionalised account of the author’s own experience of the heady days of anti-racist politics in 1960s and ’70s London, especially that of his affiliation and eventual critical distancing of himself from the British Black Panther Party,
London Company is a rewarding work of literature for a number of reasons, chief of which is the protagonist’s position as a writer and a teacher of, lo behold, English language at a community boys school.
In the novel, the narrator-hero-writer-teacher Farrukh Dhondy emerges from being a penniless, homeless, but Cambridge-educated, yet unemployed, youth making a life first in Leicester, then in London, with his girlfriend and live-in partner Natasha, to become a ‘multiculturalist writer’ of some acclaim. This multiculturalist coming-of-age story is a testament not only of the politically and socio-culturally volatile and trying times, but also a narrative of how the ‘English language’, once an imposition and cultural impediment to Dhondy’s ancestors, now comes to the aid of this bumbling immigrant, still scrounging around to get a foothold in the shifting sands of British society undergoing mammoth transmogrification.
While attending the clandestine meetings of the Black British Movement, wherein Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis brainstorm together with Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Nigerians, Kenyans, Arabs and Turks, Dhondy initially also edits the underground propaganda magazine that acts as a platform to voice the immigrant concerns, but mostly, sensationalises untoward news related to Asians in Britain. He battles the everyday insults that being Indian, a ‘brownie’, causes him to suffer, such as being turned away by home-owners and not being offered good jobs or a bearable tenancy.
His situation of being a creative writer in English is also ridiculed: ‘But you the artist, eh? You dream and the woman sweat, eh? … Your writer think he’s Gandhi, eh? … You stay at home with your typewriter. Is rubbish, eh?’ However, his fate takes a turn for the better when he lands a job at a church school, because he has ‘replaced Mr. Preston (as he is) a young man who has two MA Honours degrees, one from Cambridge, no less, which Preston didn’t have of course…’ Proficiency in English, and the Cambridge tag, undoubtedly facilitated, albeit in a far-fetched manner, by Macaulay’s Education Minute of more than a century back, this time around has switched sides to act on behalf of the formerly colonised, now the immigrants in the Western world, giving them firsthand and a more thorough access to politics, philosophy, feminism, cinema, world movements, as much as the sexual and anti-racist revolutions happening worldwide.
In his earlier novel Bombay Duck, Dhondy relates the title to an Indian fish preparation, also called ‘bummalo’ and hints at how the dried sea-fish has transformed itself into a new avatar, that of a duck, when it was transported to a different linguistic and cultural world. In a subtle manner, Dhondy hints at the metamorphosis that the English-educated Indian in the West must undergo, in a sort of self-refashioning and self-rediscovery, to create a brand new self, one that is both Indian as well as Western.
Dhondy also makes a case for the continuity of the process, in the sense that it doesn’t matter whether one is a first, second, third or fourth generation immigrant or a twenty-first century transnational professional at home in the travelling circuits of mobile culture and nomadic language — one still has to forge and fight one’s own battles with the tangled world of multicultural encounters, and there will always be the link with his/her supposed place of origin, whether India, Jamaica or Kenya.
When Dhondy’s service is terminated at the church school in Lambeth, it is not because of any deficiency in his English language tutoring skills, but rather for his radical political beliefs and siding with the Black British movement. It is here that the ironies of the double-edged sword of the English language makes its effects felt at an extreme. Even a century back, the imposition of English-medium schooling had eventually led to the transplantation of the nineteenth century European nationalism (which had often coagulated around a linguistic crystal) on to the Indian subcontinent.
While the multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic India was really a cluster of in-fighting kingdoms and fiefdoms since the decline of the Mughal dynasty after Emperor Aurangzeb, it was after English was superimposed onto the splintered fabric of the subcontinent that a nascent idea of nationalism began to take shape in the vigorous minds of the English-educated liberal elites, who now wanted to get rid of the exploitative British Raj and forge the independent Indian nation themselves. This unwitting fall out of British English education is another example of the dualities of a liberal, humanist education. It doesn’t stop with what it had begun: it writes and rewrites histories, again and again.
As Dhondy ironises the vicissitudes of being an English teacher in England, who is ‘Indian in blood and color’, as a belated rebuttal to the past, not a non-sequitur but a deliberately delayed repartee of a banter stretching out over two centuries, he also presages the commercial explosion, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, of the English Language Teaching facilities, spearheaded mostly by the British Council, but not limited to it certainly. The twin galaxies of multicultural literary writing (as Dhondy’s character also ends up doing) and the expanding frontiers of English language teaching worldwide are not separate, but intertwined developments.
The pleasures afforded by the metaphorical multiplicities proffered up by the ever self-enriching English language, as it copulates, mates, hybridises, fuses with other languages, European, Indian or Asian, and becomes hickory-dickory, hotchpotch, mish-mashed, mismatched, jumbled, jigsawed, serrated, slippery and many-sided, creating wonderful and forever illuminating literary and cultural experiences, they also betray a covert operation of building a subterranean system, both lubricated as well as gridlocked by the exponential uses of English.
The global language is also the instrument of a power bloc, represented by the Anglophone world, awash with immigrants nonetheless, which is continuing with its decrepit ‘liberal humanist mission’ but now designed to suit the modern needs and requirement of an English literacy.