Being Telugu in English
As someone who writes in English, I have often wondered about the role of English in the vernacular world. Our debates about vernacular literature have focused mainly on issues of authenticity, especially its alleged lack among Indians who write in English. But it seems to me that writing in English can serve one important function that a narrow focus on authenticity issues distracts us from. Writing in English, I believe, can help us be vernacular without becoming provincial. Without English, or some sort of engagement with the world outside one's own, the vernacular can turn into an artifice, a state-supported pickle-jar exhibit, and worse, a language without a voice in the world to speak for itself.
I do not know if this has been the case with speakers and writers in Indian languages that have been more engaged externally through English, translation, and national and international publishing in general, but Telugu has often seemed to me to be seriously lacking in representation on a wider cultural scale. Despite being a fairly vibrant and successful emigrant community, Telugus do not quite seem to register their culture on others in the way that other communities do when they leave their homelands. We seem to be everywhere, and in every profession. We have one of India's largest film industries, and a thriving vernacular news media. Yet, we are barely known, and rarely in the manner that we know ourselves. For one thing, our language is still misspelled, frequently, in English as Tel-e-gu. Our nickname, derived from engineering hostel slang, is the improbable "Gult". I suppose one could say at least we have got one now, and that marks an improvement over the generic "Madrasi" label of the past.
Telugu pride may not be a political force today in the manner symbolised by N.T. Rama Rao in the 1980s, but I believe that it is important for Telugu people to step into a wider realm of cultural self-representation than they have done so far. The great mahasabhas offer an opportunity to celebrate Teluguness and announce official measures to preserve it. But making Telugu a compulsory language in schools or insisting that shopkeepers use Telugu signage are not the only things a language needs. What we need, I think, is a voice for our vernacular culture (or what's left of it, a somewhat conservative streak in me adds) that can be heard beyond the speakers of our language. We have perhaps become too complacent about keeping our worlds separate, living and rejoicing in our own inner Telugu worlds on the one hand and using English or Hindi as bare tools for getting by with others. We need to engage, culturally, with others. We need to encourage our children to pursue careers beyond engineering and medicine, and explore expression in art, journalism, and writing. We need to better record our rich cinema history. We need to make DVDs with quality subtitling in other languages — the paucity of something as mundane as this keeps Telugu culture from reaching a wider audience. Most of all, we need to write, in English, and in other languages, and write our Teluguness into it. I do not have a definition for what Teluguness is, but I know it is at the deepest core of who I am. I can think of myself, after all, not just as an Indian Writing in English, but equally, as a Telugu Writing in English. It is through the lens of Telugu culture and sensibility that I know what it means to be Indian, Hindu, or indeed human. But I live this, whatever this is, in English more than any other language. That is the lot of my generation. It is my hope, therefore, that the next World Telugu Conference will be more about the world too, and include the voices of those whose Teluguness speaks in tongues other than Telugu. It is my hope, ultimately, that the gift of Telugu will be a light unto a world bigger than us, and for that, Telugu must find a home outside its own too.
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