Combing through page after page of academic writing can be frustrating. Surprisingly, it’s not grammatical inaccuracy that I find cumbersome—it’s the feeling that a paper is somehow deficient in imagination.
As I dwell on my peculiar hunt for imagination in academic writing, I run a quick search on the OED website. Imagination is “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses”. Surely, it must exist in every individual? The reality, however, is that we live in an unequal world, where a good education translates to proficiency in English. An ideal education, however, encourages the unabashed, often risky, decision to run with one’s imagination. When I read a paper that can flesh out an argument effectively, I have less of an issue with the formal aspects of language. I can even assert that there is no snobbery in my approach because it’s the matter that I evaluate, not the writer. But is it? The reality that we live in an unequal world also means that one person’s imagination is given more room to blossom than another’s.
There are obvious hurdles to writing in a second language: mother tongue influence, inadequate resources, local truths lost in translation… Above all else, I find that in its attempt to communicate in English, the writing often ends up compromising on authentic, creative thought. In other words, the writer’s spark is diffused by her constant bargaining with this stubborn language. As much as I admire writers whose words and ideas share an effortlessly playful relationship, I am more arrested by papers with a visible struggle. I roll my eyes at seemingly blatant errors in sentence construction, but then catch myself and ask—does the logic here stem from the writer’s native language? Is this just “lazy writing” or a systemic flaw?
I am taken back a few years to my undergraduate class. We were struggling to grapple with the idea of Dalit literature even as we read Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan in translation. The very notion of the canon comes into question, our professor said. This writing, which came from a reality of hard, manual labour and historical oppression, confronted us with the truth that our long-standing notions of “standard” language and “good” writing were based on a kind of soft elitism. No, we weren’t directly responsible for anyone’s oppression, but we did invariably fuel the cycle of meritocracy. I shall pull a humanities cliché and quote Gayatri Spivak—we were really leaving no room for the subaltern to speak.
Back at the editing table (which is simply my laptop), these big questions water down to a few logistical problems. How can I be invisible, as an editor must, and retain the author’s voice, if I am also to ensure that their writing meets the house style? As a team, we query authors on certain usages, especially if they clearly come from non-English words. In my work, I take a personal interest in the issue of capitalisation. It was in a performance studies class at Jawaharlal Nehru University, during my master’s, that I first engaged with this question in the context of non-Western forms. We don’t capitalise “ballet” or “fencing”—both have the luxury of being common nouns in English, a status that grants them immense freedom. I have since begun to shed the capitalisation from “bharatanatyam” and “kalaripayattu”, as many writers have been doing for years. But then, I come across Pung Cholom of Manipur for the first time. Am I at liberty to determine the freedom that this word—indeed, this tradition—can have? Despite the argument that capitalisation contributes to the exoticisation and othering of a word, I can also appreciate that it grants a term autonomy in an ecosystem where liberal intellectuals are quick to assume authority even as they raise their pens against cultural appropriation.
Along with Dalit literature, my undergraduate class also read about the Negritude movement. We talked about the struggle for a discursive space—the fight to reclaim existence in the imagination (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does in her famous TED talk, “The danger of a single story”), and therefore, in language. Black American writer and academic, Gloria Jean Watkins, performs her politics through the irreverence of a pseudonym printed in lowercase: bell hooks. Likewise, Omprakash Valmiki’s writing shatters the idea of the proverb—a pure, timeless, “literary” feature of language—by stating quite plainly: “our proverbs come from work”—Dalit writing is rife with the experience of hard, manual labour. As a college student with a growing interest in the arts, writers like these excited me because they showed, through their craft, the possibility of subversion.
While novelists or poets are still free to write in the language of their choosing, most researchers are confined to the language that dominates academia—English. They are forced to stuff their rich understanding of a subject into a narrow lexicon that does not account for the relationship between the idea and the thing. Natya, to use a widely discussed example, translates loosely to “dance” or “theatre”; however, it is clear from several Sanskrit forms (such as Koodiyattam) that there is no separation between dance and theatre. Natya, nritya (dance with narrative), and nritta (pure dance) find unity in Sanskrit aesthetics; their English translations produce an immediate fragmentation. Perhaps writing can only ooze politics if its fissures exist by design. As an editor, I often wonder, can I carry these cracks through without imposing my boundaries on the writing?
The convention of italicising a non-English word only at first mention seems a viable way to bhasha-ise a piece of writing. The idea is to question the notion of “pure” English through active bhasha- and bastard-isation. If even the Android operating system can recognise Indian English—it appears as “English (India)” on their drop-down menu of language preferences—can Indian academics not pave the way towards even more agile and fluid Englishes? Confusing as it is to parse a sentence that uses a non-English word, it forces me to consider the writer’s reality. This is why a bot cannot replace an editor: there is a certain humanity in editing that a mere proofing software cannot offer.
Once again, I meander back to my time as a student at JNU. A research scholar who had until that point read and researched in Hindi was suddenly in a department that required her to write a thesis in English. She had evaded an arranged marriage to study; meanwhile, the promise of the infamous non-NET university fellowship allayed her parents’ worries for the time being. The stakes were high: if she failed, she’d lose her chance to study and would quite possibly be thrust into a marriage she had no interest in. We would sometimes meet in the hostel mess, where she would tell me how she was struggling to write in English, and how her parents were waiting for any excuse to bring her back home. I too had grown impatient. “Why can’t she own the situation?”, I remember thinking. Why couldn’t she use her imagination and find another way out?
“They teach you the difference between ‘was doing’ and ‘is doing’ and ‘has done’,” she said to me at breakfast one morning. “How is that going to help me write a thesis now?”