Black water | The curious tale of a 19th century Indian learner of English

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I recently met Dr Atanu Bhattacharya who has an intriguing hobby; he’s been collecting English language learning resources published in India in the pre-Independence area. While I think that’s a fascinating area of research, I’m more interested in the experiences of early English language learners from the colonies of the former British Empire. In a sense, people like me – the English speaking folk of Kachru’s outer circle in places such as India, Kenya, Nigeria, Singapore and Belize, are the product of a process (for better or for worse) that began with language learners in colonial times.

My great-grandfather was probably the first person in his family to learn and speak English. It’s possible his father spoke English as well but we have no records or memories of it. I know for certain that none of the women spoke English well into the first half of the 20th century because they were a profoundly patriarchal people, and orthodox in their observations of ritual and custom, which of course included some less than progressive attitudes towards women.

I’ve always wondered how the experience of learning English and becoming an English speaker changed my great-grandfather. Living as he did in British India, English must have improved his career prospects (as it continues to do today) and perhaps social standing in his little town. What impact did it have on the intensely religious world he lived in? Was there suddenly a dichotomy between an English worldly life and an Indian spiritual existence? Did he keep the two apart or did each influence the other? Or did one recede as the other grew in strength?

In the 19th century, a man of some learning named Muhammad Jafar Thanesari fell in with some extremists who were attempting to mount an insurrection across Northern India. In 1863, he was caught, convicted and sent to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, a British Indian penal colony to serve an 18-year sentence. Here, Jafar did two remarkable things. He learnt English and collected a set of experiences which would eventually culminate in an autobiography written in Urdu, published a couple of decades later in Delhi. His book, Kala Pani: Tavarikh e Ajeeb – The Black Water: a Strange Story describes his time in the Andamans and also documents his experience of learning English. The black water in the title refers to the Bay of Bengal across which the Andamans lie. I came across Thanesari in Charles Allen’s book, God’s Terrorists but for this post I’ve referred to an English translation of selected chapters from Thanesari’s book published in The Annual of Urdu Studies.

Thanesari devotes two chapters of Kala Pani to the English language. The first, ‘Learning English’ describes how he got started on his language learning journey and the professional opportunities and corresponding financial benefits he then had access to.

In 1872, on the exhortation of Rām Sarūp, who knew English, I made an earnest effort to learn the language and I gained reasonable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing. My facility with English improved rapidly since I used to tutor the British officers in the Persian, Urdu, and Hindi languages and spent much time conversing with them in order to explain the lessons and while checking their English translation exercises. Also, at that time, due to the shortage of clerks, other government employees were not prohibited from preparing applications and petitions, so I too started writing these documents in English. This additional work was not only instrumental in my acquiring advanced linguistic skills, it also resulted in my collecting thousands of rupees. Indeed, with these two occupations, tutoring the officials and writing petitions, my total monthly earnings were never less than a hundred rupees (Thanesari, 1884: Ch. 30).

The chapter continues in this optimistic tone and Thanesari describes how he was able to use his new English skills to help other convicts, perhaps even saving some of them from the hangman’s noose.

Being the only Muslim who was conversant in English, I could assist fellow Muslims in their dealings with the courts, and I managed to get many of them acquitted from terrible allegations and trials. That my knowledge benefited many people is likely to be remembered for a long time. Certainly, those who were exculpated and escaped death by hanging will not forget me for the rest of their lives! (Thanesari, 1884: Ch. 30).

He goes on to highlight the ostensibly beneficial changes that English triggered in the way he saw the world, through ideas that are perhaps oddly familiar to us and could have been expressed by someone learning the language today.

Having learned English, I visited many large libraries and browsed through hundreds of books on a variety of disciplines and arts. Perhaps no language exists whose grammar English authors have not compiled, nor any country whose history has not been described in great depth and detail in some English books. The English language is the abode of sciences and arts. A person who does not know English cannot be fully aware of world affairs. Unless one learns English, one cannot be business minded and dynamic. Nor can a person earn a living these days without learning English (Thanesari, 1884: Ch. 30).

“Nor can a person earn a living these days without learning English” – some things really haven’t changed! But this cheerful outlook doesn’t persist in the subsequent chapter where Thanesari talks about the inner struggle of being pulled in different directions by two very different worlds. 

I stopped attending Friday assemblies and other congregational prayers. I lost all interest in reading or listening to the Qurʾān or the Traditions. All I wanted to do instead was read some English book … Thus I was on the precipice of infidelity, and was about to fall in (Thanesari, 1884: Ch. 31).

And he comes to a startling conclusion. 
But while this language offers much worldly benefit, the harm and peril it poses for the faith are graver … (Thanesari, 1884: Ch. 30).
In the times we live in, it’s easy to write off Thanesari as yet another fanatic. But having read all the sections of The Black Water: a Strange Story that are available in translation, I think he comes across as a very thoughtful, complex and nuanced person. He also for instance describes the indigenous Andaman islanders (who the British and settlers from the Indian mainland have driven to near-extinction) in objective, almost ethnographic language. He suggests sympathetically that while the islanders “do not practice any religion, or have any priests or religious authorities, … they are an honest, upright, truthful, and sincere people, with a certain morality and humaneness of their own.”
Towards the end of his account, he celebrates the melting pot of cultures and peoples he experienced in Port Blair.
I think that perhaps no other place on the surface of this earth has more ethnic diversity than here. … God has indeed created a marvel by raising a crowd here unmatched elsewhere in the world.
When a Bengali man weds a Madrasi woman, or a Bhutanese man weds a Punjabi woman, and so on, the husband and wife do not understand each other’s native language. When they disagree or quarrel with each other, and curse each other in their own tongues, they create a bizarre scene. When invited to a wedding, the women from various ethnic backgrounds dress in their native costumes, perform different rituals and ceremonies that belong to their own traditions, and sing and dance differently. This is, indeed, another sight worth watching!
The sectarian and ethnic prejudices that chronically plague Indians in India have disappeared here altogether. (Thanesari, 1884: Ch. 39).
I am deeply moved by Muhammad Jafar Thanesari’s story and in particular the paroxysms of doubt and spiritual turmoil he experienced as he tried to negotiate his beliefs and values with the new identity he thought he was assuming through the English language.
To hear this Indian learner of English from the 19th century speak to us in his own words through the ages is quite incredible and there must be countless others in the Subcontinent and across the globe who’ve documented their language learning experience and the impact it had on the many worlds in which they dwelt. I hope Thanesari is the first of many I’ll encounter.
Kala Pani
Pages from the Urdu version of Kala Pani: Tavarikh e Ajeeb – The Black Water: a Strange Story in the Nastaliq script

Image attribution

The two images in this post are in the Public Domain.

2 Replies to “Black water | The curious tale of a 19th century Indian learner of English”

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