A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Interdisciplinary Teaching in English Literature: Old Hat or New Perspectives?

Nidhi Verma

 In recent times, there has been a lot of academic brouhaha about interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary pedagogical practice allows the teacher to cross the traditional boundaries of discipline centred teaching by drawing from two or more academic disciplines to approach the text. Though the term has been in currency for a long time, in the Indian context it has gained popularity only recently.   

The very discipline of English literature demands an active awareness of other disciplines. Fiction, however removed from the real world, takes its basis from the author’s background and sensibilities. No study of literature can be done in isolation and relies heavily on other disciplines, especially social sciences to heighten the understanding of the text. So even before the concept and theories of interdisciplinarity gained currency, literature teaching meant integrating academic disciplines.

Bringing a literary text to class involves contexualising it in vies of its author, the time period it was set in, the socio-political climate and the philosophical thoughts of the age. Depending on the dominant themes in the text, the literature teacher delves into aspects of history, philosophy, psychology and science. The realms of theatre, dance, music and art are closely associated with the Humanities, different branches of arts drawing upon each other for inspiration. Film studies is another area that cannot be ignored when studying texts which have been adapted into feature films.  In that sense, an interdisciplinary study is old hat for English teachers. They have to take a holistic approach to the text—which means that they have been using this method of teaching much before it became popular as a new method of pedagogy.

The commonest example of interdisciplinary study in English teaching can be seen in the complex and interrelated relationship between history and literature. Understanding of history is fundamental to the analysis of literary texts. Literature reflects history, and history shapes literature. Several literary texts can be interpreted in parts or entirety, and the implicit ideological concerns of the author better understood, only when placed against the backdrop of a particular historical context. In the teaching of one of the most popular novels of Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, the English teacher must bring the French Revolution to life before the students. The novel is set in the period between 1757 and 1794, and no understanding of the novel would be complete without a comprehensive knowledge of the turbulent history of France during the time of the revolution. Dickens researched the revolution extensively before writing his novel, and this shows in the remarkable historical accuracy of various events in the novel. The Fall of the Bastille, on June 14, 1789 is depicted with a chilling veracity in the text. Dickens’ Hard Times is best understood when equipped with the reading of Industrial Revolution and the social changes it brought about.

Closer home the teaching of Partition literature in an English classroom necessarily involves an interdisciplinary approach. The Partition has had a huge impact on an entire generation of Indians, and it would be difficult to teach any text set during the period without bringing in obvious references to history, geography, politics, sociology and even psychology.          Saadat Hassan Manto’s story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’, published in 1955, is part of the syllabus at University of Delhi. It is the tale of the inmates of an asylum in Lahore who are to be shifted to India following the decision of Partition. Bishen Singh, one of the inmates, is perturbed by the move, since he is unable to come to terms with leaving his own town. The story ends with him choosing to just lie between the two countries’ boundaries, in the no-man’s-land, saying that he would accept this neutral area as his village.

 In a largely North Indian milieu, lot of students have at least one grandparent or great grandparent who has a personal partition story. In teaching the text, class discussions often move beyond the macro politics of formation of nation(s) to individual life stories, of history from above and below. A realisation of the pain of leaving one’s homeland, of suddenly being plucked from your roots and being transplanted to a new country, are all seminal to understanding Bishen Singh’s pain. It is difficult, if not impossible to delve into disciplines that go beyond mere appreciation of language or idiom.

In dealing with Partition, the teacher brings in an interdisciplinary approach and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is often evoked. The text gives a detailed historical and cultural account so that even a person unfamiliar with the Partition would be able to understand the text. The rituals of the Sikhs, the Hindus and the Muslims are presented as part of the narrative.  It is almost as if history were being brought alive through the human characters depicted in the novel.  Political events, and their effects on the common people, form the basis of the novel. Politics, sociology, geography and history form the bedrock of any interpretation of the novel and the text cannot be treated solely in terms of its literary aesthetics.

Train to Pakistan depicts the human aspect of the political and historical event. The human angle presents a very compassionate picture of the horrors of partition. The story revolves around a Sikh village goon, Jugga who loves a Muslim girl, Nooran. The tensions between the Sikhs and Muslim are pointed out early in the novel, ‘According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.’ (Singh, 2012, p.1)

 Khushwant Singh does not allow the reader to blame the violence on any particular ethnic group. He makes it clear that all were affected by the situation they found themselves in. The residents of Mano Majra lived a peaceful existence until the village money-lender Ramlal is killed, and Jugga is held as a prime suspect. Whether it is the regional magistrate Hukum Chand, Jugga or Iqbal, the social reformer, Singh shows how each is entrapped in a web of circumstances. When in the end when the Muslim families are to be transported in a train to Pakistan, Jugga discovers the plan to attack the train and kill them. Nooran too is to be on this train and Jugga, a common ‘goonda’ upto now emerges as the hero of the piece when he sacrifices his own life to save the people.  

Like ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Train to Pakistan raises issues of displacement and migration. The Partition is the hugest and saddest episode of mass migration in the history of the Indian subcontinent, and interesting debates stirred in class. Most Muslim students, several of whom come from the walled city, still have relatives in Pakistan. They shared experiences of meeting relatives from across the border and the problems faced by families due to political differences among the two countries. Sikh and Hindu students too had stories of their grandparents’ experiences to narrate. Multiple and contrasting histories emerged in class from students due to their differing religious sensibilities. A student interestingly compared Jugga’s selfless sacrifice to Meenakshi Iyer’s decision to save Raja Choudhary in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Iyer by claiming that he was her husband, and therefore a Hindu.

Thus the oral telling of personal histories became an integral part of the classroom experience for this text. Oral narratives recalled through memory complimented the historical and literary texts reiterating a complex relationship between culture and memory. The memory of the dislocation caused by the Partition continues to shape the psyche of the people. The drawing from different disciplines and recounting of life histories gave the students a greater insight into the text as well as the historical period it is set in.

 Although hackneyed, it is true that all literature is a product of its age. With this in mind, it is of utmost importance that teachers of English literature contextualise the literary text within its historical, social and political milieu. Most teachers at University of Delhi employ interdisciplinary pedagogical practices in their classrooms, however this does not happen in a structured fashion and the onus seems to lie solely in the hands of the individual teacher. Perhaps it would be useful to have workshops or seminars at intra-college level to begin with to allow students and teachers from different disciplines to exchange ideas and readings to help them synthesise insights from across disciplines.  Such platforms would provide opportunities to discuss and analyse areas from beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries and perspectives to a wider holistic approach that will help dissolve boundaries between different academic streams of study.


Chakraborty, Basudeb. The essentials of Indianness: Tolerance and sacrifice in Indian partition fiction in English and in English translation. Retrieved October 20, 2013 from http://rupkatha.com/indian-partition-fiction/#more-291

Cowasjee, Saros & Vasant A. Shahane( Eds.). (1981). Modern Indian fiction. New Delhi:   Vikas Publishing House.Dickens, Charles (1859). A tale of two cities. Retrieved October 20, 2013 from       http://www.gutenberg.org/files/98/98-h/98-h. htm

Dickens, Charles (1905). Hard times. Retrieved October20, 2013 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/786/786-h/786-h.htm

Griffin, Gabriele (2005). Research methods for English studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna. (2008). A concise history of Indian literature in English. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Manto, Saadat Hassan. (1997). Mottled dawn: Fifty sketches of partition. New Delhi: Penguin  Books.

Nayyar, Pramod K.(2008). An introduction to cultural studies. New Delhi: Viva Books.

Singh, Khushwant. (2012). Train to Pakistan. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal. (Original work published 1956)

Nidhi Verma

Nidhi Verma is Assistant Professor at Mata Sundri College, University of Delhi. Apart from studying literature, she has done MPWE(Management Programme for Women Enterpreneurs) from IIM, Bangalore and is the founder of the online book library, www.bookmea book.com.