Why English

‘Beti’, daughter in Hindi

I live every day inside a tower of Babel. That’s what it feels like as I stroll about the Indian cities I have lived in, acclimating to a new language with every move, being an outsider, the alien in the crowd. Around me I hear only babble. If I murmur, they tell me, sometimes reasonably and sometimes with hostility, why don’t you learn our language? I am privy to only so much of anyone’s culture that the few kind people are willing to translate, explain to me. I chose English as a raft to guide me along, through this many-tongued sea.

As a teenager, I once confessed my choice to a teacher and regretted my moment of candour immediately, as she said if you choose English you will never belong, anywhere. Maybe a few months afterwards, I would come across a poem in the library. A verse from this poem by Indian author Kamala Das went up on a wall in my bedroom. It was my answer to everyone. The part that interested me talked of why the poet was determined to write in English, no matter what other people thought of her decision. What follows is the relevant verse from the poem ‘An Introduction’,

by Kamala Das:
….“I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write inIMG_2057
Two, dream in one.
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions,….”

‘Khichdi’ is a hodge-podge dish made of grain, lentils, veggies. The British took it back with them replaced the lentils with fish, boiled egg and renamed it ‘kedgeree’. What we are as a nation is this melange of intersecting languages and dilaects.

I had wall-crowned this section because I too wanted to claim ownership of the language of my choosing, one which was not necessarily a native-born tongue. I was weary of feeling displaced and not being able to own the language of my identity like everyone else fiercely did in this country of a myriad tongues. And though at the time I was not able to intuit it, I sensed subversion in that verse. The poet was trying to topple the normal notions of what General Indian English users were—toffee-nosed elitists. Their language and their way of life came with the baggage of their former imperial, colonial masters. Indian English speakers had access to resources denied to the vast majority of a desperately poor country.

As time marched forward mutely, for me English came to mean many things. Instead of being the language of elitism, it actually turned out to be the language I used to overcome a different type of colonialism, which started being practised in the country after independence. My country decided to choose one language, Hindi, spoken in a large number of central and northern states as a lingua franca, to be the national language. But this was not the language spoken in numerous other states. Inside the man-made boundaries of the states, languages mutated continually breaking up into dialects, changing shape, form and intonation from one area to the next, keeping pace with five thousands years of complex migration patterns.

But slowly, a new kind of bigotry was foisted on the country. In the Bollywood cinema of the ’70s, anyone that spoke Hindi differently was routinely derided. Bollywood held a mirror up tIMG_2062o society, but in reality it was more a two-way mirror and there was a constant stream of ideas being exchanged. As a child going to a pan-Indian school in the ’80s attended by people from different parts of India, I felt the pressing need to fit in, speak correct Hindi without what was regarded as an uncouth accent. Mainstream Indians must never detect my divergence from the median. Hearing no Hindi at home, I learned mine from text-books and Bollywood cinema of the ’80’s. Later in the ’90s, I even had a friend who took me under her wing to tutor me in the correct manner of those who are manor-born into Hindi. It was exhausting, as I could never be chaste enough.

In English, I found liberation and subversion. English was not just the language of the elite, it was going to become the symbol of an aspirational middle class urban India. Politicians who railed about the sanctity of the mother tongue—and how it needed to be imposed on us meeker mortals in the outer states of the south and the north-east—were all sending their sons to study in very English universities abroad. English-medium education was to become a rage among the rising middle classes, which was as obsessively aspirational as it was indignant of an English-speaking elite looking down upon them. There are two kinds of people in my country—the self-important who put themselves up on pedestals of their own making, and the perpetually aggrieved mob around them determined to knock them down. Over a generation, one can morph into the other.

The goal of the middle classes was to beat the insufferable elite at its own game. The very people forcing, on a rainbow-tongued country, the idea of the one languaIMG_2064ge and the one culture, wanted to make sure their children were as toffee-nosed as the people they resented, with the caveat that the children would also be watchfully inculcated in the ceremonies and customs of their ancient culture. They would not have them behave like the effete “brown sahibs” of yore, who eschewed the values of their own ethnicity in favour of the alien ethics of a colonial white aristocracy.

And now this new India has come of age. The bitter loathing felt towards the old Indian English elite has been handed down a generation to bi-lingual children educated in the English medium. Grown up now, they write of their long-standing resentments proudly and candidly in their own Indian English mass literature, which is to be distinguished from an intricate, convoluted style of Indian literary writing in English of a previous era. This new popular Indian writing is less self-aware, may give offence and often betrays its upper-middling caste-class prejudices without knowing it is doing so. Even if the authors know, they feel free to air their inherited grudges in this new India their parents worked furiously to reinvent. The elite have fallen from their pedestals, the empire struck back.


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