(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
The modern era of European colonialism began in the Americas with bands of adventurers seeking El Dorado. It evolved into predatory monopolies like the East India Company and ended with European states exerting direct control over the economic and political life of the colonies. Alongside came great developments in the art of controlling the natives, through military, political, and cultural means. Let’s look at some cultural means of controlling the natives, particularly through language.
When it comes to colonial quests, military might is what breaches the metaphorical Gates of Damascus. Regime change follows. Thereafter, the most efficient and durable means of colonial control happens via culture. Culture holds the keys to how a group sees itself and knows its place in the world. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o—acclaimed Kenyan novelist, professor, and author of Decolonizing the Mind—has pointed out, ‘Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.’ 
When done right, the native comes to elevate and mimic his master’s ways, to see his own culture as inferior, and to look down on his past as ‘a wasteland of non-achievement’. He begins to defer to the colonizer’s ideas on fundamental things like beauty, art, and politics. In time, he begins to understand himself and his culture through the eyes of the colonizer—using the latter’s concepts, categories, and judgments. Before too long, he turns into a proxy for his master: colonialism with a native face.
How does the colonizer gain such control? The easiest method is to actively spread his language among the natives, and to simultaneously denigrate the language of the natives as crude and unfit for proper education. It is amazing how much mileage this delivers. Make the colonizer’s language the lingua franca of imperial administration, accord prestige and upward mobility to those who learn it in colonial schools, and before too long, there is a feeding frenzy among a native minority. Such has been the way of the great colonialists of history: the Arabs in the 7-8th centuries, the British and the French in the 19th, the Russians with the Baltic States in the 20th. Ngugi writes,
For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature, and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer. The domination of a people’s language by the language of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized.
Take colonial India. A great debate ensued in 1830s Britain on the choice of an official language of colonial administration and education. Making the winning case for English over Sanskrit, Persian, and others, Thomas B. Macaulay—a member of the Supreme Council of India—observed that Indian languages ‘contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.’ He admitted that he did not know any Indian languages but had nevertheless reached ‘a correct estimate of their value.’ Citing the Orientalists of his day, he said, ‘I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ Therefore, concluded Macaulay, ‘we have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother tongue. We must teach them some foreign language.’ 
Language is not a neutral vessel for conveying the ideas, beliefs, and values that constitute culture. Nor is it a mere tool for describing the world as it truly is—no language can be said to describe the world as it truly is. To use a language—any language—is to interpret the world in a particular way. Shared ways of seeing, or culture, emerge through the shared use of language. In other words, culture is organically intertwined with language, evolving together to create a unique collective sensibility. No wonder language is so central to our identity and why so many political divisions have linguistic borders. Indeed, language profoundly shapes the way its incoming speakers think (this may be partly why it makes sense to speak of an ‘Anglophone culture’), an idea that now finds support among cognitive scientists. Bilingual folks think differently when they immerse themselves in different languages. 
Colonial Languages and African Literature
In the late 19th and 20th century Africa, colonial regimes began mandating the exclusive use of European languages in missionary and state supported schools. The language of an African child’s formal education soon became foreign, writes Ngugi. ‘The language of books he read was foreign. The language of his conceptualization was foreign. Thought, in him, took the visible form of a foreign language.’ In Kenya, Ngugi himself studied every subject in English at school but spoke Gikuyu at home—a language spoken by more people than speakers of Danish or Croatian. ‘There was often not the slightest relationship between [English], and the world of his immediate environment in the family and the community.’ Indeed, it was even worse:
One of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking [Gikuyu] in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment — three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks — or was made to carry a metal plate around his neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. The children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.
Ngugi, born into a large peasant family, was baptised James Ngugi and educated in English, a language that evolved in a very different culture. It was used to convey different ideas of self, individual, community, nature, time, beauty, loyalty, respect, kinship terms, humor, idioms, gender roles, animals, and so much else. Moreover, it was alien to the language-world of Ngugi’s daily life in Kenya—of the streets, boyhood fights, swear words, commerce, labor, family, love, food, festivals, geography, plants, etc. Not only that, his own language was ‘associated in his impressionable mind with low status, humiliation, corporal punishment, slow-footed intelligence’ and worse. If the bullet was the means of physical subjugation, writes Ngugi, language was the means of spiritual subjugation of the African child, resulting ‘in the dissociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation.’ 
What then to make of literature written in European languages by Africans? What does it mean to write a realistic novel in which African peasants and factory workers speak English or French? Can a writer, his formal education entirely in English, capture in it the tenor and rhythms of ordinary African life? What tradition of the English language novel does the African writer look up to? Ngugi argues for classifying their work— including that of talented writers like Achebe, Soyinka, Armah, Ousmane, and others—not as African literature but as Afro-European literature, i.e., ‘literature written by Africans in European languages.’
After all, says Ngugi, such writers are products of a hybrid culture of a small African minority, one marked by ‘colonial alienation’. Meanwhile, Europeans—unable to relate as easily to literature in native tongues (and even in translation)—are instinctively drawn to European language works from Africa, which seem to them African flavors of their own language-worlds. Add the impact of modern economics, global media, publishing, and the scholarship industry in the West, and soon, a lot of people start equating European-language works with African literature (squeezing the life out of indigenous literary forms). Ngugi challenges this equation. African literature, he argues, can only be written in languages with long and organic roots in African culture. A colonial language largely external to it cannot adequately express the local ways of being—to believe that it can is to erroneously see language as a mere tool and vessel of culture, interchangeable with any other language.
So where did this viewpoint lead Ngugi? Though he wrote his early literary works in English, he now writes only in Gikuyu (and then translates into English). He abandoned English in mid-career, soon after his great polemic, Decolonizing the Mind, came out in 1986. He recounts in it a story from his early career, when he attended the African Writers Conference in Kampala, which invited only authors writing in English. ‘What is African Literature?’ was a much debated question at the conference, about which he wrote:
The fact is that all of us who opted for European languages—the conference participants and the generation that followed them—accepted that fatalistic logic [of the unassailable position of English in our literature] to a greater of lesser degree. We were guided by it and the only question which preoccupied us was how best to make the borrowed tongues carry the weight of our African experience by, for instance, making them ‘prey’ on African proverbs and other peculiarities of African speech and folklore.
English and Indian Literature
Ngugi’s experience in Kenya will resonate with many Indians. I myself grew up in the Hindi belt, in the central Indian city of Gwalior. Though I went to an English medium school run by Carmelite nuns, I only spoke Hindi at home and in my neighborhood until I left home for college. In the classroom—except in the Hindi class—I too was required to speak only English. Failure to comply meant public embarrassment. Though English had little relevance to my everyday life, I recall how parents in our neighborhood—of middleclass professionals in a textile factory—took pride in their children’s English skills, but none ever for Hindi. English had become a class marker; one used it to distinguish oneself from the riff-raff. Even today it is spoken by a small minority and floats atop a host of indigenous mother tongues. 
By the time I went to school, English had already acquired enormous practical benefits. Like a goddess, it offered new visions to converts like me, opened new doors, gave me access to a more dominant culture and a global economy where English proficiency is an undeniable asset. But my point here is neither about the benefits of English, nor to lament the course of history—who knows what an alternate history might have been? Rather it is to recall the politics surrounding the arrival and the spread of English in the colonies, to reflect on the reach and the world of the Indian writer in English, and—for the sake of a more complete accounting—to consider the costs that our attitude to English and its parent culture continues to extract from us. Following Ngugi on African writing, should we not also wonder whether Indian writing in English qualifies as Indian or as Indo-European literature (i.e., literature written by Indians in a European language), with Indian literature referring only to works in languages with long and pervasive roots in Indian cultures?
Such reflection also illuminates many contemporary trends in the Subcontinent. For instance, the deeply ingrained hierarchies of language and literary culture that Indian elites, including myself, subscribe to even sixty years after independence. Oh, how we crave Anglo-American recognition for our writing on India and let it drive our sense of literary merit! If target markets and economics explained all, the Danes and the Dutch, quite proficient in English, would have similar attitudes. There is something else going on with the Indian literati—it is as if we accord a higher caste to the British and subconsciously elevate and mimic their literary culture. It is one thing to admire and be inspired by other literary cultures, but our attitude is one of deference, lacking the self-confidence of equals. We are far from achieving intellectual independence. Nothing like a Booker prize, reviews, endorsements, and fat book deals in the Anglophone West to turn our heads. Indian novels that ‘make it’ abroad are then taken seriously in India—not vice-versa. Do we grant the same cachet to books that win Sahitya Akademi or Jnanpith awards? Or crave translations of our best non-English books? And we haven’t even looked at the terrain of popular culture.
But wait, says a part of me, how can it be otherwise? The culture that brought us English and came to dominate us had greater power tied to its claim to greater knowledge. So long as this relationship holds in our minds, and we look up to that culture for our self-definition and direction, much else will remain too, including our writers’ insecurities and our elites’ colonial mindsets. I too am caught in its vortex. As an individual, perhaps the best approach to decolonizing my own mind—short of the radical choice Ngugi made for himself—is to be acutely aware of my predicament, interrogate my own linguistic and cultural hierarchies, and invite others to do the same.
- ‘Decolonizing the Mind’, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Heinemann, 1986. All other quotes in this article that are not otherwise attributed come from this book.
- On Empire and Education, Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1833.
- Here are three articles that relate experimental work in this area: Change languages, shift responses, Lost in Translation, and How does language shape the way we think?
- The image shows the author in 6-7th grade c. 1980, after a school performance inspired by Wordsworth in which the girls dressed as ‘daffodils’. Most boys didn’t participate and are in their regular school uniforms.