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February 07, 2011


My personal schooling experience in northern India was quite similar to yours. While we were not caned if caught speaking in Hindi, we were fined 25 paise for each infringement. Enforcement was lax, and by the time the kids got past elementary school, they took perverse delight in breaking the rules. I hardly ever spoke in English other than when speaking to my teachers.

The interesting thing was that parents were not averse to this policy of forcing kids to speak in English. They were forking out considerable amounts of money to send their children to English-medium schools. The whole point was to ensure that the children became fluent in the language. The economic and social advantages of being an English speaker in modern urban India are enormous. This was so obvious that niether parents nor kids ever felt culturally deprived.

I would argue that English is now very much an Indian language. At least in urban India, it is ubiquitous. Knowledge of the language is functional, though anyone with a sense for grammar or pronunciation will wince often at the mispronunciations, mangled syntax, translations of local idiom, and unique Indianisms. Like many things in India, the Indian version bears only a faint resemblance to the real thing, but it works.

The notion that Indians recognize good work only after it has won recognition in the West is not unique to literature alone. Think about scientific accomplishment, for example. I recall reading that V. Ramakrishnan, the 2009 Chemistry Nobel Laureate, observed that people flocked to his lectures in Chennai once the prize was announced, whereas nobody had paid any attention to him on previous occasions. I believe this has to do with the feeling that standards within India are inconsistent and ambiguous.

I don't believe there is much decolonizing of the Indian mind left to do. One marker of this is the emergence of popular writing in English, of which Chetan Bhagat's books are exemplars. These books have sold extremely well. Almost no one thinks of them as high literature, and almost no one cares. The guy spins stories. People like to read them. He happens to write in a version of the language that they are familiar with. End of story. No decolonizing needed here.


Thanks for the comment. I think it may be useful to think of English in two distinct ways: (a) as a tool and (b) as a language of a people's literature (the latter is part of my focus in the article, not quite the former).

Take Northern Europe. Unlike India, most Dutch and Danes are quite proficient in English. On average, their English skills will probably even beat that of educated, urban Indians. Yet nobody calls English a Dutch or a Danish language. For Northern Europeans, English has become a tool (as it increasingly is for a lot of folks in the world) — lingua franca for travel and commerce, language of technology and the Internet, path to new job prospects, etc. But English is not a mere tool for Indians. Unlike the Dutch, the Indians accord a privileged status to English. To them it is a pivotal marker of a class hierarchy that is robustly alive and well. Indians flaunt whatever facility in it because it is a ticket to a higher social class. Speakers of English are commonly seen as more sophisticated and command greater respect, attention, etc. If this is not a sign of still colonized minds, I don't know what is. (Also look at urban pop culture and what it mimics.)

Now let's consider whether English has made sufficient inroads into Indian communities to qualify as a language of a people's literature. I'd argue no, not yet. It is spoken fluently by perhaps 2-3% of Indians spread thinly across India and who learned it as a second language—as you and I did. For others who are functionally literate in English, perhaps 10-15%, it is a tool of self-advancement, not a medium of self-expression. They can perhaps read English newspapers, fill out forms, read product labels, etc., but not conduct a real conversation in it by choice. It is hardly anyone's mother tongue. Do you believe that a people's literature can be written in a language that is not their mother tongue? Could Tagore have chosen English, and through his translated works, become the poet of the people of Bengal? Further, I wouldn't compare good work in literature with good work in science: the latter's yardsticks are universal and specific, the former's plainly not (though some literary works can have wider appeal).

The C. Bhagat phenomenon tells me that there is now a larger number of people who have had a class-addled English-medium education, which leaves them in a state where they can't readily come up with words in Hindi (using Hindi as example since more familiar to me) for even common enough terms like "membrane", "subjective", "spontaneous", "ideology", "pinnacle", etc., nor can have complex conversations in Hindi. That's because they never really learned complex concepts about their physical and social environments in their mother tongue.

This is Ngugi's "colonial alienation", a powerful idea. The Dutch do not suffer from it, Indians do. I think even for educated urban Indians—who acquire facility in English through classroom instruction and not pervasive use in childhood—English does not reach down to touch the more intimate, emotional, lived reality and the mythos of their historical communities. A people's literature needs to do that. Until English becomes the language in which ordinary folks read, write, talk, think, and dream, can it be the literary language of anything more than a small and historically new and elite sub-culture, one that is linguistically alienated from the larger communities it inhabits? What more, it's inspiration and validation come from abroad, though there are indeed signs that autonomous yardsticks may be emerging.

What a great exchange -- wish you would both go paste it into the thread at 3QD!

Thank the gods for your English education in India. It has made your assimilation into San Francisco so much easier! And just see - you can write a blog in English and get accolades from the entire world!

Do non-Muslim Indians also go have "de-islamicize" their minds, since Imperial Islam had pillaged the place for what? A thousand years prior the British Raj?

The British Raj sucked but I see it as some kind of cosmic arrangement otherwise the entire South Asia would be Muslim like now, with no trace whatsoever of any of our indigenous Dharmic faiths. Just like the entire Middle East - no trace whatsoever of the indiginous religions that thrived there prior to Islam.

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