Saturday, July 19, 2008

Indian Identity (2): Language - Babel or Bust?

“We must at present do our best to form a class of persons who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Lord Macaulay, 1835

“The language in which we are speaking is his [the Englishman’s] before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In my admittedly shite M.Phil dissertation on Progressive Zionist visions for Israel’s future, I argued that the nation was defined above all by language. A nation’s citizens had to speak in the same tongue, for this is how the all important ‘societal culture’ is maintained. If the citizenry has a shared language, all other distinctions cease t matter, and minority will flourish the same as majority.

My argument didn’t take India into account. The Constitution of India recognizes twenty-two languages, and there are thirty-five Indian languages spoken by over a million people. Hindi, the most common language, is understood by only around half the population; its grammar is totally different to the languages spoken in the south or northeast. And then there’s English, powerfully stalking the sidelines, spoken fluently by around 2% of the population, while a further 10-15% understand the basics.

Perhaps nothing sums up India’s linguistic peculiarities more than the following story: In 1996 the Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, delivered the annual Independence Day address in a language he didn’t understand, Hindi. As a southerner, he didn’t speak it, but the law required that he give the address in it. In the months leading up to the address, he promised to master Hindi, and the words were ultimately written out for him in his native Kannadan script.

Amidst the tumult surrounding India’s religious and caste divisions, it is often forgotten that the country is divided on primarily linguistic lines. Language provided the rationale for how the states were carved up after independence, and tensions over the issue occasionally turn violent, as recent events in West Bengal demonstrated. Because of these tensions, there has never been a pan-Indian language. Indian nationalist luminaries – Gandhi and Tagore included, agreed – perhaps surprisingly – that it might be better if Hindi became first among equals, but this has never come to pass.

Is India a dramatic exception to the rule, or a model for others to follow? Whatever the country’s shortcomings may be, one fact is indisputable: there is a shared notion of Indianness, one that has somehow managed to transcend – with occasional violent exceptions – other allegiances. India has been roust and confident enough to remain a broad, pluralist temple.

In language terms, there is one significant flaw to all this – the status of English. Western-educated Indian intellectuals are surprisingly proud about English’s pre-eminence, as a result it goes relatively unchallenged. Shashi Tharoor, for example, writes as follows: “the Indian professional elite is educated in English, so that English has a far more genuine ‘national’ existence: it is the language in which the Indian government officials would naturally converse, in which two teenagers might discuss cricket or music, in which a Madras journalist might instinctively address a Bombay businessman, and in which the ‘national media’ (those publications aiming at a countrywide audience) are published. It is undoubtedly the language of a small minority, but its speakers feel no minority complex at all.” Of course not, for they are the elites.

Is this really something to be proud of? English is the world’s pre-eminent language, for a developing country to produce fluent speakers of it is vital. But it becoming the language of the elites is another matter entirely. Before coming here, people told me with confidence that most Indians speak a little English. Not in my experience. Many may have a smattering of words, but competency is reserved for those in the tourist trade or the middle-classes: speaking English is a sign that marks you out from your less educated and less privileged countrymen.

This is an irony I can’t comprehend. Indian intellectuals will happily condemn the Raj in its entirety (with the possible exception of the trains), while at the same time reveling in the fact that they can communicate their Indianness in English, the language brought to India by the imperialists. There is a famous quote, the words of which unfortunately escape me, about India being able to absorb the best of what its would-be conquerors bring, before spitting them out when the time is right. This implies a wily, cunning national ethos, and Tharoor & Co would no doubt view the absorption of English in the same spirit. I fear, however, that they are missing the wood for the trees.

Take Israel, for example. English is widely spoken – people understand that mastering it is of great importance in getting ahead in the world, a fact reflected in the excellent instruction in school. This has not come, however, at the expense of the societal culture. There are English newspapers and cultural events, yes, but this has not affected the extraordinary revival of Hebrew, purveyors of which are renowned the world over. Because there is no particular reverence for English, there is no threat. It’s just realpolitik – knowledge of English is vital for being part of a globalised world.

In India, as noted, English is a social divider. More than that, it’s accompanied, in elite circles, by values which seem to be left over from the Raj – deference, hierarchy, formality – with English used as the weapon. I witnessed this for myself last week in the 1st Class Waiting Room at Sealdah Train Station in Calcutta, where a woman expressed her exasperation to the attendant asking her to move her luggage in English, a language he didn’t understand. Pavan K Varna argues that these unfortunate aspects of Indian society have far more ancient antecedents, either way India won’t be truly free until it emancipates itself from them.

By all means ensure that your people speak good English, just as you should ensure that they are literate. But don’t let this come at the expense of a national culture. India’s Babel is exciting and genuinely radical. If a Keralan and a Bengali sit down for chai, there surely has to be a better solution than having them speak in English.


neha said...

Great post. But I am left wondering, esp. after the last line of the post...really, what is the language for a bengali and a keralite to converse in other than in english? the point that you precisely make in the beginning about the multitude of languages that do not belie the national integrity of the madness called india, is perhaps the biggest pointer to the fact that it becomes irrelevant whether they converse in english or not, since language is not the precondition for inclusion. at least they would be having a conversation. in practice, being a 'elite' (as defined by you) bengali i really don't want to have another language thrust down my throat in order to communicate with my countrypeople.using english or signlanguage when people don't know english doesn't threaten my indianness in the least bit.

Alex Stein said...

Hi Neha - thanks for posting. Surely Hindi is preferable to English? I don't understand the logic which says that Hindi encroaches too much on regional space, but that English is acceptable.

Anonymous said...

Hindi is not preferable to English in the South, since it is seen as privileging one group of Indians over others and there is a difference seen between the 'Dravidian' and 'Aryan' languages. English on the other hand is equally foreign to all in the country and theoretically does not privilege any linguistic group. It does privilege the English medium educated over the regional language medium educated people though. English is the lingua franca among the educated, for others it is important to learn predominant language of the area they visit or live in.

Nancy said...

As an American living in Chennai, I agree with Anonymous -- there's a definite prejudice here against Hindi (which wasn't there before the 60's -- it was introduced by the Dravidian parties). Your Bengali would almost certainly know Hindi, and would be able to speak to Gujaratis, Marwaris, Biharis, etc. -- all the (related) language groups which exist in Calcutta -- in Hindi. It's the south that's cut off from Hindi, in part by the fact that Dravidian languages are so completely different structurally from the Indo-Aryan languages. That being the case, what's wrong with their communicating in English? It works.

SS said...

The Israel comparison is not very good. Israel is a small country (compared to India) and Hebrew is a language that has strong religious significance. No language has that kind of stature in India.
I'm from the Indian South. and I had to learn Hindi as a third language in school. I'm native to Tamil Nadu and I grew up in Kerala, so I had to learn Malayalam, not my native language, in school alongside English, and Hindi was one language too many for me.
I went to university in the north and I had to learn Hindi the hard way.
A lot of people share my plight.
A single unifying language would mean a lot of Indians would have to spend most of their time just learning languages.
I don't see why status-quo cannot be maintained. It seems to work just fine.
I do not mean to say that English deserves the status it has. But it is a truth that it does enjoy an exalted status. There could be multiple reasons behind it - a english-educated person almost certainly comes from a well-off family and has a lot more opportunities to get forward in life and society.
I wonder how much it is also due to the colonial hangover - white good, brown not so good spirit.

sayandeb said...

Hi alex, i read your piece on calcutta and mother teresa in the guardian and i am glad that you have tried to dig into the bones of the awfully sanctimonious Missionaries of Charity. You are also right about the brutality of history that the city has been witness to. i have been born and bred in Calcutta and like many who have grown up fed by the milk of kindness in that ragamuffin city, want to shout at the world that for God's sake let Teresa sleep in her grave and let the city wake up into the twenty first century. i care little for MC or its volunteers and nice to know that i have ample reasons to be so. its a classic paulo Coelho journey for the volunteers, filled with faux spirituality (though spirituality for me is another global fraud industry). but they go back with a looks of Dante, just out of the the heart of Inferno. For me, poverty is a damaging prospect and sooner the trade of peddling poverty for spiritual sanctuary ends, at the cost of selling of a city's heart, the better.

sayandeb chowdhury

Hagay Hacohen said...

Dear Alex,

1) I think your impression about the role of English in Israeli life is a little off. To speak really good English does mark you, if you were born here, as a set of other things. Ashkenazi, educated, with money etc. Usually it also means someone who enjoyes English culture as it is understood here (Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Doctor Who) So it also has the undertone of geekness or liberal attached to it. Also, immigrants from Russian and Spanish speaking cultures have a hard time with Hebrew. Hebrew tried to get rid of Yiddish despite picking up a lot of argot from it (And Arabic too!). Not an easy topic, langauge.

2) Do you honestly believe there's plenty of wealth to go around? Or, in words first used to describe Anthony Blunt, do you wish to eat your cake, have it too, and appear to be feeding it to the poor? If you get a chance to party with the locals respect that they don't want your money and have a good time. To go to a party to not enjoy it seems awfully English in the bad sense of the word. Lossen up gever. Less with the head, more with the bouncy bouncy. Think of the Indians as blacks if that helps (You wouldn't dare suggest black Americans who sing rap music are poor and uneducated husslers now would you son? Why not? How is your love of rap different from some chick's hard-on for holy hindus and burning pyers?)

3) I'm taking Jason for a Yoga workout! When you come back you will be surrounded by yogis!:)



Alex Stein said...

Hagay - I was going to mention the Yiddish thing but didn't want to over-complicate things. You are right about the social divide in Israel, but it's nothing compared to here. Plus there are plenty of Sephardim who speak fluent English...

As for wealth, there is unparalleled wealth and ostentation here...As for the rap comment, I'll deal with that at Abu Dhubi in a few weeks. Remember your mission of finding out the baal ha bayit's name...

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, the choice of Hindi was hardly unanimous in the Constituent Assembly. The assembly was equally split between pro-Hindi and anti-Hindi (call them pro-English, if you will) and the vote was decided in favour of Hindi by the casting vote of the chairman, Rajendra Prasad.

The constitution required the Government of India to move over to Hindi within 15 years. There were riots in Tamil Nadu at the approach of that deadline, and the Government - left with little option - chose to invoked the "escape clause" permitting the continuing usage of English. The escape clause had been thoughtfully inserted by the Tamil drafter, Gopalaswami Ayyangar. This is where matters stand - and will do so for the foreseeable future.

Mohini said...

Dear Alex,

I have been reading some our blogs on india.. your over simplification of complex issues such as kashmir and about dominance of english language amongst indian middle- classes makes me smile ..
do not write before understanding the issues in totality..
Kashmir, if separated from india, would be a fodder for militants ...
and if you think of it, israel was carved out of several muslim countries so can israelis return those lands to the original countries?? why this double standards when talking abt human rights violation in kashmir and not in palestine?
As for English, it is to certain extent a common thread binding indian middle classes, but that doesnt affect our cultural ethoes.. as a matter of fact, indian culture has benefitted from various influences over the centuries

Alex Stein said...

Mohini - a case of the pot calling the kettle black, no? Unless you were planning to expand on your critiques...
They say about the West Bank what you say about Kashmir...