“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.