English is, in Indian life, much more than a medium of communication. It is a marker of regional heritage, status, culture and politics. How do we speak this once-foreign language as meta-communication about who we are? Deepa Bhasthi counts the ways…
How many Englishes? Three Hundred? Three Thousand?
Was it the Queen’s English we started our ABCs in? Americanese doesn’t like ‘colour’ with a ‘u’. I won’t call ‘z’ ‘zee’, however ‘foreign-returned’ it might imply. A girl in ninth grade, in the corridors of the hostel, chanted the word ‘sex’ for days, naughty seniors had taught her the word, not its meaning. She was from a village in the interiors; we all had had a laugh at the simpleton. The snobbery of KV-ites– those of us from the posh school in town– extended to and ended with how ‘accent-less’ your English was, how fast you spoke it, and how flawlessly. The girls from the Convent, our traditional rivals, had better handwriting, round cursive, but they didn’t have our English. So we thought and thus we had sniggered.
If the ‘purity’ of various Englishes in high school defined our local pedigree in a cosmopolitan small town (contradictory as that should sound), years of college, a broadening of minds and of geographies perhaps took the sheen off of the edge of the judgment sword. It lies dormant though. I want not to admit this, but it is what it is. For generations that were brought up to think of English as the pinnacle they ought to touch and hold on to and not slip away from, how and where and in what manner someone speaks English is the scale for judging them, though not necessarily for passing judgment on their histories.
For generations that were brought up to think of English as the pinnacle they ought to touch and hold on to and not slip away from, how and where and in what manner someone speaks English is the scale for judging them, though not necessarily for passing judgment on their histories.
English is no longer just a language. Was it ever one? Were we bequeathed it to hold at arm’s length, to view it casually, to place it alongside the thousand languages this big country speaks? Can something so political ever be just a language? Was the English leaving, leaving behind English, a parting attempt at unifying the scattered threads of this country? I wonder if it will make me un-Indian to say that English has perhaps done more to make people in this country to love (and hate) each other than any other defining factor in their demography.
I realise I write these words in the very language I politicise. You can call me a hypocrite of sorts, I won’t mind. English has allowed for much worse.
A few days ago, a piece of writing somewhere led me to I Am 20, a documentary filmed by S.N.S. Sastry for the Films Division. It interviews young men and women from all over India born on August 15, 1947; they talk of their hopes for the country and themselves; they complain of corruption and they giggle when asked about girl/boyfriends. In that sense, the film could be timeless. Most of those interviewed speak in English. Theirs is the diction and the tone that today I’d associate with people in their 60s who sit facing the mountain ranges in the town park, shake their heads sadly and talk of how the ‘country has gaan to the daags.’ That too lends the film a sense of timelessness, for it was the case then, much as it is now, that there is little that we have in common except for this language we have collectively inherited, (aside from the common history of having been under the white man’s rule).
Were we all taught that Hindi was the national language? At least I was, and so we learnt it in school, aided comfortably by the 4pm Bollywood film every Sunday on Doordarshan in those days of the ’80s. It was only recently that it began to emerge that Hindi is nowhere mentioned as the ‘national language’. At least the last time I heard, there was plenty of confusion on the matter. This makes sense, perhaps, that the sometimes-derision, sometimes-contempt, sometimes-ignorance that Hindi elicits in some states. Hindi seems to me the one language that is far more political than English, which is seemingly more neutral, more inclusive a tool. Speaking Hindi (or not) is a political statement for some. English, that way, is safer. You don’t betray your allegiance to the cause of the mother tongue if you speak English; it is only what you employ to further the bid to ‘save your culture’.
Interestingly, even as English has become neutral, it is also the whipping horse for everything contradictory. It is everything that the fundamentalist finds wrong; it is all things evil-West; it is all that takes India away from the mythical utopia it was once supposed to have been. It binds and unifies and yet it draws lines, often stark ones, of difference and discrimination between peoples.
I cannot help thinking that English is somewhat like caste in modern India. It is there just below the surface, yet, in a globalised world, it is vulgar to bring it up and talk about it. It’s just like asking after your caste in the urban workplace. Yet the prejudices remain, don’t they? The three hundred and more different Englishes that we speak is the modern caste marker, for it is possible to make many assumptions about you and react to your actions and words accordingly. With the diction, the accent, the tone, the lilt and the body language of the other, it is possible to list down, with a high degree of accuracy, if the other person learnt the language in school, as the main medium of instruction, or at work, or at an English learning institute, from films like Die Hard, if that person is from the south or the west or this state or that. If that is one layer of the Englishes we employ as modern day identity markers, the other part, spun from the inferences we derive, is the manner in which we use the larger construct of English to communicate with these different groups. There is one English for friends (further classified into very close and casual), one English with the storekeeper in the mall, one English with the partner, one English with family in America, one English for the workplace conversation, one English for work emails, and one English for Kindle Magazine. There is even an English for those with a shared common language, for their dialects, their words are rooted in a geography wholly different from outsiders. How many Englishes, then? Three hundred? More?
Hindi seems to me the one language that is far more political than English, which is seemingly more neutral, more inclusive a tool. Speaking Hindi (or not) is a political statement for some. English, that way, is safer. You don’t betray your allegiance to the cause of the mother tongue if you speak English; it is only what you employ to further the bid to ‘save your culture’.
From an anthropological angle, it makes for a compelling study, this role of a language that has outgrown its limiting description and become an idea, a tool that is much more than a mere tool of communication. I can only touch and go, if I am to apply the construct to the entire world, if I am to suggest that English is as much a universal currency for merging borders as is the US Dollar for the world’s businesses. But remaining within India’s official borders isn’t too small a sample either. Each state could well be a different country, for their differences in everything. But English, however few Indians might actually speak it fluently, has probably become the more accepted ‘unifier’ than the concept of the nation state itself, in the backdrop of ongoing and past separatist movements.
Deriving a thought process from Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and the Saint, the word English to describe the language we speak and write with has less to do with it being a ‘language’ than with “trying to forge a unified political constitution out of a divided people.” As with religion, as with caste, English has long lost the luxury of being just what it is, a language. Instead, it has morphed, after the I Am 20 years, after the liberation years, after the urbanisation years, to be a national idea, a political ally or an opponent (depending on how you see it), a contradiction. Like India itself, in many ways.
There used to be a temple in Uttar Pradesh for the Goddess of English. I wonder if it still stands.