Meenakshi Mukherjee is an eminent postcolonial critic and theorist and has received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2004 (Highest award in literature in India).She has taught in various Indian universities and her longest spell has been in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi). She has also been a visiting professor in many universities like University of Chicago, Univ. of Texas, Austin, University of California, Berkeley, to name only a few. Some of the books written by Meenakshi Mukherjee are The Twice Born Fiction, Realism and Reality: Novel and Society in India, Re-reading Jane Austen, and The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English.

Next Column:......................................................................................................................................Back to Columns Index

There was a time – not so long ago – in our sylvan pre-globalised past when the debate about English in India followed a predictable trajectory, the tidy binaries – English and Indian languages – set sharply against each other. As a language of the elite, English was seen on the one hand as a tool of empowerment and on the other as an instrument of alienation from the grass root culture. The opposite was perceived to be the case with the other Indian languages which were invariably lumped together as if there was no internal hierarchy or disparity among them. Use of any of these Indian languages was supposed to confer authenticity on the user whether the language was deployed in conversation, in creative writing, in journalism or political discourse.

The nature of the debate has got irrevocably complicated since then. I am not talking about the obvious changes brought about by globalization; everybody knows that as the language of commerce and information technology English has become a highly desired skill, a precondition for economic and social advancement. My focus here is on the other shifts in perspective that have gradually crept upon us in recent years. For example the validity of “English vs Mother Tongue” as a topic for debate itself has begun to be questioned because it is difficult to go on pretending that all “mother tongues” in India occupy similar space, as if there is no difference between Marathi and Mizo, between Gujarati and Garhwali, between Telugu and Tulu. We can no longer avoid recognizing that a large number of Indians, including many rural children, do not learn their mother tongues in the classroom, even when they are going to the local government school, and for a person speaking Mundari at home, Hindi and English are both second languages. Thus the romantic notion of the mother tongue being the natural and instinctive medium of written expression for all Indians evades the ground reality of our country. The other development that cannot be ignored is that the most articulate champions of English today are no longer the urban Westernised sector of society but the Dalits. This takes the radical Indian intellectual by surprise because Dalit self-expression so far has always been associated with Indian languages. To take one example at random -- think of the powerful and searing autobiographies through which a large section of Indian readers were first introduced to Dalit literature. These were invariably in Marathi (Daya Pawar, Laxman Mane, Sharan Kumar Limbale), Hindi (Om Prakash Valmiki) or Tamil (Bama). All these years in discussions of Indian Writing in English, no reference was ever made to Dalit writing. It was automatically assumed that Bakha would never have a voice in English without the mediation of a London-educated Mulk Raj Anand.

The most vivid encapsulation of the new attitude towards English can be seen in the writings of Chandrabhan Prasad who in his column `Dalit Diary’ in The Pioneer proposes iconising English as the goddess of the Dalits. “Goddess English is all about emancipation, Goddess English is a mass movement.” The Reservation Debate in education that has been agitating the country of late makes us realize that the question of access to English is one of the unspoken issues. A huge social divide (also knowledge divide) exists between those have proficiency in English and those who do not. Given the fact that English today is the language not only of upward social mobility and outward geographical mobility, but also a major tool for accessing knowledge, at the higher and more competitive levels of education, the minority with high proficiency in English will always have an edge in life. To counteract this asymmetry Chandrabhan Prasad has been dramatizing through symbols and gestures this aspiration for English among those who have so far been debarred from its benefits. One of his actions that has drawn media attention is his celebration -- for three consecutive years – of the birthday of the much-maligned Lord Macaulay.

The role of Lord Macaulay, traditionally seen as the villain in the drama of bifurcation that is supposed to have split the country into English India and indigenous India, is being reassessed from this new perspective. We are all aware of the infamous sentence of Macaulay that laid bare the educational agenda of the colonizers: “We must at present do our best to form a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour and English in taste opinions, in morals and in intellect” (Minute on Education, 1835). Chandrabhan Prasad urges us not to see this quotation out of context, because the lines preceding this well known sentence are “It is impossible for us with our limited means, to attempt to educate the [entire] body of the people”. What Macaulay suggested in 1835 was evidently an interim measure: educating a few in the modern system of knowledge which was at that point of time available in English. The final aim was that through filtration effect this knowledge would penetrate to the rest of the people, preferably in their own languages. The Macaulay-created class of Indians was supposed to bring about this transformation: “ To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country , to enrich those dialects with terms of science …and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. “ (Minute on Education, 1835)

That this was never going to happen was predicted by another Englishman , Lord Mayo who did not like either Macaulay or his policy and wrote in a letter in 1854 : “ I dislike the filtration theory … we have done nothing toward extending knowledge to the million [s] . The Babus will never do it. The more education you give them, the more they will keep it to themselves and make the increased knowledge [a] means of tyranny.”

Whether Lord Mayo was right, whether today’s reservation debate is a long-term fall-out of this centuries long process of denial and whether Chandrabhan Prasad’s proposed deification of the language is likely to rectify the balance of power and smooth out the unevenness of the land are questions that are bound to enliven the debate on English in India, a perennial favourite with our intelligentsia. It should be remembered that today’s Dalit emphasis on English goes back to Ambedkar who insisted on writing in English some seventy years ago.

My own discipline is literature and for decades I have been following the literary discussion about how Indian writers in English are different from those who write in their own languages. Initially it was an interesting dialogue but I must confess for the last couple of decades I had lost interest in it because most people got congealed in their positions and kept repeating the same arguments. Those who wrote in English usually justified their choice by saying this was the language they knew best and in any case English was also an Indian language. The advocates of mother tongue writing accused them of not being in touch with the masses and of selling an exoticised India to foreigners for economic gain. Gramophone records in an earlier era used to get stuck in a groove like this. But suddenly the entire frame of reference seems to be changing. Consider the following statement by a young writer Siddhartha Deb who has written two excellent novels against the background of the North East (Point of Return 2003 and Surface 2005). When asked the inevitable question “ Why in English? “ he said “ As someone from a lower middle class background , as a child of East Bengali migrants in the hill area of the North East, I was distanced from the upper classes, from Kolkata, from my original homeland , and from the place where we were living. I found in English a vehicle of social mobility, a way to enter restrictive spaces” (The Hindu Literary Review, Dec 3 2006). For him English is a well-considered strategy rather than an automatic choice.

Another writer who belongs to an urban upper middle class milieu and evidently does not share Siddhartha Deb’s reasons for choosing to write in English, has come up recently with an entirely different argument to make the old language debate appear simplistic. This is Amit Chaudhury who in a recent essay in New Left Review (July-August 2006) dismantles the myth of a composite and homogenous reading community in any language of the world. Chaudhury wrote this essay in response to the frequently asked question `For whom do you write?’ the implied accusation being that all writing in English is really addressed to foreigners. It is not easy to summarise the nuanced argument of Chaudhuri’s essay. Drawing examples from writers as different as James Joyce, Arun Kolhatkar and U.R. Anantha Murthy he demonstrates that regardless of language, a modern writer’s constituency is necessarily fractured. The mirage of an organic community held together by language cannot form the basis of a rational discourse.

There are at least two separate aspects in the discussion on language – literary and pedagogic. How does one gain proficiency in English? Everyone wants to learn English because it leads to better career options but there is a gaping chasm between the rural and urban, and between the privileged and the underprivileged as far as learning opportunities are concerned. In a promising first novel in English by Rupa Bajwa (The Sari Shop, 2004) this discrepancy itself is effectively used as part of the theme. Ramchand, a shop assistant in Sevak Sari Shop in Amritsar has an ordinary life; his only secret extravagance is buying books that would help him learn English. He does not know which books will be useful. He begins with Complete Letter Writer ( Price Rs. 30 ) diligently going through every letter written to Peggy by Phyllis or such people in Kent or Tintern, although he is baffled by their mysterious references to `jolly’ motor tours in Wales and `outstanding’ subscriptions to tennis clubs. Next book Radiant Essays for Schoolchildren of All Ages (forty rupees) turns out to be more accessible and he buys a tattered old copy of Oxford English Dictionary for another forty rupees to be able to read the essays.

Then he “hit upon a new idea ….. if he started at the beginning of the dictionary , and learnt the meanings of each and every word , working his way from A to Z , one day he would know all English, completely and irrevocably” (85 ). Next six months he was working on A.

One day he saw in the book shop “a faded book that he was sure he could get cheap – a book called Quotations for All Occasions. Ramchand had always thought that quotations were something to do with fixing the price of wholesale fabric, but the book jacket explained that quotations were things of wit and wisdom said by great people. He did not know what wit meant but he could do with some wisdom. Another thing in favour of the book was that the quotations were short….Ramchand bought the book, haggling till he got it for twenty rupees. Sure that it would help fill in empty moments with wisdom and with wit, which he was sure was a desirable thing. Some quotations he wholeheartedly agreed with and others he vehemently and angrily opposed. While reading through `Ability’ he was impressed by this:

Ability is of little account without opportunity – Napoleon.

How true that was, Ramchand thought sadly, wondering who Napoleon was. May be a foreign poet……Ramchand would have gone to an English medium school if his parents had not died” (175).

Rupa Bajwa’s novel depicts in English the sadness of not knowing English, something no other writer has ever attempted. Evidently the `either-or’ relationship is changing. Perhaps we are at the beginning of a new configuration in which our languages will be re-aligned through a pragmatic tolerance, discarding the emotional rhetoric that had set the tone earlier.


Next Column: ........................................................................................................................................... ......... Top

Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer

This web journal is sponsored by The Caspersen School of graduate studies, Drew University