by Aatish Taseer, The New York Times, March 22, 2015
NEW DELHI — A BOATMAN I met in Varanasi last year, while covering the general election that made Narendra Modi prime minister of India, said, “When Modi comes to power, we will send this government of the English packing.”
The government of the English! The boatman naturally did not mean the British Raj; that had ended nearly 70 years before. What he meant was its extension through the English-speaking classes in India. He meant me, and he could tell at a glance — these things have almost the force of racial differences in India — that I was not just a member of that class, but a beneficiary of the tremendous power it exerted over Indian life.
“English is not a language in India,” a friend once told me. “It is a class.” This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English. “They want you to walk in the door speaking English. Then if you switch to Hindi, they like it. Otherwise they say, ‘the look doesn’t fit.’ ” My friend, who comes from a small town in the Hindi-speaking north, knew very well why his look didn’t fit. He knew, too, from the example of dozens of upper-middle class, English-speaking actors, that the industry would rather teach someone with no Hindi the language from scratch than hire someone like him.
India has had languages of the elite in the past — Sanskrit was one, Persian another. They were needed to unite an entity more linguistically diverse than Europe. But there was perhaps never one that bore such an uneasy relationship to the languages operating beneath it, a relationship the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has described as “a scorched-earth policy,” as English.
India, if it is to speak to itself, will always need a lingua franca. But English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.
Two students I met in Varanasi encapsulated India’s tortured relationship with English. Both attended Benares Hindu University, which was founded in the early 20th century to unite traditional Indian learning with modern education from the West. Both students were symbols of the failure of this enterprise.
One of them, Vishal Singh, was a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes. He was two-thirds of the way through a degree in social sciences — some mixture of psychology, sociology and history. All of his classes were in English, but, over the course of a six-week friendship, I discovered to my horror that he couldn’t string together a sentence in the language. He was the first to admit that his education was a sham, but English was power. And if, in three years, he learned no more than a handful of basic sentences in English, he was still in a better position than the other student I came to know.
That student, Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless. Despite his grand education, he would be lucky to end up as a teacher or a clerk in a government office. He felt himself a prisoner of language. “Without English, there is no self-confidence,” he said.
In my own world — the world of English writing and publishing in India — the language has wrought neuroses of its own. India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes.
India, when left to its own devices, throws up a very different kind of writer, a man such as Chetan Bhagat, who, though he writes in English about things that are urgent and important — like life on campuses and in call centers — writes books of such poor literary quality that no one outside India can be expected to read them. India produces a number of such writers, and some justly speculate that perhaps this is the authentic voice of modern India. But this is not the voice of a confident country. It sounds rather like a country whose painful relationship with language has left it voiceless.
The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.
In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual. Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry, with lines like:
The illusion is comfort, stability
In truth every grain of Creation pulsates
The caravan of form never rests
Every instance a fresh manifestation of its glory
You think Life is the mystery; Life is but the rapture of flight.
But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, I spoke Hindi and Urdu, but had to self-consciously relearn them as an adult. Many of my background didn’t bother.
This meant that it was not really possible for writers like myself to pursue a serious career in an Indian language. We were forced instead to make a roundabout journey back to India. We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity. V. S. Naipaul called it “the riddle of the two civilizations.” He felt it stood in the way of “identity and strength and intellectual growth.”
That day almost a year ago in Varanasi, the boatman felt that Mr. Modi’s coming to power would rid India of the legacy of English rule. Mr. Modi, who had risen to power out of poverty with little to no English, seemed to pose a direct challenge to the power of the English-speaking elite. The boatman was wrong. Though the election was in some ways a dramatization of India’s culture wars, English, and all that it signifies, will endure here for generations still.
This is as deep an entrenchment of class and power as any the world has known; it will take more to change it than a change of government. It will take a dismantling of colonial education, a remaking of the relationship between language and power.The boatman spoke from anger, but I was not out of sympathy with his rage. It was the rage of belonging to a place that, 70 years after the British left, still felt in too many ways like an outpost.