Must We Dream Of India In English?

Our misguided faith in this ‘Globish-Inglish’ hides a vile elitism
Alok Rai
In thinking of the conundrum of English-in-India, it is important to
get past two “nationalist” misconceptions, and perhaps August 15 is an
appropriate date therefore: the first rests on the assertion that
English is irredeemably foreign and contaminated because it was the
language of the vile Brits, and it doesn’t behove a proud and
independent nation to have anything to do with it. This is
nonsense—English has been here and become ours over long centuries.
The other, and opposite, misconception derives from the macho
nationalism of the globalising Indian, misled by the great success of
outsourced drudgery (think BPOs) into thinking that the minimal
English that demands, liberally interspersed with lazy localisms (‘we
are like this only’), somehow makes them—us—equal participants in the
global banquet, as well as equal inheritors of English’s proud past.

The key word here is equality: both nationally and internationally,
English seems to hold out the promise of equality, of mobility,
Friedman’s flat world—while in fact it serves to camouflage,
consolidate and reinforce deep, systemic inequality. Of course, there
is much more to this inequality—global as well as national—than merely
English. If, by some miracle, everyone in the world were to acquire
fluency in English tomorrow we would not awake into utopia. Day would
still break upon the world we know, one of war, and weariness, and
woe. Worse, we would not even be able to blame it on misunderstanding!
The Globish-English hyped by Robert McCrum, and brayed incessantly on
the TV channels of the semi-literate, is—after Orwell—merely the
Newspeak of this brave new world, the bare and brainless dialect in
which the stark inequalities of this world cannot even be called to
mind, let alone be talked about.

India, then. Two of the most visible routes to mobility and success in
our wonderful land are, of course, English and crime—perhaps in
reverse order, because crime involves less investment. But of course
if someone can combine the two (English and crime!) then they have
access right to the top: the higher judiciary, the civil service—you
want names?—and, why not, politics too. Under these circumstances, it
is not surprising that the timid majority still prefers English.
However, the likely social outcomes of this process are similar to
what happens when hungry individuals run a red light, or break a
queue. The collective as a whole—traffic-jammed, jostled,
frustrated—is worse off, even if a few individuals do get ahead.

Under these circumstances, any attempt to restrict or even interrogate
the epidemic longing for English rightly appears as an attempt to
preserve the privilege of the relatively Anglophone. But by the same
token, it is absurd to say—although people who should know better do
say it—that somehow English can escape its Indian destiny as a
language of privilege, and that English can become the lingua franca
of the whole country, so that everybody can participate equally in the
democratic life of the country because your flawless Oxbridge accent
counts for no more than my stumbling, broken syntax. Further, English
also bestows international mobility on everybody: the economic
strategy of export-led growth extended to the very population of India
as a whole!

This is an absurd and, yes, cruel fantasy; it truly doesn’t behove a
proud and independent and half-way intelligent country to entertain or
encourage such delusions. It is often said that the trouble with
Indian writing in English is that English is not an Indian language.
Actually, the problem is exactly the opposite—English is an Indian
language. It is here, endowed with a legacy, associations with class
and privilege that one might well wish were different. There is a
powerful class of people for whom it is virtually a first
language—indeed, their only language. There are many others for whom
it will always remain entirely foreign. The cruel, damaging sense of
inferiority that is inflicted on the non-English knowing is only half
the tragedy implicit in this configuration. The worst of it is the
wholly undeserved sense of superiority, the insensitive arrogance
which characterises that highly visible section of the elite, whose
sole intellectual and cultural asset is the ability to gabble away in
a kind of semi-literate, fluently moronic English.

(Alok Rai is a professor of English at Delhi University)


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