English has had a very weird connection with India. Within India, the connection gets more uncomfortable than weird as you move up North in the country's cowbelt.
As I was working on the English series, of which story one Will English Become India's weakness? appeared in Mint on March 4 and story two The pitfalls of linguistic jingoism on March 5, I looked within, reminisced and asked myself many questions.
The `English realisation' in my life goes back to the time my father got married. My mother was a Bundelkhandi. She spoke the native language and wasn't well-versed in Hindi. In those times, to think of a girl in rural Uttar Pradesh, who could speak English, was unimaginable. Thanks to her studies in the Science stream and later her job as a Botany professor, Ma had picked up good enough English which helped her interact with my father, who would speak either Magahi, a dialect of Bihar, Hindi or English. When I was born six years later, I picked up just two languages - Hindi and English. No Bhojpuri, Maithili (now recognised as one of the languages in the Eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution), Magahi, Angika (all local dialects in Bihar). This was a sad consequence of my parents' limited linguistic exercises. When I grew up, I realised it was more than just my parents' unwillingness to learn each other's language which kept me away from the native languages. English was elitist, Hindi was urbane and regional dialects were simply too rustic.
My English-medium education often generated awe among relatives from the villages. To hear a sentence in English, they would sit for hours imploring me to read a poem, or sing a song.
When I had to drop out of my reputed English-medium school for a few months in the wake of an unprecedented family misery, the very fact that none of the top rung schools would admit me in class X brought unspeakable grief to my parents. In those days, they saw great hope in me because I almost always scored highest marks in the subject in class, and in what they considered a rare talent, I excelled in Hindi too.
I shifted to a Hindi-medium school in class X and struggled with the tough Hindi terminologies in Science textbooks, most bearing `Tatsam' origins (Tatsam means a word which has roots in Sanskrit). In the pre-Boards, I made a killing in the English paper: 98 out of a hundred. When the class X Board results were out, one of my teachers, before handing out the marksheet, asked me: ``Which subject would you like to look up first?'' I said: ``English'' and she was in splits: ``But English marks aren't added in your aggregate.''
That is when I realised that my school was affliated to the state-run board (Bihar State Education Board), which followed a language policy averse to English. It began in the late `70s in Bihar as part of the linguistic politics around Hindi and the slogan `Pass WIthout English' became the order of the day. I was one of the many children from these boards, but my English-medium education since the early days of my life saved me. Don't get me wrong. It was a great school but I had the edge over others because I knew English. It began with small privileges - in the Hindi-medium school, my proficiency in English made me different from others, at least in the way teachers looked at me. They thought I was this serious, nerdy, anglicized child who could anchor an ENglish play in the school's annual festival, be a good class representative in inter-school debating competitions, intelligent after-school company for their children and overall, a ``cultured'' child to teach and mentor.
I could speak English. This became such a shield, and still remains my shield against snobbery and unwanted elitism.
In the journalism school in Chennai, I was often greeted with a remark I later grew replusive to: ``Oh! You are from Bihar! I thought you were from Bombay.'' To be brutally frank, I never thought this was a compliment. I would return the remark with: ``Why? Do people from Bihar have horns on their heads?'' People would laugh; they still do. But while doing this series for my newspaper, I found the answer: English.
The very reason that I spoke good English misled most people into thinking I could not be from Bihar. When I tell you this, you might argue against this but I can argue back. But some other day on this. For now, you could read Bihar's Boat people by Bhawesh K Mishra to understand what I mean.
Some states and some people, and particularly Bihar, invite unwarranted and pre-conceived notions, as argued by Mishra and I second him here. This whole nexus - of judging and dismissing people by their origins, and most importantly by the language they speak - seems to be breaking though, as economy moves at a fast pace and opens many opportunities for small towns to be part of the big, elite gang.
About two decades ago, my father's sisters got married in upwardly mobile families and settled for good in Delhi's elitist ghettos (read ``South Delhi'') because they could speak English (remember the matrimonial ads seeking Convent-educated girls?) and wear skirts.
My father's English, with generous doses of French and Latin, rattled my mother's family. They could never make peace with my father, because, err, as I gathered over the years, they could never speak such good English.
Many years later, their children do not face this handicap. They made sure all of them studied in English-medium schools.
English hence unites us. They are linguistically different, so are we. We adjust, embrace and when the going gets tough, we get back to English. Same could be true for India and its tryst with the colonial legacy, which is fast transforming itself into a language of opportunity.
But English's universality does have its flip side. At a personal level, English kept Maithili and Bhojpuri out of me. It's a regret, because regional languages lie at the core of my roots and one of the ways I can keep it alive within me. For the time being, I am learning spoken Maithili from a cab driver in my not-so-English neighbourhood.