Skip to main content

The English question

                                                                LSE Library, London. (c) P.S.

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.

Comments

lookingwithin said…
WOW!! That was a good one...i very much agree with the part about partly ill informed preconcieved notions being formed about places and people from those places being formed...I dont know whether is the Bollywood or the media or a combination of both and other factors but when you talk of a place people immediately have an image in their mind...and noone really tries to check whether its a right one..
lookingwithin said…
and though i am completely in love with the language...mostly because some of my favourite authors and poets have been in English..and I can express so well in English than even in my native language...but I do believe there is some sort of snobbery prevailent amongst most of the English speakers...like being able to speak the language itself gives them an intellectual edge...I have seen many of them in the south bombay...

btw a tangential question here...do u ever wonder why mostly 'south' of any major city is 'elite'...u know what i mean south delhi..south bombay...south london...lower manhattan...
Pal Sin said…
Thanks much for reading and for your enganing comment :)
yeah, I have indeed wondered but could never figure out why! May be, it just happened that way. What's your take? May be, a post on this some day. Thanks for the idea!
sampavar said…
hmmm. nice one. second your opinion about preconceived notions about people just because they belong to a certain state or speak a certain language.
being a tamilian but having spent all my formative years in west and central india I too faced many prejudices because of it.
but i think and dream in hindi!!! go figure. i find conversing in hindi to be most convenient.
wish people would just grow up and realise that all languages are beautiful. knowing a certain language or not knowing doesnt make a break a person.
and one more thing, accents. now i find people being ridiculed because of their accents, specially speaking english. which essentially takes away the charm of the language being spoken by a non-native english person.
even there you have cockney, welsh, scottish and blah blah accents. accents add to the language.
me say more the languages, more the dialects and more the accents, more the better.
Manu Kant said…
English for non-English speaking world including the so-called 'developed world'... it is a no brainer.

It is a pity that we in India have totally befuddled the issue of langauge - English vs the rest.

For the elite the question is: we or them!

Them is the non-English speaking & we/us - the English speaking who called the shots.

So, we/us form the WEST in India & THEM form the "native people".

Pardon me but I thought the British had left in 1947... of course not... they had left Pt. Nehru, et el who made sure that the 'language issue' would fudge the thinking of Indians for generations to come.
Abdullah Khan said…
Nice Read and deeply insightful!
Pal Sin said…
Sampavar: Right! The accent business is an equally painful one. I see people laughing over accents every now and then. Many in this world, I tell you, are willing only to accept stereotypes and not allow any diversity in. sad!
PalSin said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pal Sin said…
Manu, I agree! We as a nation remained dependent on English for many things. And thanks to the sweeping colonization by the British, English is fast becoming the global language.
Pal Sin said…
Thanks Mr Khan. :)
आपका आत्‍मविश्‍लेषण पढ गया। जिस सहजता से आपने लिखा है पढकर अच्‍छा लगा। मेरे पिता अंग्रेजी शिक्षक थे और मेरी डायरियों की गलतियां काट कर उसे गंदी कर देते थे तो चिढकर मैंने काम चलाउ बंग्‍ला सीखी ताकि मेरी डायरी कोई ना पढे । खैर शायद इसी सदर्भ में अंग्रेजी से मेरे संबंध दवंदवात्‍मक रहे। मैं अंग्रेजी की पसंद की कविताओं का अनुवाद करना पसंद करता हूं अपनी कुछ कविताओं का जैसे तैसे अंग्रेजी अनुवाद कर लेता हूं। मुझे सरल अंग्रेजी अच्‍छी लगती है जैसी आपके इस पोस्‍ट में है। गांधी,नेहरू, लाला हरदयाल और टैगोर की अंग्रेजी मुझे पसंद है बाकी मैं भागता हूं... .
PalSin said…
Thanks Mukul ji! Writing simple english is the most difficult of all linguistic exercises. Flowery language speaks poorly of the writer. Simple writing can be more powerful that pieces interspersed with difficult to comprehend words and oft-repeated jargons.

Popular posts from this blog

आमंत्रण

वो बुलाता है मुझे
आओ पल्लो, वो बुलाता है
उसकी आवाज़ समंदर चीर के
दिल के कल तक आती है
मैं नदिया सा उमड़ती हूँ, थोड़ा हिचकती हूँ
वो फिर बुलाता है - आओ पल्लो
आओ, संम्भल के आना, इस दौर की गलियों में मुड़ो
तो ज़रा देख के मुड़ना
कीचड़ जैसे अपमान हैं, फिसल न जाना
वो कह देंगे तुम्हें बेअकल,
तुम डर मत जाना.
तुम धीमा चलना, ज़माने की रफ़्तार तेज़ है
वो भागते हैं आंधी सा, पर बंध जाते हैं अतीत में
तुम आगे देखना, देखो सर ऊंचा रखना
इस अन्धकार में देखना ज़रूरी है
ज़रूरी है आशा भी, तुम दीपक लेकर आना
पाँव तले धरती है, तुम ओस की बूँद सा बरसना
थोड़ा थोड़ा देना जीवन, थोड़ा थोड़ा सपने देखना
बड़ी क्रांति किसे चाहिए, थोड़े थोड़े से घड़ा भरता है,
पल्लो, जब तुम्हारे सपने धरती से बड़े हो जाएँ
तो डरना, बहुत डरना पर अभी आओ,
 धरती पे आसमान जैसा धीरज रखकर
आ जाओ.
वो बहुत इलज़ाम लगते हैं पर तुमने किसका लहू पिया है
क्रांति के नाम पे लहू सामान धरती मिलेगी सफर में,
सदियों से उनके दाग उन्हें डरा नहीं सके
पर तुम डरना, बेशक डरना
ये भविष्य की अतीत पर जीत है -
तुम्हारा आना, डूबते हुए सूरज जैसा उनकी मतधारा को
नए भारत का ह्रदय दिखाना।
कई बार लगता…

Shame

If I were ink,
I would have fallen
on your white shirt -
in dots as big
as the tip of the nib.
would you still have thought
i were just a colour,
worth a scribble,
a useless reason for a bath?

Life at the LSE

LSE. (c) P.S.



In the long queue outside the Wrights bar at lunch hour every day, an overwhelming sense of equality grips me. It is here that I stand in unison with many to avail the benefits of scholarship: a jelly-filled dough nut for 60 pence and a steaming can of hot chocolate for another 60. Let truth be told: on any given day, this is the best I can afford for lunch on days I choose not to cook. In the inviting lunch joints on Kingsway next to the LSE, a modest lunch pack usually comes for 5 pounds. That counts to 500 in the currency of my country. I still haven’t stopped calculating every time I look at a menu. Almost always, I turn away and walk back to the Wrights Bar. The people at the Bar know me by face now – a hard-earned recognition in the middle of the madness of college life; an unintended happiness in a city where everyone’s time, including mine, comes at a premium.
Sometimes, I share a treat with a friend and classmate from A…