How to Read English in India

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

AS SOMEONE WHO grew up in India in the early 2000s, after the once-colonized country had opened itself to the global economy, one thing was clear to me. Aspiration and English were synonymous. Both were essential. This lesson was drilled into me at my missionary-run English-medium high school in New Delhi. Whether we dreamed of becoming doctors or engineers or corporate hotshots, we were repeatedly told that we needed to have English. Students were penalized for speaking in any language other than English, and our pronunciations were disciplined in preparation for roles no one doubted we would take on. Away from the institutional ear, my peers and I still cherished our other languages, to varying degrees. But, for the most part, we learned to joke, dream, rebel, and obey in English.

Everyone agreed that English was A Good Thing to Have. I heard similar ideas about the importance of English at home as well. My father, raising daughters in a country that did not value women, encouraged my sister and me to speak in English, and beamed with pride when we did. This expectation felt awkward — absurd, even — because English was not a language the other women in our family shared. My grandmother and mother both spoke in Hindi. I remember once, while tidying the house, my grandmother asked my sister if she needed the scrap of paper she had just thrown on the floor. No, my sister replied. But isn’t it important? It says something in English, it has your name. My grandmother was confused as my sister rolled her eyes. I remember feeling curious about how my grandmother, who I was sure didn’t know English, must have memorized the visual shape of the Roman script that traced her firstborn grandchild’s name. I remember wondering if she could read my name in English.

More recently, working on a book on the English language in postcolonial India, I was moved by my grandmother’s instinct to save a piece of paper scribbled over in English. A Good Thing to Have. It made me curious about how the material life of English in India overlapped with its literary life. What else had my grandmother read in English visually like this? I was also struck by how scenes of speaking and reading in English at school and at home — our most intimate and ordinary experiences — were rehearsals of caste and class positions. Each scene unfolded a different register of the meaning of English, drawing from and moving beyond it as the language of transnational capitalism and as a dubious legacy of British colonialism. With each case, to paraphrase Rebecca Walkowitz, English became both more than and less than a language. English was the promise of social mobility and feminist progress. It was a correct(ed) pronunciation and a scrap of paper.

The story of English in India toggles between the conceptions of the language as an idea and as an object. Scholars of postcolonial literatures have often looked to its colonial formation as the source of its meaning. But English has always been a language that has looked ahead to the future. Forged multiply in the crucible of caste, class, gender, and ethnic politics, English has found roots in India as a language that erases itself in the hope of what it could be. As a nation, we are obsessed with correcting each other’s grammar. Just look to Twitter. We shame celebrities for speaking “wrong” English, whatever we think that is. The memes and jokes about Indian English write themselves, filling up a billion-people-sized cloud storage on the internet and spilling out of WhatsApp groups. But this preoccupation with linguistic propriety is not about English at all. It stems, in fact, from a desire to claim English — either as a marker of class and caste authority or as its rejection. It stems from the lush possibilities associated with English — what it could be made to mean, what it could be made to do, what one could do in it.

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Amid bloody protests in non-Hindi-speaking parts of India, the Indian Constitution enlisted English for its potential to be something other than a language of slavery. English, the reasoning went, was equally foreign to all in India and thus politically neutral. Through translational projects, English could help create a governmental vocabulary in Hindi and mediate language conflicts. First temporarily in 1949 and then permanently in 1963, English was legislated as the associate official language, with Sanskritized Hindi as the official language of India. This practical concession to the monolingual aspirations of a newly formed nation would ensure that Hindi developed in relation to English. Hindi and English together would enhance the postcolonial Indian state’s democratic, secular, and modern character, while also leaving the undemocratic and communally charged Sanskritization of Hindi unchallenged. On several occasions, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, referred to English as a key to world knowledges, as a unifying cement to hold together the country’s linguistic diversity, and as a technology of progress to lead it into the future. The possibilities of English in the world’s largest democracy lend the language an outsize symbolic presence. But instrumentalized as a supplement and a prop to Hindi — as national cement — English also seems to shrink into something less than a language.

But perhaps “shrink” is not the right word. For this same English — instrumentalized as the supplementary language of democracy — also expands political worlds. Dalit thinkers and writers have leveraged the scientific rationalism and the linguistic medium of British colonial rule to challenge upper-caste authority. Key Dalit leaders like B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, and the education reformers Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule often wrote in and praised English, invoking its potential as a weapon in the struggle against the caste system. Writing in English helped reach a wider Anglophone audience and find global allies. English also offered an alternative medium of expression to the caste-marked Indian languages. Most playfully and provocatively, in 2010, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer-activist of libertarian leanings, paid tribute to the promise of English by calling the language a Dalit goddess and building a temple for it. He mounted the idol of this goddess on a computer-shaped pedestal, putting the bilingual (Hindi and English) Indian Constitution in one of its hands and a pen in the other. This iconography equated the English language with liberty itself, promising that literacy and technology would guarantee freedom and democratic inclusion. Its devotees — many of whom can neither read nor write English — worship the Dalit goddess English for delivering them from centuries of caste oppression. English as goddess derives its power from technology and invokes the democratic potential inscribed in the Indian Constitution to contest the casteist state.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books