I am just tired of the constant use of the word ‘elite’ next to the English language in India. It has become especially more fashionable to call English speakers ‘elite’ after Prime Minister Narendra Modi scored a stunning victory in 2014. No, lazily blaming English is not going to explain the BJP’s dominance today. Go look for deeper analysis than that.
Why this kolaveri about English, ya?
English is as desi and rooted as any Indian language. English speakers are not deracinated. So stop maligning them. English has been spoken in this country for centuries now. And Indian English, with its own set of rules, quirks, vocabulary and intonation, is as Indian as it gets. There is no ‘real India’ without it.
Indian English is our language
The Indian version of English has been developed over the years by the people and for the people. Sentences such as these are a regular part of our conversations — “This is right, na?”, “This is tough, by god”, “We are like this only”, “Madam, side please”. Does this ring of elitism to you?
And it’s not just spoken — Indianised English very much forms our written text too. It is the smartphone Internet-era language that everyone speaks and more importantly, texts in. No matter where you are from India.
Now while these sentences are still frowned upon in more “official” settings, as long as it gets the message across, no one should have a problem. In a column for ThePrint, journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj wrote that to become more inclusive, “English needs to get rid of this contempt for Indian languages, and accommodate their concerns, myths and little traditions.”
However, I think, to a large extent, English has already done that. There is perhaps no other language that has so readily amalgamated itself with other local languages. No, don’t say Hindi.
For most younger generations, English is the link to the world — the language of memes, of friendship across boundaries and a way to break out. It is natural to incorporate words like yaar (friend in Hindi), machaan (brother in Tamil), eta ki (what is this in Bengali) in regular conversations. And this is what gives Indian English its unique form.
In fact, this form of English is familiar and comfortable for several people. Which is why a song that asks ‘Why This Kolaveri Di?’ became viral all over India in a matter of days. You understand some of it, and can hum along. You don’t need prepositions and articles for that — ‘Ok maama now tune change-u’.
The English goddess
A lot of us discover the vocabulary of self-expression through English. There is certain family baggage that comes with mother tongues that you can be free off when speaking in English. Like gender. So, for, someone who is queer, who identifies as a feminist but comes from a conservative household, it is usually English that gives them the medium to express these differences.
For many marginalised groups as well, English has proven to be the language of power, money, and knowledge. It has given them the chance to access opportunities that just knowing this language opens up. In fact, English has been christened as a ‘Dalit goddess’ by Chandrabhan Prasad. Some Dalit villages in Uttar Pradesh even built a shrine to this goddess.
And to say that it has laid ruin to the idea of India!
No ‘pure’ English here
The truth is that India’s ‘shudh’ languages gave up on many of its own people, a long time ago.
Whenever I go to my town in Tamil Nadu, the one thing that is constantly made fun of is my ‘bastardised’ version (their words) of Tamil. Some, in fact, get offended by the fact that I don’t know how to speak my mother tongue very well.
When I come back to Delhi, even a little slip in Hindi usually brings forth typical jokes about how South Indians speak Hindi.
No matter where you go, there will always be someone with a stick over your head nitpicking while you’re speaking. Thankfully, except for the offensive Apu in Simpsons, we Indians are doing okay in English. Incessant grammar-fixers aside — our English-Vinglish gets work done.
And as Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd wrote in a column, “It is easier to learn English alphabets and sentence formation, too, than any other Indian language.” With the Internet, social media, and ‘auto-correct’ feature, access to this language has also become fairly democratised.
English has done what all the propagators of Hindi wished it could do — it has acted as a somewhat unifying language across the length and breadth of India. In fact, a recent study noted that English is gaining prominence as the link language in India.
Just to clarify, because many need a reminder about this, all of India includes states in the south and in the east, where a large section of the population do not know Hindi.
So, those who wish to reach out to the entire country, often resort to English to do so. As did India’s freedom fighters.
More importantly, there is a certain universality to English language. There will be many who will not know the language per se, but they will still understand words like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘okay’, ‘go’. This is something anyone from an auto driver in Tamil Nadu to a fruit vendor in Nagaland will know.
So, next time you call out English speakers for being elite and alienated from the rest of India, think again, na?
Views are personal.