A couple of days ago, my kid idly told me she wanted to learn a foreign language. When I pointed out that she, an Indian, already spoke a foreign language as she was conversing with me in English, she was a bit taken aback.
One of the things that makes India a fascinating place is that it has a mindboggling 1652 languages. The fact that India has still managed to stay united as a nation when countries with just two languages have broken apart says a lot about India. And it’s not like these languages are spoken by just a few people. Twenty-nine of those Indian languages are spoken by over a million citizens each according to a census done in 2001. All this creates an odd dynamic that has had some unexpected fallouts.
The Hindi Misadventure
There’s a story within a story here. It’s not really about English but I think it gives a context to the complex language dynamics in India. So here goes.
When India won independence from the British in 1947, the Indian government naively proceeded to declare Hindi as the national language. The justification was Hindi had the largest number of speakers among all Indian languages. What the powers-that-be had overlooked was that ‘Majority rules’ won’t work in languages if there are sizable minorities who raise their voice against it. And raise their voice they did, especially in the South, where Hindi is Greek to most of the population.
Here’s where the plot thickens, or rather thickened some 5000 years or so ago. That was when there was a massive migration into north India by the Aryans who most probably were sick of the cold icy north, and were attracted by the warm, balmy climate of India in the days before air pollution and deforestation reduced to northern parts of India to dusty bowls.
The net result of this mass migration of the Aryans into India was that most of the original dark-skinned inhabitants of India moved to South India while the north was taken over by the fairer-skinned Aryans and their descendants. This may explain why South Indians look very different from their northern counterparts, and south Indian languages like Tamil have very little in common with the north Indian languages.
Anyway, it wasn’t surprising that the south Indians revolted against the imposition of Hindi by the north Indian majority-led, Indian government. These protests peaked in 1965 but have never really stopped during the last 60 years. The crux of the South Indians’ argument was that learning a second language like Hindi was not going to give them an advantage on the world stage. Whereas if India’s second language was English, it would be far more helpful by giving Indians access to a huge body of knowledge in science, technology and rational thought that already existed in English. Anyway better sense prevailed, and the Indian government backed down. I think they must have seen the scale of the protests and sensed the danger of it escalating into an outright call for the South Indian states to secede from the Indian union. And that was how English officially became an Indian language.
The present-day politicians in Delhi have again revived the Hindi drive by trying to indirectly impose it in the South. For instance, milestones in India are usually written in two languages: the local language and English.
Then one of these Hindi-speaking politicians had a brainwave of substituting English with Hindi. The cunning chappie must have thought no one would notice. But he had reckoned without the acute observatory powers of the south Indians. They did notice and immediately protested. Their logic was simple. If the language of the North (Hindi) was put on milestones in the southern states, it was only fair a southern language be put on milestones in the northern states. That was the end of that particular misadventure. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before stupidity raises its head again.
However help for Hindi did come, and it came from an unexpected quarter, Bollywood. Hindi movies and TV serials became popular across India especially with the arrival of national TV in the eighties. This sort of helped mitigate the antipathy of South Indians to the ‘imposition’ of Hindi. It was an unplanned, backdoor, cultural coup by Hindi, in many ways similar to how Hollywood helped Western culture spread across the world.
Hindi never did, and never will replace English as the second language of south Indians. An analogy may help explain why. To south Indians, Hindi is like a distant, clueless yet harmless cousin who one puts up with.
History gets a whitewash
And that brings me back to the British. Contemporary British history has whitewashed the 200-year British Empire era as a period during which India prospered under a ‘benevolent British rule.’ Here’s a little video where the eloquent Shashi Tharoor rips up this storyline and pithily sums up how the Brits’ unparalleled greed and genocidal inhumanity reduced a once magnificent Indian civilisation to a battered shell of its former glory.
English was here to stay
When the rapacious Brits finally left India in 1945, they took with them whatever they could lay their hands upon. But one thing they couldn’t take was their language, which in those two centuries had become the default language of communication within the linguistically different parts of India. We Indians had no issues about accepting the language of our occupier as we have a long-established habit of welcoming and accepting every culture that comes to our shores. Deep down, we know it will enrich India in the long run.
As India’s economy took off, more Indians migrated out of their home state, leading to a sizable section of Indians for whom English was either a fluent second language or even their de facto ‘mother tongue’ in which they conversed in at home. More about this later.
What goes around, comes around
Indians believe in ‘Karma,’ which says that the good or bad you do will come back to you, sooner or later. In the case of the British Empire, it took 250 years, but the crap did come around.
By the end of the last century, the Indians' knowledge of English coupled with their ability to work hard, led to a massive influx of Indians into almost every field related to science. A series of waves of doctors, engineers and computer professionals flooded Britain and the West. Knowledgeable and hardworking, they were willing to take less pay than their British counterparts, and soon went on to establish themselves in all these fields at a global level.
Today, Indian doctors have a strong presence in the British medical fraternity. Jaguar, a quintessentially British brand was taken over by Tata, one of India’s many multinational companies. This is true even at a global level, with the heads of Google and Microsoft being south Indians.
The role of English in the success of Indians has even been acknowledged by India’s economic rival, China. The resourceful Chinese who have been having an economic revival of their own, belatedly recognized how the knowledge of English was giving Indians an edge. So they, in turn, began to encourage their own citizens to master the language.
And it’s not just science. Indians have a flair for languages, and Indian origin writers have made their mark in the world of English literature. Wikipedia even has a page listing Indian writers, and their writing has a term, Indo-Anglian literature. Here’s a Google search result.
In short, the world has come full circle. Where once Indians lost their wealth and jobs to amoral British colonialists, it’s now the less educated British who are losing high paid jobs to more qualified Indians. Poorly run British industries are being acquired by efficiently run Indian conglomerates.
In a way, I think the seeds for Brexit were planted by the Brits seeing their ill-gotten wealth and jobs going back to people of the countries from where it had been stolen.
Adopting the English language and a resulting affinity for all things Western by a section of Indians has not been without its casualties. I personally have experienced the side effects of this Anglophilic behavior in my own life.
My father had gone abroad to work when I was a kid. Though my parents spoke our mother tongue at home, it was not really prioritized at school so I didn’t know how to read or write it. Also while my Dad was abroad, I was put in boarding schools where English was the medium of instruction, and often the sole language of communication between the students who were from diverse linguistic backgrounds. My first school was a so-called convent (run by Christian missionaries or priests), and the second a public school outside my home state. My mother tongue wasn’t even spoken at my school and I lost touch with it. That’s how English became the only language I could fluently read, write and speak. There was one catch. Since I was more a reader than a speaker, pronunciation of English words was a hit or miss business. Indian languages are phonetic but English isn’t. I used to pronounce Beirut as ‘be-rut’ for most of my childhood until I saw the word phonetically written as ‘bay-root’ in my mother tongue in a local newspaper. The Eureka moments still continue!
Since it’s mandatory to learn a second language at school in India, I was forced to learn Hindi. Again, since no one actually spoke the language in South India, it was a struggle. It was a massive relief when I somehow cleared the final Hindi exam in school. Despite that, I still couldn’t speak the language. I could just about read it, and catch the gist of what people were saying because of the wide popularity of Hindi movies. A few years later, I took up a job in Mumbai, where Hindi is the spoken language. It was only then that I finally learned to converse in a tortured version of the language.
History repeated itself when my daughter went to school. Like my father, I too went abroad to work as the pay was better and there were no taxes. But there was one crucial difference. As my wife too had grown up like me outside our home state, she too reads, writes and speaks English better than our common mother tongue. So by default, English became the spoken language at home, and my daughter grew up knowing just that one language. However, when we returned to India after a few years, she did pick up our mother tongue as it was the only way to converse with her grandparents. But it’s a work in progress.
What we English-speaking Indians gained was often at the cost of a loss of our Indian identity. The English connection made me identify with the West, and be totally obsessed with all things of the Western culture, including literature, movies, music, and even clothes.
It was only when I reached my teens that I began making a conscious effort to get in touch with my Indian roots. I started watching Indian movies in addition to my staple diet of Hollywood movies and found to my surprise that even the song & dance Hindi movies could touch an emotional chord that Hollywood movies almost never did. A bout of sinusitis made me explore yoga and learn about a completely new way of health, which soon led me to abandon the allopathic system of Western medicine with its host of undocumented side effects. I also discovered the purest form of Hinduism, a religion nothing like its current manifestation in India, and one that even a cynical sceptic like me could relate to (the links are my previous posts on these subjects). The final straw was my brief sojourn in Dubai, where I felt like an alien among the Arabs and found myself longing to go back to my homeland, which I eventually did. India is a civilization with a rich and varied culture, and there’s a lot more that I look forward to discovering.
English Speaking Indians
I found on Medium another post that has explored in detail the lifestyle of the English speaking Indians. The writer even has a name for my tribe, Indo-Anglians. It’s fascinating, and worth a read if you haven’t already done so.
As for my family, my wife and I didn’t want our child to go through our same cycle of loss and discovery of our Indian identity. So from a young age, she encouraged our daughter to take up Indian classical dancing, read Indian mythology, frequent temples, wear Indian clothes, and so on. I don’t know how much the child has absorbed. But in a way, I think it will be good in the long run as she will grow up to see herself in the broader perspective of being a global citizen of Indian origin.
And that is as it should be.