A suitable language?

November 21, 1997

As India embraces western affluence, more and more of its people want to learn English, the lingua franca of thought and commerce. But is their neglect of India's mother tongues a tragic error, asks Andrew Robinson

Perhaps the most influential legacy of empire in South Asia, 50 years after independence, is the English language. Though a statistically negligible number of South Asians regard English as their first language, English directly affects every aspect of their national and personal life: politics, commerce, science and technology, schools and universities, the media, literature and culture in the widest sense. No Indian can be indifferent to it; no foreigner can be unaware that India is the country with the largest group of English-speakers after the United States - one in five adults, according to respondents in a major anniversary poll conducted by the news magazine India Today.

This statistic includes everyone from the doyen of Indian novelists in English, R. K. Narayan, and the latest winner of the Booker prize, Arundhati Roy, to the graduate who, after years of learning English, can barely write his own name in it and the tourist guide whose English patois is almost incomprehensible. "One should therefore be careful whenever figures are quoted for or against English," warns an interesting survey, Problematizing English in India, commissioned from two Indian academics, R.K. Agnihotri and A. L. Khanna, by the British Council in India, and published this year.

An anecdote will show the complexity of the situation. On my latest visit to India, this September, I called on Harry Miller, journalist, photographer, zoologist and THES book reviewer, and a well-known resident of Madras who left his native Wales more than 40 years ago and settled in India with an Indian wife. Wanting to put me in touch with the British Council representative in Madras, so I could learn about English teaching, Harry telephoned the council office and gave his name to the operator: "Harry Miller... Harry Miller!... Ha-rry Mill-err!" Blank incomprehension at the other end of the line. At last - "Oh, Habibullah!" And this was coming from the British Council, not some government office or five-star hotel.

When I met the representative, he summed up the position of English by declaring that for Indians English was no longer the language of imperialism but a vitally necessary, much sought-after tool for national (and international) communication, especially in business. And there is no doubt that the Indian public agrees, judging from the rush to sign on at the British Council's first English Language Teaching Centre in India, recently opened in New Delhi with the blessings of the Indian government.

More and more Indians, encouraged by the liberalisation of the economy in 1991, are anxious to acquire real competence in English. Younger people, in part influenced by the opening of Indian television to western, especially American, programming, are particularly drawn to English.

Three-quarters of the Indians questioned by Agnihotri and Khanna regarded English as an Indian language. Constitutionally, however, it is not an Indian language. When the constitution was drawn up in 1950, English was not listed as one of the 14 (now 18) Indian languages. It was to be an "associate official language" for a period of 15 years, during which time Nehru, India's first prime minister - who spoke and wrote overwhelmingly in English - hoped it would naturally give way to Hindi, India's recognised "official language", which would become the country's national language. But when the time came to kill off English officially, there were riots by south Indians who could not tolerate the hegemony of Hindi. In 1967, the government was forced to pass an Official Language (Amendment) Act, prolonging the associate status of English indefinitely. Although efforts to make Hindi India's lingua franca continue, there is little prospect of this happening: today, in south Indian schools, only the regional language and English are taught, hardly any Hindi - in breach of official policy, introduced in 1961 and widely implemented elsewhere, that schools should teach three languages: generally the mother tongue (eg Bengali, Gujarati), Hindi and English.

But, pro- and anti-Hindi politics apart, there remains the fundamental unresolved question: what should be the relationship of the mother tongue to English? The Agnihotri/Khanna statistics are fascinating on this. For instance, 61.1 per cent of respondents "always" speak English to a teacher or boss, whereas only 7.6 per cent do so when talking to a father (even fewer, 5.3 per cent, when talking to Mum). Regarding the media, 69.6 per cent "always" read a newspaper written in English, whereas a mere 16.6 per cent watch only television programmes in English (and 17.9 per cent only English movies). When asked if English is "suitable for creative writing", ie for writing a book such as Midnight's Children or A Suitable Boy - only 20 per cent of respondents definitely agreed that it was, while 25.2 per cent definitely disagreed. On the question of education, just under half those interviewed, 47 per cent, favoured the use of "only English" as the medium of instruction in primary schools; for MA level, the proportion in favour was more than four-fifths.

One should not therefore be misled into believing that English has colonised the India of 1997 despite the disappearance of the colonial power in 1947. As a broad generalisation, English remains the language of the public, not the private world, as it was 50 years ago. While it is true that Michael Jackson has a large following in India - and his visit to Bombay not long ago was sensational news - he is not in the same league as the singer in Hindi, Lata Mangeshkar. Yes, Jurassic Park was a smash hit in India in 1994, grossing $6 million - but it had to be dubbed into Hindi; and subsequent western blockbusters have not replicated its success.The majority of Indians want their entertainment in their mother tongue, not in English, however essential - and hip - it may be to know the language. Even with the press, despite the national dominance of English-language newspapers and magazines, such as The Times of India (with its regional editions) and the weekly India Today, the largest-selling single-edition newspaper (some 450,000 copies) is a Calcutta daily published in Bengali.

The mother tongue/English dilemma is probably most pointed - and certainly clearest to India watchers in the West - in the area of literature. Looking from London, and even often enough from New Delhi and Bombay, it is easy to assume that all Indian novelists of note since 1947 have written in English - so much have we heard of writers such as Narayan,Desai, Rushdie, Seth and now Arundhati Roy, as well as several dozen others, and so little of writers in Indian regional languages. There is a dim awareness of riches in India's classical, Sanskrit literature - fostered by Peter Brook's play and film of The Mahabharata - but virtually no consciousness of post-1947 vernacular writing. As the general editor of a new Macmillan India series of modern Indian novels translated into English, remarked last month in The Times of India: "Although we shrugged off the imperial embrace and although when the sacred texts of India were first translated, they sent a tremor through the libraries of the West, many people readily believed that no matter how great our works in the regional languages, they were somehow inferior to writing from Britain."

Salman Rushdie, whose first language is of course English and who reads other Indian languages only in translation, holds, it seems, a similar view. Introducing his new selection of Indian Writing: 1947-1997 - of which only two out of 32 pieces are translations - Rushdie threw down the gauntlet: "The prose writing - both fiction and non-fiction - created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the...'official languages' of India, the so-called 'vernacular languages', during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books." More valuable, one must assume he means, than even the Sanskrit classics, leave alone the literature produced during the Raj.

The vast majority of Rushdie's non-Indian readers have swallowed this edict without much comment. Responses from Indians were obviously more varied. Radhakrishnan Nayar, writing in The THES, noted that if Rushdie is right, "It is as if Russian writers of the last century had accepted the notion that French, the fashionable language of the Russian aristocracy, should be their literary language. (Tolstoy and Turgenev, for example, had perfect French.) Would such a literature, written in a language which was not that of the masses, have achieved the psychological and philosophical depth, the oneness with Russian life, of the 19th-century Russian literature we know?"

A well-known academic and writer in Bengali, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, was caustic about Rushdie in an Indian national newspaper. "You are presenting a collection of Indian stories written in English, it's enough to establish their excellence rather than waste your western reader's time demolishing a body of work they are unfamiliar with and you have no clue about. It is difficult to figure out which is more embarrassing: your ignorance, or your complacency. Cloistered in your own little English-language world, you have had access only to gods of small things, the gods of greater realities seem to have eluded you."

On the whole, though, the Indian reaction to Rushdie's claim was a lame one. Which Indian writer can avoid being tempted by the possibility of extraordinary fame and fortune in English? Arundhati Roy received advance payments for The God of Small Things that are beyond the wildest dreams of all but the highest-paid movie stars in India.

Furthermore most Indians, especially in the younger generation, are, like Rushdie, sadly ignorant of the best literature in their regional languages.The hundreds of translations into English sponsored by official literary bodies such as the Sahitya Akademis since 1947, languish largely unread. "Mention Nirala or Dhumil instead of say Milton, Keats or Eliot, and most Hindi-speaking students of English literature in India draw a blank," say Agnihotri and Khanna. Even in Bengal, where Rabindranath Tagore, India's only literary Nobel laureate, is an icon, the truth is that apart from his songs, most Bengalis know only the Tagore they read in school.

But if Indians themselves do not want to read their own literary writers, except when they write in English, why should this be cause for concern? Why do some of us - a minority, one must admit - think this attitude a serious, even a tragic mistake?

My own conviction comes from having studied the life and work of Tagore and Satyajit Ray, "the two great stalwarts of the Indian cultural scene of the 20th century" - to quote Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a great scientist (and Nobel laureate) with a keen interest in literature and the arts. Both Tagore's and Ray's works moved people across the world, in Europe, America and Asia. Both men were curious and knowledgable about many cultures. Both came to know English well, and read and wrote extensively in English. But - and this is the nub - both these artists worked primarily in their mother tongue, which happened to be Bengali: the works for which the world knows them were almost all created in Bengali, not English. It is inconceivable to imagine Ray having produced Pather Panchali, the film that broke the mould of Indian cinema in 1955, had he known only English. "A work of such lyrical and emotional force that it becomes, for its audiences, as potent as their own most deeply personal memories," Rushdie calls it. Based on a celebrated novel in Bengali, the film feels profoundly rooted in Indian soil, because it speaks an Indian language.

Ray once said of himself: "I never had the feeling of grappling with an alien culture when reading European literature, or looking at European painting, or listening to western music, whether classical or popular." That expresses the Indian ethos at its finest and richest, from which the West might benefit; but this was true for Ray only because he had grown up immersed in his own Bengali culture, speaking his mother tongue.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES. He will lecture at Gresham College, at 5.30pm on November 24.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments