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How English became an Indian language

  • A writer travels across India to understand the vast and divisive subject of English spoken and written by Indians
  • The book is not an academic analysis of linguistics but a rollicking road trip, dotted with historical anecdotes and reminiscences

Read this book for an engrossing journey through the history of English in India
Read this book for an engrossing journey through the history of English in India

For a subject that is so contentious and emotive, it is surprising there are not more non-academic books on Indian English. True, G.V. Desani wrote the comic novel All About H. Hatterr as early as 1948. There have also been a couple of more recent linguistic explorations, such as journalist Binoo K. John’s 2013 book, Entry From Backside Only: Hazaar Fundas Of Indian-English. But the social impact of English—its adoption as a wholly Indian language—has gone relatively unexplored.

Kalpana Mohan takes a brave stab at a subject she accurately calls “vast and hairy". She attempts this by travelling across the country to explore a varied number of subjects: an English-language school in Dalhousie which teaches first-generation learners; a meeting with Mark Tully, the former BBC broadcaster and veteran India correspondent; Bengaluru-based radio jockey Danish Sait; a princess of the royal family of Travancore who was taught English by Anglo-Indians so she could hobnob with Lord Mountbatten; a bookseller at Bahrisons bookshop in Delhi’s Khan Market; the late Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen; and, of course, chats with taxi drivers that are essential to all non-fiction books since Thomas Friedman. “The people I finally chose had to have a personal story that informed and animated my narrative about the English language in India in some way," says Mohan.

Who: The daughter of a Chennai-based accountant, Mohan is an Indian-American writer who grew up in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Her childhood in the expatriate community—surrounded by Indians from various states, Africans and Europeans, all speaking their own version of English—influenced this book.

Her first book, Daddykins, published in 2016, was a memoir of her father’s life, but also a chronicle of a changing India. This book tries to do the same, except that Mohan is writing the memoir of a language here. She wrote a column on Indian English for the magazine India Currents for several years before she was approached by her publisher to write this book. “The older I get, the longer I live in America, the more furious I am about how we continue to repeat all the mistakes of the past. I realize even more the colossal tragedy of colonial rule and its aftermath—of languages lost, of stories wiped out, of lives upended," says Mohan.

What: This isn’t an academic analysis of linguistics. Rather, it is a rollicking road trip, dotted with historical anecdotes and reminiscences. Mohan explains: “I felt I would see things and hear things only when I travelled. Non-fiction books that delve into this subject without conveying a sense of place could not do this effectively. Instead of talking in general terms and spouting statistics, I felt my readers would be better engaged when I wrote about people’s lives."

A theme Mohan explores in her trips is how, as Tully tells her, “English has gone from being the language of status to being the language of opportunity". She visits a school in Dalhousie which serves one desperate purpose. “Just teach my child English" is a refrain Poonam Dhawan (the head of the school) hears often from parents from as far away as Amritsar, Ludhiana and Jammu, when they drop off their children at her boarding school. Others say, “Just give them some English so they can go to Keneda (Canada)." The children who speak in Hindi and Punjabi are punished and asked to write “I will speak only in English in school" 2,000 times. At the other end of the country, a Gandhian school set up for tribal children teaches them in their mother tongue first, and introduces English only in class VI, with probably greater success.

Elsewhere, Mohan explores how English has blotted out Indian tongues and left their speakers feeling inferior and overlooked. She meets the doughty Bengali writer, Dev Sen (who died in November). Dev Sen moved to Kolkata when her marriage to the Nobel laureate Indian economist Amartya Sen ended. Despite her privileged bhadralok (an upper-middle caste, cultured person) upbringing in English-medium schools, she resisted pressure to write in English and went on to write over 80 books in Bengali. Dev Sen wanted fair treatment for bhasha (language) writers, obliterated by the tide of English writers. “Why do literature festivals feature young aspiring writers in English in place of senior experienced writers in the regional languages?" she asked Mohan.

Why: Read this book for an engrossing journey through the history of English in India. The author has a wonderful ear for dialogue, an eye for a good anecdote, and maintains a constant sense of place. “Can you able to understand?" demands “Humble politician Nograj", the fictional creation of Sait, who uses English, Kannada and Hindi, all equally clumsily, to further his corruption. “Now you listen to me, you, I am going to be ‘don’t care’," yells Ganga, a Tamil domestic worker who has learnt whatever English she needs to pursue her various legal disputes. For 1970s and 1980s readers, it’s also a tempting journey into nostalgia: Wren And Martin, Binaca Geetmala, the famous Pepsi tag line “Yeh dil maange more", and other shapers of Indian English all make appearances.

The problem is that occasionally the charm wears thin, and one wishes for something a little grittier. This is a slim book, and an air of unfinished business hangs over it. Often, the author mentions an intriguing or painful subject, then skittishly veers away. In one instance, Ganga mentions her Naidu caste, wistfully contrasting it with Mohan’s Brahmin caste. Mohan writes naively, “I would never be able to empathize why someone like Ganga was preoccupied with the notion of caste," then concedes, rather cursorily, that “it was something that those with less privilege thought about all the time". The vast and brutal injustice of Brahminism in Tamil Nadu—and its impact on who got to learn English and who didn’t—is glossed over.

The political history of English is also dealt with perfunctorily. There is a mention of the agitation in Tamil Nadu over the imposition of Hindi in the 1960s. This could have been a great topic to explore, given the current government’s attempt to push Hindi on unwilling non-Hindi speakers. Once again, the mention remains only a mention. “I think my constant struggle with this book was striking a balance—while pitting expository material against my own personal narrative in order to move the story along," says Mohan, explaining her decision to leave out certain topics.

Overall, An English Made In India achieves that tricky balance. But the reader is left wishing for more.

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru based independent journalist and author.

Twitter - @kavitharao

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