Open Essay

Let’s Speak in English

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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Beyond the political uses of Hindi is the inevitable language of the future

LET PURISTS FRET and pundits fume while politicians plot for all they are worth. I am convinced the worthy aspirations of the multitude will save us from being swept away by an avalanche of Hindi fanaticism. The ambitious young Indian is not a prisoner of geography. The world is his oyster. And the world isn’t Hindi-speaking. Indira Gandhi understood the score. I repeatedly come across contemporary versions of her story of the two knowledgeable Englishmen who were arguing whether tashri or rakabi was the right word for a small salver. Unable to decide, they asked their Hindi-speaking bearer. “Huzoor,” he replied, “hum toh isko ‘palate’ kehte hain. (Sir, we call this a plate).”

Weaned on classical theories of nationhood, which regard linguistic unity as necessary for a country’s cohesion, Jawaharlal Nehru tried to make Hindi the national language. But being a democrat and sensitive to sectarian aspirations, he couldn’t bring himself to force India’s rich diversity into the straitjacket of a single mould. His Official Languages Act ensured English would remain paramount for a decade. Although often accused of dictatorial tendencies, his daughter shared his cosmopolitan outlook and concern for the hopes and fears of people in the South and Northeast who lacked the political clout of the Gangetic plain but were equal members of the Indian family. She amended Nehru’s Act to guarantee indefinite extension of official status for English. That remains the law of the land through which small men burdened with a task much bigger than them threaten to drive coach and horses. Ironically, it’s a minority government that wants to foist a minority language on the majority. While only 26 per cent of Indians speak Hindi, the Bharatiya Janata Party won only 31 per cent of the national vote in 2014.

The objection to forcing government dignitaries to make public speeches only in Hindi is in principle. The order itself is no great hardship. If Zail Singh could deliver speeches in English and Naveen Patnaik in Oriya, there is no reason why Pranab Mukherjee should not speak in Hindi. Indians are facile creatures. Mani Shankar Aiyar used to boast that though he hadn’t written Rajiv Gandhi’s UN General Assembly speech proposing an action plan on nuclear disarmament, he translated it into English. No one illustrated Indian virtuosity more eloquently than PV Narasimha Rao whose talents matched those of Emperor Charles V. Whereas Charles spoke Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to his horse, Narasimha Rao, the Brahmin who was at home with Hyderabad’s Islamic culture, spoke English, Hindi and Urdu in addition to his native Telugu. He had learnt Sanskrit, and taught himself Spanish.

However, Narasimha Rao missed the full picture in telling Singaporeans India had absorbed every foreign conqueror save the last. The British may have remained biological aliens, but their language and culture are essential to modern India’s identity. I don’t mean the obvious ‘sahibs’ prancing about Delhi’s Golf Links and cocktail parties. I am thinking of VK Krishna Menon in dhoti, kurta, angavastram and slippers “in manners far more English than any Englishman”, according to Lady Pamela Mountbatten. I am thinking even more of the grandson or great grandson—for time marches on—of the bearer who preferred ‘palate’ to tashri or rakabi. His speech is studded with English words. He would not dream of calling a telephone shabd ko door bhejne ka yantra, which is the official translation. Kanti ka langot for necktie may have been a joke, but he has never heard of taar rahit or even betar. Radio is part of his unconscious vocabulary, like telephone and television. Eclecticism is the hallmark of a society on the move, and ours is frantically clambering up the greasy pole. The lower the speaker’s status, the more strenuously he must climb to escape the linguistic prison in which his superiors would confine him.

A language can only be saved from decomposition by borrowing from more vibrant tongues. English is empowering Hindi to come to grips with the challenge of modernity

Since a Hindi-speaking Prime Minister erupts into English when it comes to something important like demonetisation, the compulsory Hindi speeches that have now been ordered may be only window-dressing. India is no stranger to diversionary tactics. Hints about the hidden motive for CBI action against Lal Krishna Advani are a reminder of the strategy British companies employed in the 1950s to outflank the Government’s quota for Indians in the higher echelons. Instead, they recruited a few sons of influential personalities (never mind their qualifications or lack of them) as covenanted assistants, which may have been the intention all along. But the impact can be cataclysmic if the parliamentary committee’s 117 recommendations ranging from the frivolous to the dangerous on popularising Hindi are seriously implemented. I must confess to tepid support for one of them: watching khaki-uniformed soldiers at airports stare uncomprehendingly at my ticket, it occurs to me that printing them in Hindi might not be a bad idea. But tourism will never grow and neither will foreign investment if airports bury their heads in the sands of Hindi.

One reason why Nirad C Chaudhuri left Calcutta in 1942 was his belief that while Bengali and its culture were decaying, ‘Hindi-speaking people had more vitality and therefore promise.’ By the time he turned his back on Delhi in 1970, he was convinced that Hindi-speakers were sunk even deeper in decadence ‘for they were fossilized while we in Bengal were decomposing’. Although Chaudhuri doesn’t say so, the only way a language can be saved from decomposition is by borrowing from more vibrant tongues. English gained a new lease of life through imports—like gherao—to describe situations and sentiments that lay outside its original experience. In turn, English is empowering Hindi to come to grips with the challenge of modernity.

The alternative is confusion. Only the other day, the ‘ma-pra’ (for ‘mahattvapurna pratishthan’ or vital installations) printed in Hindi on an advisory by Uttar Pradesh Police was mistaken for Madhya Pradesh, sending shock waves through Bhopal. The ultimatum not to sing in Hindi served on the popular musician Zubeen Garg at a festival in Assam was a reminder that pushing one language prompts rival claimants, with the danger of plunging us into linguistic anarchy. It would be different if society as a whole were educated, but the official literacy rate conceals the extent of public ignorance. Being hemmed in by Hindi won’t improve matters. Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu has a point in insisting that “programmes such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ will become successful only when we use more Hindi in implementing them”, but where in Bihar or Madhya Pradesh will this Telugu-speaking politician find the big manufacturing and software industries to promote ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ in Hindi for the locals?

The presidential order on public speeches could be only to impress cow-belt voters while the real business of living is conducted in English

After erstwhile East Pakistan’s Bhasha Andolan, friends there lamented what they called West Bengal’s surrender to Hindi imperialism. “We gave our lives for Bengali,” they said, “but you left it to Tamils to fight for their rights!” One reason why I didn’t protest too vigorously at the slur was my awareness that the law is not the only determinant in this country. The power of the market economy and the promise of devolution were as effective as the 16th Constitutional amendment in containing secessionist movements, even in turbulent Jammu & Kashmir. It wasn’t legal compulsion but Bollywood’s appeal that to some extent reconciled the South to Hindi. Similarly, Young India’s ambitions will find a way round impositions dictated by political bigotry and blinkers.

All the inconveniences one grumbles about—packed trains, condominiums towering over every scrap of land, pavements lost to shops and eating stalls—testify to the dynamic urge to survive. More than half of India’s population is below 25; more than 65 per cent is under 35. The average age will be 29 by 2020, making India the world’s youngest country with 64 per cent of its population of working age. This youth surge isn’t hamstrung by fuddy-duddy notions of nationalism. Only dead-end kids are. Somerset Maugham’s belief that the Angry Young Man movement would fizzle out if its protagonists had an extra thousand pounds a year (a huge sum in those days) also fits the rampaging goons who spearhead ultra-patriotic dals and senas. Of course, they are instruments of a grim political agenda that includes vandalising churches, attacking discos and dance halls and terrorising Muslims under the guise of protecting cows. But ruthless professionals with an axe to grind wouldn’t have found so many ready recruits if there hadn’t been idle hands galore in the deprivation of society’s lower reaches.

At the top, the youth surge translates into a clamour for work visas in Western countries. Lower down, it seeks a toehold on the ladder of upward mobility. A major reason for the Bengal Left Front’s rout after 34 years in power was its failure to follow up the land revolution. Released from bondage to the soil, a generation of lusty young men yearned for white-collar respectability as bhadralok, like the early batch of students at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. Also sons of peasants, they refused to fall in with official plans to send them back to the land with enhanced skills. Having escaped the village, the least they demanded was employment in the block development office. The spectre stalks Bengal again. If the BJP seems to have scratched some slight success, it is not because voters have discovered a rich Hindutva seam but because young Bengalis fear that Mamata Banerjee’s failure to attract job-generating investment, reports of a continuing influx from Bangladesh, and minority quotas at government officers will leave them with only scraps and crumbs.

Jagannath, my office driver in Kolkata, rose to the dilemma. Apart from his regular hours, he grabbed every chance of overtime, driving night and day, separating the two with a quick wash and change in the driver’s rest room and a snatched meal in the canteen. To my question about his neglected children, Jagannath retorted, “When they grow up, which would they like more? Remembering their father sat at home and held their hand or that he worked hard to send them to St Jerome’s English Medium School?” Talking to people like him, I sensed in those years of Marxist rule an increasingly sharp awareness building into resentment that while English teaching was dwindling away in government schools, which was all they could afford, the netas sent their children to Anglo-Indian schools.

English holds the key to success for an Indian. His future often lies beyond the seas, in Britain, Australia and—increasingly— the US. Denied legitimate access to the language, he will wangle informal access through crammers, tuition, correspondence courses notes and made-easies. Many more so-called English-medium schools will sprout and flourish. Years of import-substitution austerity have taught us skills of evasion, inventiveness, compromise and manipulation. Come what may, the ambitious young Indian will not allow political opportunism and obtuseness to cheat him of a chance to better his lot.

But it might all be a con trick. The presidential order on public speeches could be only to impress cow-belt voters while the real business of living is conducted in English beyond their reach.