Episode 163      19 min 06 sec
It's our turn now: India's changing take on the English language

Professor of Literature Alok Rai discusses the many roles played by the English language in contemporary India - as an instrument of mobility, as a marker of privilege, as a badge of identity, and as a forge of a new caste system. With host Jennifer Cook.

"If there was some large scale linguistic revolution which enabled tens of millions, then privilege would, I fear, privilege would find - reinvent ways of asserting itself." -- Professor Alok Rai




           



Prof.Alok Rai
Professor Alok Rai

Alok Rai is Professor of Literature at the Department of English, Delhi University. He has specialised in, Victorian, post-Victorian English Literature, George Orwell language and cultural politics in modern India. His recent publications include Translation of Premchand’s Nirmala into English and Hindi Nationalism.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER COOK 
I’m Jennifer Cook.  Thanks for joining us.  In December 1930 quintessential Englishman and then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said that if the British left India it would fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.  Now, as we know, they did and India didn’t.  Indeed, it went on to become the most populous democracy in the world and the second most populous nation with more than 1.2 billion people.But English as a language remained after the British departure and has become an integral part, for better or for worse of India’s social, cultural and economic makeup but what does this linguistic legacy of colonialism mean for a country as diverse, dynamic and defiantly resistant to any efforts of categorisation as India?With us to discuss this issue is Professor Alok Rai from the Department of English, Delhi University.  Professor Rai has written and spoken extensively to both Indian and international audiences on the role of language and culture in Indian politics.  Alok is visiting the University of Melbourne for the Australia India Institute’s conference entitled The Reluctant Superpower; Understanding India and its Aspirations.Alok, thank you so much for joining us.

ALOK RAI 
Thank you. 

JENNIFER COOK 
First of all, let’s talk about how many languages there are in India.  According to a study by K.S. Sing there are a few hundred languages and thousands of dialects, far more than the 15 languages recognised in the Constitution, is that right?

ALOK RAI 
Well, several hundred according to K.S. Singh, several hundred more according to another survey.  In fact, Singh talks about some languages of which there are no known speakers.

JENNIFER COOK 
We could do a show on that.

ALOK RAI 
On languages of no known speakers, yes [laughs].  However, yes, India’s linguistic diversity is extraordinary, wonderful, infuriating and for policymakers, impossible.

JENNIFER COOK
So let’s focus now on English in India.  Tell us about the particular status of English.

ALOK RAI 
English; it’s a kind of odd - kind of guest but a kind of permanent and favoured guest because, as you can imagine, the debates over language in the Constitution were the most contentious issue so that during the two years during which the Constituent Assembly met to make the Constitution of India the procedure they followed was that they would agree whatever they could agree about and if some disagreement came up they would defer that until later so that over time a kind of consensual document was built up, accumulated and all the people who were participating in that dialogue had a kind of stake in getting to the end because, in fact, they had spent time and agreed on a lot.  So every time language came up they would say, okay, not now, let’s leave it for later.  The issue crucially, as you can imagine in a nationalist struggle or at the end of a nationalist struggle was what will be the national language of India. And English obviously could not be the national language of India because, of course, we fought so hard to get rid of them.The language that had emerged during the freedom struggle as the possible candidate for national language had, for reasons that I go into in something I’ve written, that language Hindi was no longer acceptable to many of the participants in the dialogue over the Constitution.  So Hindi couldn’t be, English couldn’t be and so they couldn’t they talk about it until later.

JENNIFER COOK 
So, Alok, the India Constitution - we talk about this process, when did it begin and we know it was promulgated on January 26 1950 but how long did that process take?

ALOK RAI 
The process of drafting the Constitution took approximately two years.  It started in the aftermath of the coming of independence on 15 August, 1947 so about two years and promulgated, as you said, on 26 January 1950 which we celebrate as Republic day.
  JENNIFER COOK 
You have a rather fascinating title to one of your pieces of writing on this subject.  It’s Ab Mera Number Hai and could you just tell us what that means?  It seems particularly relevant to this discussion.

ALOK RAI 
Well, Ab Mera Number Hai, this was the tag line of an advertising campaign run by a mobile phone company and it showed these kind of determined young faces and what the tag line means quite simply is “it’s my turn now”.  The English word number in Hindi also stands for turn.  The pun on number and turn is something that obviously the mobile phone company is playing on so it’s my turn now.  Basically it’s a kind of assertion by these young faces that, you know, step aside, it’s my turn now and actually Ab Mera Number Hai really refers more to sort of tensions now in the country and I see English as one of the issues around which those tensions manifest themselves.The demand for English obviously has known many different phases from the time of the Constitution since Hindi was acceptable.  All the languages of India, all 15 of the schedule became national languages in which case in order to reduce the cacophony somewhat there had to be an official language and then an associate official language and the associate official language was English.

JENNIFER COOK 
Look, it’s hardly surprising is it that this anti-colonial struggle generated this nationalist rejection of English.  It’s part of finding, as you say, a national identity but you urge us to look beyond this, don’t you, to examine more deeply this really ambivalent relationship between English and Indian nationalism?  So what is it you’d like us to be seeing?

ALOK RAI 
It’s a tricky one.  Let me try and explain this.  In the first instance, there is a kind of nationalist rejection of English. Okay, because it is likely perceived that English is the language of the oppressor and, indeed, of the Comprador associates and I refer to something I’ve written to the anti-English agitations of my early student years which were determined to remove English and every last sign of English, okay.Something else has happened though in the interim between then and now which is that as an effect of much larger processes of India synchronising with the global economy and so on and so forth, that English continues to be the language of privilege.  It has also become the language of global access so that in a peculiar kind of double movement English enables access and is therefore a kind of democratising influence equally as it has a kind of anti-democratic legacy which it has inherited from its colonial past. JENNIFER COOK 
You make a very interesting observation about the two most visible routes to mobility and success in India being English and crime and you say that crime requires less investment.  You must tell us more.

ALOK RAI 
I suppose in a poor, under developed country such as I like to think of India, crime is still relatively simple.  English actually requires intellectual work.  Crime just requires minimal investment in weapons I suppose [laughs].

JENNIFER COOK 
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I’m Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Professor Alok Rai of Delhi University and we’re talking about the many roles English has played in India. Now, you describe the issue of English in India as a conundrum based on two nationalist misconceptions.  So let’s begin with the first, as we’ve discussed that English is as you so eloquently put it, irredeemably foreign and contaminant because it was the language of the vile colonising Brits and it doesn’t behove a proud and independent nation to have anything to do with it.  You dismiss that as nonsense.

ALOK RAI 
I do quite simply because there are millions of Indians who use English well.  English has an undeniable presence in India and in India’s institutions and everything else and so it’s merely silly to deny that something that has been there for 200 years does not have a presence here or that it has a presence which can be erased overnight or, indeed, should be erased overnight.  On the contrary, my own view on it is quite simply that English is one of the few good things we got from the English and we should hang on to it.The other misconception, of course - and this is a misconception which in some sense ties in which the assertive nationalism of this kind of globalising middle class which sees itself in a kind of assertive role, sees that its moment has come.  It’s, you know, Ab Mera Number Hai and English is merely one of the instruments it needs in order to become part of the global process and this English therefore in a kind of move that is the opposite of the earlier nationalist denial of it is an assertion that this is mine, you know, English belongs to me.In a peculiar sort of way the English that does become the kind of lingua franca of the eagerly globalising Indian middle class is not the English which was the badge of privilege.  It’s a kind of what is called Hinglish which is Hindi and English or chutney English as it’s called after Salman Rushdie, which is a curious hybrid bastard really.  It is this English which has a very peculiar role and that really is the argument I’m trying to make; that on the one hand it enables a vast new constituency which actually sees itself as coming into its own, acquiring cultural confidence, of being a kind of equal participant in global process and everything else.Unfortunately, and this has partly to do with the intrinsic engrained complexity of India, that this same English which in some sense enables the new constituency to become participants in the global banquet also marks them as being half educated; semi-literate.

JENNIFER COOK 
Yes.  Could you give us some examples of this Hinglish; this chutney English?

ALOK RAI 
The very common expression that has become in some sense a kind of badge or slogan of this new globalising middle class, we are like this only and we are like this only is partly deriving from a kind of Hindi idiom, “hum aiseyei hain, hum aisey hi hain”.  This only is a kind of translation into a very chutneyfied English of a Hindi expression.

JENNIFER COOK 
Alok, you have had a lot of experiences as part of your research attending English classes in India.  Now, you’ve described it as both riveting and a little frightening.  Could you tell us about that? 

ALOK RAI 
Well, what one has a sense of is getting a kind of privileged insight into a range of social experience whose significance extends way beyond language.  Language is merely one of the forms; one of the symptoms of this great hunger for social mobility, social advancement and everything else.  It’s a concretisation of something that one knows otherwise only as an abstraction but here concentrated in this classroom I see several hundred young men and women paying money, enduring hardship because they want to acquire some smattering of English, some little something that can enable them to enter or at least hope to enter the world of employment.

JENNIFER COOK 
So they’re seeing English as such a ticket and such an entry point into globalisation and economic improvement?

ALOK RAI 
Ab Mera Number Hai; it’s my turn now, step aside.

JENNIFER COOK 
So then is English the ultimate caste marker, the language of privilege, the language of economic opportunity?  I’m thinking here of the BPOs, the business process outsourcing, the wannabes, the call centres, you know, so in some ways it’s an entry point but, as you’re saying, if they don’t have the correct English it marks them as separate.  What’s your views on that?
ALOK RAI 
English has been a caste marker obviously in the sense that it has marked privilege.  It was the language that gave one access to the colonial master in the first instance, access to state power, continues to give access to state power today.  So it is a caste marker in a kind of positive sense as one that marks privilege.  In a peculiar ironic sort of way, of course, this kind of hybrid English, the kind of English that one acquires in these very large scale organised shops which claim to dispense English after a fashion.

JENNIFER COOK 
You have to share with us the example of a sentence that you heard in one of these classrooms. 

ALOK RAI 
I must do some scene setting for you in this one.

JENNIFER COOK 
Please do.

ALOK RAI 
There is this vast sort of classroom and this class is being addressed by someone who appears to have, as it were lately risen from the ranks; that indeed is how he presents himself which is important because if someone like me were to wander into that class I’d be too obviously an outsider.  I would not belong.  So this person is, by the way, very high tech so he’s fully wired up.  He’s got sort of things strapped into his waist band and things strapped around his ears and he is introducing his students to English and the example that I love from that but, as I said I am also sufficiently in awe of the phenomenon to be reluctant about laughing at it. All right, because the example that he gives, of course, is the police are looking after the thief.  Of course, it’s an example of looking after and, of course, he means, looking for but it is looking after and the 100 students pick it up, looking after the thief and I feel like saying how true but I daren’t do so and I don’t.

JENNIFER COOK 
I’m Jennifer Cook and on Up Close, this episode, we’re speaking with Professor Alok Rai about the many ways in which English as a language has impacted upon India.  Let’s focus for a moment on the wonderful story of Ambedkar who was born untouchable, went to Columbia University and then drafted the Indian Constitution.  So would you say there that English broke through those caste barriers?

ALOK RAI 
I can indeed.  I mean, the Ambedkar story is a remarkable story because Ambedkar was born untouchable, goes to Columbia, gets a PhD and comes back and is recognised for his abilities also by caste society, by the same society that might have excluded him earlier and becomes one of the people; the key people who drafts the Indian Constitution.  If, however, and I would like to propose this as a thought experiment, if it were possible for the tens of millions of India’s untouchables for all of them to be Ambedkar, which I think is a little improbable, but supposing it were possible for several tens of millions to acquire English and acquire the intellectual ability that Ambedkar had, would privilege melt away?  Or is it a case that privilege, in fact, in some sense merely consolidates itself by occasionally letting the walls part and allowing an Ambedkar to enter?That if, in fact, there was some large scale linguistic revolution which enabled tens of millions, then privilege would, I fear I am pessimistic enough to believe would find - reinvent ways of asserting itself.

JENNIFER COOK 
And now let’s flip that argument, so if we have English is breaking down in this instant those caste barriers and we’re talking about high English there, could we then talk about the call centres and India’s involvement in those?  So you have people coming in, working in call centres being taught that level of English.  Hasn’t it paradoxically then trapped them in these positions?

ALOK RAI 
That indeed is crucial.  Crucially that is that is the argument I am making that a kind of English, a kind of reduced English, enables them to get a very limited degree of mobility.  Of course, I recognise that any mobility is better than no mobility and I respect that. But anyone who imagines that the limited degree of mobility that call centre employment, that flipping burgers gives to a group, if this is the social revolution it’s not enough.

JENNIFER COOK 
Alok, thank you so much for joining us today.

ALOK RAI 
Thank you.

JENNIFER COOK 
That was Professor Alok Rai from the Department of English, Delhi University.  He was speaking with us about the many ways in which the English language has affected India.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on September 22, 2011 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I’m Jennifer Cook.  Until next time, good-bye.

VOICEOVER 
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  We’re also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2011, the University of Melbourne.

 

 


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