English: the social line in the sand

By Bikram Vohra

Published: Thu 20 Feb 2020, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Feb 2020, 1:00 AM

Not so many years ago, the English language was the social dividing line in the sand. There was this post-colonial generation (it is still there but in much less numbers) who were cruel to those who didn't know how to pronounce Grosvenor and Islington and Cholmondely. And we had names for them. Names drenched in scorn and arrogance, names like dehaath (villager) peasant, oaf, country bumpkin, even worse epithets that made us feel deliciously superior.
If some high achiever was unable to speak English properly in his thank you speech, we would cringe in embarrassment for him or her. Not to labour the point, but how much hurt we must have caused so many people by employing this arbitrary yardstick.
Were you one of those people? I was unwittingly, perhaps, but that Anglo-Saxon verbal and written pressure was intrinsic to growing up. Your marks in essay and composition and English language were the measure of the man. Public schools gave us this value system.
Imitating regional Indian accents was a common sport and cause for much ribald laughter. Even when we became journalists, the prejudice endured. Non-English language newspapers were called vernacs (short for vernacular). Even less urbane relatives were an awkwardness if their command of English was limited. They were not to the manner born.
It is amazing how this pass over from the empire had such a long life and how we espoused this linguistic racism without a qualm, consecrating knowing and speaking English with everything upmarket and rarefied. We were the privileged. We could have doors open because of the way we spoke.
The set up was so insidious that even intelligence and genius were sidelined if the aspirant didn't know English the way it was supposed to be spoken. Integral to the conspiracy were not just the sahibs and memsahibs of society but also the corporate sector, the government that continued to sanctify English as the language of the 'haves'.
Clearly their schooling was second rate as compared to us. We, who read Billy Bunter and Biggles and were weaned on Enid Blyton and scones and toasted marshmallows, spoke an alien language in our country and believed it marked us as special.
And how we flinched when some British cricket commentator questioned our players in heavily- accented English and the poor player mumbled his answer often totally off the question asked and we found salvation in the likes of Dravid and Ganguly and marvelLed that Dhoni had 'improved' so much. And it never crossed our minds to ask why on earth do these young players have to answer these arbitrary interrogators in a language that wasn't theirs.
Then I watched the Under 19s at the World Cup last week and it was so heartening, so absolutely wonderful to see our young Turks demand interpreters and speak in their language, be it Hindi or Urdu or Malayalam. This was a moment of revelation for me. I could hear the chains being smashed as this generation jubilantly embraced their own.
No awkwardness, no self-conscious shrinking, no sense of inadequacy. Absolutely splendid.
It has been going on for some time, this transformation, and it is fair to say that other countries  like Bangladesh and Pakistan and even Sri Lanka dropped English much sooner as the primary language of choice or of social distinction. None of these nations made English so vital a component in their social structure as India had. Consequently, it has taken so much time to wriggle out of it.
Even today, our major examinations are in English. The plum jobs still demand more than decent English, but the good thing is that you are no longer considered backward because you do not speak the Queen's English.
Yes, it has had its advantages on the global stage these past 70 years and Indians have used it well to establish credentials in all spheres of life. Now, it is still one of our Indian languages but no longer supreme or given royal benediction. It was becoming a draconian master, now it might well serve as a good servant.

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