English, the Indian Aunty tongue

In India, the English language is the criteria for social acceptance, for those who could be the highly privileged

Tajamul Hussain
Srinagar, Publish Date: Oct 19 2017 9:37PM | Updated Date: Oct 19 2017 9:37PM
English, the Indian Aunty tongue

Imagine those who think owning ‘high-end’ labels set them apart from the mere mortals. They may be also the ones who take to the perception that owning a particular brand gives them the key to looking down upon someone who doesn’t own the same brand per se. Once you embrace a language you embrace culture too. The fluent English Indian speakers ‘think in English’. They who sport English on their sleeve, have far more in common with their fellow Indians than they have with native English speakers. But then as it is an instrument for social exclusion, this caste of the middle-class presides over the linguistic apartheid. For them, others are victims and aspirants. The linguistic-divide makes people, who’re fluent in English, uncomfortable with those that aren’t, and vice versa.

In bureaucratic-speak, English is our associate official language. It’s the predominant tongue for business transactions, boardroom discussions, and water-cooler gossips. The legal system, the national media, and important professions are all conducted in English. The rise of Indian MNCs and the key advantage in competing in the global services market---our purple poker chip—has been India’s large number of affordable educated and English literate workers. Having spread into many new domains, also the more personal ones, such as the family and friendship, English has also acquired new functions. It’s the language that dominates the chatter of the information age. English now belongs to India's linguistic repertoire in a very natural way.

 "India likes gods. And Englishmen like posing as gods". EM Forster wrote in, ‘A Passage to India’. Historically, the English language became a marker of the white man's power. We accepted it. British created an English-educated class, who cocooned in a world of their own. The social butterflies associated English with cultural prestige and considered it essential to life in the upper circles with. It meant additional accessory for the elite, and a pretty bauble to be acquired in the same way upper crust Indians adopted British dress, tea-parties, and socials. English rapidly took on the role of a career language. Administrative career was the major and probably the only avenue for the educated Indians.

In the post-independence India, English was considered as a "road to the light", a “tool of civilization". The English-speaking upper-classes had little or no such redeeming features. But since they’re at the pinnacle of this social order, their unrepentant and insular choice of the language set the norm, the standard of emulation from the lower-middle classes seeking upwardly mobility. Post-independence, it’s the tongue of exclusion and snobbery, the language of boxwallahs…. anglicized Indians who worked for British owned firm or ICS in their Calcutta clubs, speaking in clipped accents over their cigars and whiskey glasses. It’s the password to the most rarified social and corporate circles, a language connected with other rituals–candidates for job interviews at the most discerning private firms had to sport a flawless accent.

World regions have repeatedly been swept by ‘language steamrollers’. One group enjoying some advantage to expand at the expense of neighboring groups imposed its own language on the region, replacing previous languages by driving out or killing their speakers and converting them to speaking the invader’s language.  Strong social barriers between the dominant colonists and the locals made each other unwilling and unable to learn each other’s language. Usually, colonists scorned locals. Even if the social barriers hadn’t existed, the locals had few opportunities to learn the colonists’ language because the former outnumbered colonists.  For American invaders, English language was the first step towards taking the Red Indians to civilization.  People who speak your language are your people; they’ll recognize you as a compatriot and they’ll support you or at least not be immediately suspicious of you.  For Indians the language has been, at various times over the last 200 years, a symbol of oppression, resistance, compromise, and most recently an economy come of age.

 

In India, the English language is the criteria for social acceptance, for those who could be the highly privileged. Those who couldn’t are the less privileged, bereft of the qualifying social and educational background. The ‘minority’ English speakers scattered across India, in reality, a ‘disguised majority’, nonetheless feel no ‘minority complex’ at all.  That the language expansion is partly a matter of state policy for the purpose of administration etc. and partly a spontaneous matter of individual citizens adopting the national language in order to obtain economic and social opportunities for themselves. For us, baby-boomers (with an inordinate attachment to foreign customs, institutions, language, manners, fashions, etc) the ability to speak English has always been the touchstone for entry into the charmed circle of elites. Across Indian economy, especially in urban India, English is one language, India’s ‘auntie tongue’, English that seems ubiquitous. It’s clearly a more useful language to know in India and is no longer British tongue.  

The formative years after the 1980s saw the mushroom growth of English medium schools in Kashmir. A generation of linguistic ‘half-castes’—insecure in English and neglectful of their own mother tongue, fostered a deep sense of inferiority in many talented Kashmiris, who while excelling in their studies in spite of the burden of education in a foreign language were unable to acquire the fluency in English of their social ‘superiors’. As competence in English usage became the single most important yardstick of a person’s eligibility for negotiating the opportunity structure that can be availed of in a modern economy in their snobbish frenzy, people keep making it point to admit their wards in the English medium schools.

 

For those that grew with the new web, the internet was no longer about idly surfing and passively reading, listening or watching. While peering; sharing, socializing, collaborating and most of all, creating within loosely connected communities they grew into considering their parent language, a big part of their culture and identity.  With the strong belief that they miss out on many enjoyable parts of culture could they not speak Kashmiri, young upwardly mobile professionals, take pride in enjoying conversation with parents, friends or relatives purely in Kashmiri. While they’re quite adept at speaking English/Hindustani with the right accent, pronunciation, and fluency, the fact that they aren’t quite savvy with their native language is something mind-blowing. Embracing a language that isn’t their mother tongue carries a little snob appeal.