When I learned that the Oscar International committee had disqualified a movie from Nigeria because it was predominantly in English, I was appalled. I’m an Indian immigrant who came to America in 1985 but I’ve been speaking English since I was a child. Sometimes, I have thoughts in my mother tongue, Tamil. However, more often than not, my thoughts are in English. This may be because I write only in English, since English remains one of India’s 23 official languages.
Thanks to the British empire, the English language is now the language with commercial heft. It’s as local as it is international. There are many versions of English. The Nigerian poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, who explored African ideas and folklore in the English language, articulated this perfectly with respect to the English he acquired: “Why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?”
For years, I’ve been asked how I speak English well given that I immigrated to the United States as an adult. Americans often don’t know about India’s history of colonization, or that English is also an official Indian language, or that my medium of education was, in fact, English. If I were to narrate India’s story of colonization, I’d have to begin in 1608 when the first Englishman landed in Surat on India’s north-western coast. I’d have to talk about how Indian laborers were forced to grow indigo—in place of food crops—so that Britain could sell the precious blue dye that Europe coveted. And of course, the English wanted to drink rum so they enslaved poor Indians to plant sugar cane around tropical islands. Oppressed by the Raj, we were forced to buy thick cotton that rolled out from English mills even when we were making our own fine muslin for a fraction of the cost. In time, Indians learned, also, to enunciate English vowels and consonants. They were hammered into those reporting to the Crown. Soon, the Englishmen made us cringe at our own mother tongues, telling us, in the voice of essayist and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Around the world, over centuries, colonizers wiped out countless languages, erasing the names of ancestors.
Here are just a few stories of conquests from the last many centuries. In the 1500s, the Portuguese landed in Brazil—1200 men on a fleet of 12 ships. They decimated most of the natives and harvested Brazilian wood for its red dye, ramming Portuguese words down the throats of those who survived the pillage. 1619, the imperial nations began looting African villages, separating children from parents, so they could build their new colonies in the Americas. In Australia, they silenced aborigines. 1950s in Kenya, if a student uttered a word of Gikuyu near his English school, he was caned or fined; sometimes he was made to wear a metal plate around the head with the words “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey”. In the Philippines, 500 years of Spanish and American rule has killed any appetite for Tagalog literature.
This is a plunder, of not just nations but also of memories, cultures and tongues. In Nigeria, too, as in India, the British force-fed their tongue. So the English language is as local to the Nigerian as Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba or any of 500 native tongues. But alas, the arbiters of acclaim in Hollywood now object to Nigerians using English as a conduit for art, not appreciating that in Nigeria, English now unifies them and allows them to communicate with one another.
According to the Oscar committee, the Nigerian entry did not fit their rubric because it was not foreign enough: Lionheart had only eleven minutes of non-English dialogue. Look at the irony of the life of the once-colonized. We were taught how to speak. Now when we speak the language well, we are told to not speak too much of it. Shouldn’t the Oscar committee be driven, instead, by the origin of the submission? For while our medium of expression may be eclectic given our histories, our roots are often ours alone. They color our tongues and narratives.
Kalpana Mohan is the author of ‘An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local’ and of ‘Daddykins: A Memoir Of My Father And I’. She lives in Saratoga, California.