Language is fluid, and anyone who has successfully made it to adulthood has experienced slang growing into accepted usage and accepted usage shifting as new verbal practices infiltrate conversation and the written word. Such is the conundrum India has encountered since the British East India Company carried out the will of its crown. In her engaging, entertaining, and educational book, An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local, Kalpana Mohan cleverly mixes pieces of India’s history with an examination into how England introduced its language as a weapon, how English morphed into a tool for advancement and became the link between languages, and how what once was meant to separate eventually resulted in a near-unifying, powerful “Indian English.”
As much a joyful travel narrative as an informal treatise into language, Mohan crisscrosses India, speaking with myriad fascinating individuals for whom language is important apart from casual conversation. Her sources include a now-retired BBC journalist born in India to English parents; an outspoken filmmaker; a young activist poet; a South Indian princess whose family has spoken English for two centuries; and school principals who see the advantages a command of the English language offers to students seeking careers. Those with whom she seeks audience are young and old, student and sage, knighted and common man, all hopeful and wary about the future of English language influence in India.
With leading voices in English literature, philosophy, science, and the arts available to her, Mohan discusses a variety of topics with enthusiasm and an open mind: education in English as an expected equalizer; oddities of English vs. Indian language syntax; and words absorbed into English while English invaded Indian languages. She notes that matrimonials have their own coded brand of English. Indian English utilizes co-opted, remade-to-fit words that amplify understanding. The debate involving English vs. American English goes hand in hand with “Hinglish” in advertising to speak to younger consumers. In all these corridors of investigation, Mohan’s desire to learn or confirm is omnipresent and rewarding.
Mohan, who fell in love with English as a means of expression when she was young, conducted her unscientific-but-broadminded research on several levels, covering as much ground as possible for her 218-page volume. Across the cultural strata, she studied linguistic scholars; reflected on her own personal lifetime of reading; and participated in the conversations mentioned above. Additionally, as support for her traditional research, Mohan includes 139 source notes.
While Mohan’s voice is pleasant to read as she condenses histories, backstories, and information, her writing shines most resplendently when she shares her epiphanies about English in India—for what is more exciting than discoveries made while exploring?—and when sharing stories containing the use of English encountered while spending time with people dear to her heart: her family’s chauffeur Vinayagam and housekeeper Ganga.
Linguist David Crystal believes that the give and take of English and Indian languages, Mohan writes, “was possible only because of the inherent flexibility of the English language to absorb the colour of every language and culture it encountered.” In Kalpana Mohan’s accomplished hands, what could have devolved into a dry and lifeless dissertation was instead a lively, colorful, and oft-amusing adventure into something so many merely take for granted.
An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local by Kalpana Mohan. Aleph Book Company. 218 Pages.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects.