“The language in which we are speaking is his [the Englishman’s] before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.”—James Joyce, from The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The potent articles of faith maintain that the intimacy of creative writing is permitted only in the mother tongue and that a foreign language can alienate one from one’s lived reality. Today, however, the theory of “language-as-identity” is redundant, and the colonial history of the English language remote. There are many South Asian writers and writers of South Asian origin who have proved their ability in trans-cultural and trans-linguistic literary productions. Identities are both more fluid and mores constitutively mixed than they are fixed. Some Indians, for example, have only the ability of writing in English, which has virtually become India’s literary first language.
English is undeniably part of the colonial legacy, but its role in the shaping of India has been paradoxical. English has acted not only as a powerful tool of colonial hegemony but also, as in other colonial contexts, as the weapon for the cause of decolonization and independence. Writing in English, studying English literature, and using English in the courts and offices of India is still an issue, but it hasn’t remained the same issue over the years. In British India, English was the language of the colonist: a language of rule and one that was introduced in native curriculums explicitly as a means of producing a “babu” class. In independent India, when language became a major divisive issue in a multilingual nation, with the southern states in particular opposing the imposition of Hindi as an official language, English rationalized its position as co-official language because it is a pan-Indian “link” language.
In a country of as considerable linguistic plurality as India, it may seem counterintuitive that English should serve as the “link” even today. Still, the demands of India’s democratic polity for the development of regional languages and literatures cannot in any way mitigate the significant role the English language continues to play. This situation tends to reinforce the other traditional notion that English is India’s window to the world, however one might try to play it down.
The contemporary history of English is related to its interface with other languages. As British lexicographer and senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, John Simpson, has said, “Languages are both getting closer and moving apart; getting closer in that American and British English (and other varieties) become more homogeneous by interaction—through media etc. And drawing apart in as much as each variety generates its own new words and meanings, which are specific to it and don’t necessarily pass into international usage.”
There are many Englishes, and great literature in English is often created in nations outside England. Certainly, English has been and continues to be integral India’s cultural and literary production. In fact, English can accurately be said today to be an Indian language.
The globalization of the English language started early in the 20th century. The information age of the last two decades has made this a phase not just of expansion of vocabulary but also of networking between speakers of English, making it a very fluid time for the language throughout the world. It is a time in which we have an expanding core English language, which is understood by speakers of different varieties around the world, in addition to a plethora of varieties of English, each with its own integrity, be it Australian English, South African English, Indian English, or American English.
English, with its true international propensities, breathes a broad cosmopolitanism, which is of great relevance in India’s contemporary context. English is adequately meeting the changed requirements of the internet age.
Despite its indelible stigma of colonial associations, English continues to be relevant in India and seems to bedestined for a more significant role in the future, too.
We should, of course, learn to repudiate that inflated notion of inherent superiority attached to traditional English studies. What is needed is to shed the psychology of subservience and use English as a tool of transformation—to respect our own regional cultures and mold English studies in relation to them. To shut it off on the ground of its alien lineage is to forget the history of languages like Sanskrit and Persian, which have also become part of our legacy.
Humorist Khushwant Singh has written on the phenomenon of Indian English: “Of all the many forms of English spoken in India, none is as distinct and as highly developed as the ‘Bonglish’ or Bengali English. It is a veritable roshogulla of a dialect, round, spongy, syrupy, and full of surprises compared to Puninglish or Punjabi English, spoken in North India, which is dull, predictable and indigestible as a besan ladoo.” Of course, we will all continue to have our linguistic prejudices!
Anita Kainthla has authored three books (a collection of poetry, a biography of Baba Amte, and a work on the religious and historical background of Tibet) and writes features and travelogues for magazines.