Free India

It’s been 76 years since the colonists left India but in its own way colonialism has survived. I say so because I belong to an urban pocket of the country and I’m surrounded by an English-speaking social class that would rather mispronounce Hindi words than English ones. Moreover, it is spoken by many in a quasi-British accent. On some it sounds like an affectation. If I were to walk upto a five-star hotel’s reception and initiate conversation in our national language Hindi, more often than not, it would be assumed that I don’t belong to an educated or progressive background. At a subliminal level many of us are proud of our mastery over English but strangely so, also proud of our ignorance of Indian languages. Instead of feeling embarrassed, we chuckle while making the declaration. Perhaps, it’s a brown sahib hangover.

We are taught Indian languages in the first few years following our birth but once enrolled into school we are quite suddenly introduced to English, a language that is difficult to learn. As lexicographer Kory Stamper says, ‘English has been borrowing words from other languages since its infancy. As many as 350 other languages are represented and their linguistic contributions actually make up English! Ranking from most influential to least, English is composed of words from: Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Scandinavian, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Russian, Maori, Hindi, Hebrew, Persian, Malay, Urdu, Irish, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Chinese, Turkish, Norwegian, Zulu, and Swahili. And, that’s not even 10% of the 350 languages in the English melting pot.’ So, tell me, how am I supposed to know how to say ‘chutzpah,’ and ‘Au contraire?’ over and above all the conversational English words I have had to learn. Especially, since all I heard was Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi in my nascent years.

Despite this fact, my generation communicates almost entirely in English. Foreigners are surprised to learn that I write in English till I explain that it is a medium of instruction in our educational institutions and one of our official languages. Moreover, it is a language I learned in my formative years so it became the language of my head and heart. I consider it a privilege to be able to read and write it with fluency as I would any other language. Yet, I can’t help but say that I can neither speak it like its native speakers in England nor speak any Indian language without a tinge of anglicization. We have a rich body of literature in India, written in Sanskrit, Urdu and Hindi. Yet we read English translations of the Vedas and the Upanishads. We have little knowledge of poet and playwright Kalidas’s works. That cultural gap can only be bridged when we realize that we bear a special kinship with the poetry of Ghalib, Zauq or Amrita Pritam because the sentiments align with our social conditioning. Even so, it takes effort to understand all the words because we speak a watered-down version of these great languages. Some words are impossible to translate into English, the context is lost in translation. Moreover, Sanskrit, Hindi and Urdu have been reduced to second and third languages that are learned at a basic level by overburdened students. I have never seen a city dweller walking around with Munshi Premchand’s book. In fact, if it weren’t for Indian cinema or Bollywood, I daresay that regional languages may gradually vanish in urban India. Unless one can count profanities and slang as language.

Somehow, we are very indulgent when a foreigner mispronounces the name of an Indian city, person or food. Yet, we have taken it upon ourselves to say correctly, for example, ‘Champs Elysees, the surname Beauchamp and the vegetable aubergine. We ought to note that the British left three quarters of a century ago and we no longer have to adopt their ways. We inherited the British Raj and accept it as one should any heritage but that is all it is-the past.  For better or for worse it changed us but we can’t forget the fact that we had a sound culture before they arrived at our shores, one that they borrowed from. According to a Google search we have over 700 languages of our own, so whether or not we speak English and moreover how accurately we speak it, ought not to be considered a symbol of education or superiority. Many successful people in India speak a basic level of English proving that there’s more to accomplishment than pronouncing every word in the English dictionary as though we are in a linguistic competition. Funnily, I find it easier to understand a heavily accented Indian person’s English than many cockney accents in England.

As long as one is able to communicate with another human being, the goal of a language has been achieved. Therefore, until and unless I can speak an unadulterated form of Hindi and Gujarati, I should think twice before correcting a person whose second language is English, and this applies to most Indians. It is acceptable to point out a mispronunciation if it is done in a non-judgmental manner, the way we slap our heads and laugh when we can’t say an Urdu, Hindi or Sanskrit word correctly. Of course, there is some truth in the belief that English unites us. After all it became a universal language due to centuries of British domination. Yet, in many ways it has divided us. We mock those who struggle with its complexities because they didn’t learn it in their early years. Also, we mistakenly believe that it denotes social class and status. I don’t think we can be called free until I can blatantly mispronounce ‘avant-garde’ to self-appointed guardians of elitist society. They can balk as much as they like but I doubt if they know the meaning of ‘tehzeeb’ and ‘sanskar,’ or they wouldn’t look down upon their fellow Indians.

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