India presents a complex study in almost every aspect of its life and therefore writing about it, in a language borrowed from our erstwhile rulers and then indigenised to extents large and small, should be an art defying exercise of gigantic proportions. And so it has been. Indians have been expressing themselves in English for centuries – it used to be essential to do so, at the highest levels, because of the British Raj (though, even in the courts, Persian, Urdu and some other regional languages were allowed), and every other tongue was, in the context of empire rule, below par.
Therefore we have been speaking English, writing petitions in English, passing examinations in English – all after a fashion and further and further removed from the mother language and its intrinsic idiom as we go outwards in concentric circles to the Indian hinterland from the classrooms where Britons taught – be it at modern India’s first European style colleges, or at the early British-instituted Universities. With each circle, moving outwards, more and more of the vernacular patois would intermingle with the Queen’s English. English was revered as the language to learn in school and parents underwent privations to get their wards an English education so that they could get on in life. English is still the language of empowerment in India today – but that is more to do with the world scenario and the dominance of English than with our colonial past.
And so we came upon English as an everyday language which slipped into Indian life in the way egg and toast appeared at Indian breakfast tables, cricket and football entered our playing fields, and cocktails mixed into our social circuit – in large part borrowed and, in part, of own making, doing, manner of ingesting, imbibing or manifesting. English was learnt at school and classes were conducted in it in colleges and it was studied as a subject in our Universities, at first overseen by British masters and then, more and more, imparted by Indians who have trained themselves in the language. Yet, we continued to think in our mother tongues and, mostly, made literal or ready translations into English in writing and sometimes in speech. This was evident in the gap between expression and intent – as is the case with most languages learnt later in life.
When did we start thinking in English? This is an important question because that would mark the genesis of ideas that were not couched in foreign-ness, manifest in alien modes, nor expressed in translation. This would have come about among the classes that had started to have their primary education in that language. English was the first language at the more prestigious, westernised schools, but there was the overpowering influence of vernacular at home. Not only were the local argots and their myriad dialects spoken at home, it was also the language that babies grew up hearing, years before they went to kindergarten to learn the English alphabet. Indian languages would assault their well-schooled senses once they were out of the classrooms, and even in school, in the playing fields and in the interactions with the lower staff like gatekeepers and attendants. In the outside world, even out of the home the local tongues would be heard and responded to on the public transport and with the vendors and playmates of the neighbourhood.
Thus began a life-long cohabitation, or confusion, of two languages. This simultaneity of dual languages, one for school, work, and a sort of social circle, and another for all the rest of life’s interfaces, has its pitfalls and advantages. This can add colour and character to one’s verbiage – with one tongue complementing and supplementing the other. It can also lead to garbled thinking and contorted expression.
The relationship between Indians and the English language was a complicated affair. As soon as we learnt to think in English and express ourselves primarily or, at least, with equal adeptness in the language, we started using it as art, in literature. If language cannot be separated from a culture, we can safely say that English had, by then, existed so long and closely in Indian cultural spaces that it had found organic links with human existence here.
Life fed on language and language fed on life, giving birth to new words, modes, moods, turns of phrase and inflections, intonations and accents. Bi-lingual Indians believed they had found the confidence to write in English – and the earliest example was a product of the early Bengal Renaissance, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who also changed his religion not only to be able to live a westernised life and eat forbidden meats but also to be able to travel to England and to marry a Christian wife. His experiment ended in despair as did his marriage (he was to marry again) as the English world of letters was not inclusive towards the efforts, however competent, of an Indian. The prejudices of Racism and Empire played out in the failure of Dutt to find favour among the English literary classes. It is another story that he returned home and turned to his own language with all the anguish of his rebuffed soul and created powerful poetry and a body of literature that resounds to this day. His dalliance with English was over.
The 20th century saw the rise of Indians writing prose in English and these efforts met with a degree of success, but far less than they would have had they been writing today. Mulk Raj Anand’s short stories and the stories and novels of R K Narayan were of a high order. Narayan was so well received in certain quarters of the English establishment that no less a figure than Graham Greene endorsed Narayan’s writing on BBC Radio and remained a lifelong friend of the Indian author with whom he had a celebrated and long exchange of letters spanning decades.
By this time Indians were gearing up to enter the world of English literature – not only as practicing critics and academics but also as purveyors of poetry and prose. The dam broke in the last two decades of the 20th century as Indian writing was to take the world by storm, albeit one that tapered into a lively zephyr after the first eight years or so. But then, that is another story – of another era, and of a different world. It was a world where, it could be said, we had arrived.
The author is a writer and documentary film-maker who lives in Calcutta and New Delhi