Millennium Post

Rewriting Macaulay

Who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia [?].’ In the universal disparagement handed out to Thomas Babington Macaulay, this (half-)sentence remains the most-quoted verbal proof attributed to the 19th century British historian and bureaucrat’s typical racism and his prescient anticipation of English as the next world language. Every educated Indian, whether residing in India, or in the innumerable diasporic communities across the world, is aware that had it not been for Macaulay, and his (in)famous ‘Education Minute’ presented on 2 February 1835 before the Governor-General’s Council in erstwhile Calcutta, their uses and abuses of the English language, as much as the casualness with which the proximity to English is taken for granted by Indians all over, would have perhaps never happened.

‘Bleddy Macaulay’s minutemen! … English-medium misfits … Square-peg freaks’ — thus screams a character in Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh in his effort to describe the class of people that Tom Macaulay, and indeed much of the liberal-imperial British establishment of early 19th century, had sought to create. In Macaulay’s own words, they were to be ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.’ Macaulay’s ‘Minutemen’, as this band of Westernised Indian elite came to be called, were the product of that primordial linguistic miscegenation that grafted English on the top of the language tree of the subcontinent and made the language the ‘grandmother tongue’ of the subsequent generations of Indians.

Can an imposition, in the course of time, become an addiction? Can an alien entity, a different language, be so absorbed that it becomes integrated with the cultural DNA of a nation? Whether ‘Babington’s Baloney’, or ‘Tom’s Twaddle’, as some aggressively critical academics have sometimes mockingly referred to Macaulay’s Minute, was good or bad for the Indian subcontinent, whether it was at all necessary to install English as the official language of governance and education, are considerations and speculations that eat up a serious chunk of academic writing in the departments of South Asian studies in leading global universities. Nevertheless, the primal English-ing of India and, the later ‘desification’ of British and American cultural landscapes by the Indian-origin literary architects in the last quarter of the 20th century, are indisputable and complementary essentials that guide our understanding of the broader and greater Indian consciousness in the present times.

At a time when the ‘Idea of India’ occupies international think-tanks and scholars of foreign policy alike; when global Bollywood increasingly asserts its ‘hegemony of colour and song ‘n’ dance’ as a template for collective entertainment; when transnational Indian businessmen often set the tone and temper of discussions at platforms such as the World Economic Forum — a new biography of Thomas Babington Macaulay is not only sensible but also much wanted and, in fact, quite opportune, in the sense that there has been no better time to revisit, as it were, that first sowing of the seed. And, what is more ironical, as well as appropriate, than the fact that the biography has been penned by a worthy descendant of one of ‘Macaulay’s Minutemen’, the British-Indian historian and former BBC Radio journalist, Zareer Masani.    

Perhaps it is Masani’s re-visioning of Macaulay as a latter-day historian, and not as a sage of radical postcolonial polemic, that makes this book simple and easy-to-read as well as deeply engaging at once. Masani’s account sits comfortably with the present barrage of literary and academic writings celebrating multiculturalism within the global Indian diaspora, as well as the enthralling, enthusing and exhilarating worlds of contemporary multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual Western nations, particularly the Anglophone regions of Britain, America, Canada and Australia. Immigrant Indian literature forms a formidable portion of world literature now, and Indian expatriates, exiles, border-crossers, and even ‘international bastards’, global itinerants, cultural refugees and transnational nomads, whichever manner one wishes to see and be seen, shape the social and cultural histories of their adopted homeland as much as they get shaped by the grinding wheel of integration policies of their new domiciles.

Macaulay’s predictions have come uncannily true. Empires of immigrants have forged a global language of information, literacy, entertainment and communication. English is now a prerequisite; a driving license on the superhighway of the networked world. Transnational Indians have the best vehicles, as it were, to enjoy the precarious yet dizzyingly gratifying pleasures of this English-ed world. However, the far-reaching implications of Macaulay’s Minute resemble the double-edged sword that the Education Act of 1835 turned out to be. It creates newness and demolishes old guards with equal panache, but dealing with that contradiction remains one of the chief calling of the global Indian soul.
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