ENGLISH,THE INDIAN AUNTIE LANGUAGE
I’ve for some time been quite keenly observing that my children take pride in speaking their mother tongue. With the strong belief that they’d miss out on many enjoyable parts of culture could they not speak Kashmiri, they take to enjoying conversation with parents, friends or relatives purely in Kashmiri. Like many other xenomaniac Kashmiri parents, (with an inordinate attachment to foreign customs, institutions, language, manners, fashions, etc),
I make no bones to admit that, for us baby-boomers generation the ability to speak English has always been the touchstone for entry into the charmed circle of elites. As my English lacked fluency, accent, grammar and pronunciation, I would always be, keen as mustard, to see my children compensate my shortcoming by speaking it with a fluency/accent that I always fantasized about. In my snobbish frenzy I’d always egg onto my kids to keep from speaking Kashmiri.
As English language has been the criteria for social acceptance, those who could were the highly privileged. Those who couldn’t were the less privileged like us, bereft of the qualifying social and educational background. As my children finished with their 10th, the schooling outside Kashmir turned out to be a turning point for them. For the NetGen children that grew with the new web, the internet was no longer about idly surfing and passively reading, listening or watching. While peering; sharing, socializing, collaborating and most of all, creating within loosely connected communities they grew into considering their parent language, a big part of their culture and identity. While they’re quite adept at speaking English/Hindustani with the right accent, pronunciation and fluency, the fact that they aren’t quite savvy with their native language is something mind-blowing. Embracing a language that isn’t their mother tongue carries zero-snob appeal for these NetGeners.
Across Indian economy–especially in urban India-English is one language, India’s ‘auntie language’, English that seems ubiquitous. It’s clearly a more useful language to know in India and is no longer British tongue—it’s more the language of international business and a powerful key in opening up geographical borders and gaining access to markets. In bureaucratic-speak it’s our associate official language. It’s the predominant tongue in which business transactions, boardroom discussions and water-cooler gossip takes place. The legal system, the national media and important professions are all conducted in English. The rise of Indian MNCs and the key advantage in competing in the global services market---our purple poker chip—has been India’s large number of affordable educated and English literate workers. Having spread into many new domains, also the more personal ones, such as the family and friendship, English has also acquired new functions. It’s the language that dominates the chatter of the information age. English now belongs to India's linguistic repertoire in a very natural way.
Imagine they who think owning ‘Apple’ utilities or ‘high-end’ labels set them apart from the mere mortals. They maybe also the ones who take to the perception that owning a particular brand gives them the key to look down upon someone who doesn’t own the same brand per se. Once you embrace a language (there’re many Indians who think in English today) you embrace culture too. Many fluent English speakers are kind of westernized despite the fact that these fellows, who sport English on their sleeve, have far more in common with their fellow Indians than they have with native English speakers. Speaking English language smells as if an instrument for social exclusion…… the upper caste of the Indian middleclass that presides over the linguistic apartheid. For them the rest of us consist of victims and aspirants. It’s a kind of linguistic divide that makes Indians, who’re fluent in English uncomfortable with those who aren’t, and vice versa.
Historically, English would be considered as a "road to the light", a tool of "civilization". E M Forster in, ‘A Passage to India’ wrote: "India likes gods. And Englishmen like posing as gods". By virtue of their political power, English language became a marker of the white man's power. We accepted it. British created a new caste (class) in India; the English-educated, which lived in a world of its own cut-off from the mass of population. The social butterflies associated English with cultural prestige and considered it essential to life in the upper circles, it’s an additional accessory for the elite, and a pretty bauble to be acquired in the same way upper crust Indians adopted British dress, tea-parties and socials. English rapidly took on the role of a career language. Administrative career was the major and probably only avenue for the educated Indians.
In post-independence India the English-speaking upper-classes had little or no such redeeming features. But since they’re at the pinnacle of this social order, their unrepentant and insular choice of the language set the norm, the standard of emulation from the lower-middle classes seeking upwardly mobility. Post-independence, it’s the tongue of exclusion and snobbery, the language of boxwallahs…. anglicized Indians who worked for British owned firm or ICS in their Calcutta clubs, speaking in clipped accents over their cigars and whisky glasses. It’s the password to the most rarified social and corporate circles, a language connected with other rituals–candidates for job interviews at the most discerning private firms had to sport a flawless accent.
The formative years after independence saw the mushroom growth of English medium schools. Those who didn’t inherit the usage of English as part of their social background couldn’t acquire the same facility in the language. A generation of linguistic ‘half-castes’—insecure in English and neglectful of their own mother tongue, fostered a deep sense of inferiority in many talented people, who while excelling in their studies in spite of the burden of education in a foreign language were unable to acquire the fluency in English of their social ‘superiors’. Competence in English usage became the single most important yardstick of a person’s eligibility for negotiating the opportunity structure that can be availed of in a modern economy.