My Irony Meter Just Broke

In the parade of clueless opinion pieces that grace the pages of the New York Times, last week’s op-ed contribution by Aatish Taseer takes the not just the cake but the bakery.  In his column, Taseer,  laments how the language of India’s past colonial masters is killing Indian literature.  The leaps of logic, the factual inaccuracies and over the top generalizations would  give even the Mustache of Understanding a headache.

The essay follows a classic Friedmanesque pattern.  Instead of the cab driver, we have a boatman on the Ganges, dispensing pearls of wisdom to the intrepid Mr. Taseer. How quaint, and shall I say, orientalist of Mr. Taseer.

A BOATMAN I met in Varanasi last year, while covering the general election that made Narendra Modi prime minister of India, said, “When Modi comes to power, we will send this government of the English packing.”

The London born, Amherst College graduate, decries that English has killed Indian literature.  There is so much wrong in this piece that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, it takes a lot of chutzpah to decry the influence of English, while peddling books in the same language. I see a bright future in politics for Mr. Taseer.  He can join the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, and rail articulately against the influence of English and grumble about colonialism, while he himself profits from his knowledge of the so-called language of oppression.

The boatman’s story is followed by anecdata of someone not getting an acting job because they could not speak English.  Since that supposedly signified that the actor was not a member of the elite. How this is supposed to prove the death of Indian literature, I have no clue.

This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English.

Also, what is this Indian literature he speaks of? I wonder. Surely, Mr. Taseer is aware that there is no language called Indian? India is home to many languages with their own scripts, grammars and yes literature, dating back to a thousand years or more. There is more to India’s linguistic diversity than the dead classical language Sanskrit and the language of the Northern India, Hindi, the two languages Mr. Taseer mentions in his essay full of fail.

India has had languages of the elite in the past — Sanskrit was one, Persian another.

English is far more widespread and easily attainable than these two languages ever were. Persian was the language of the Mughal court but unlike the British, even at the height of their power, the Mughals never ruled all of India.   The South and Northeast were never a part of the Moghul empire. As for Sanskrit, it has been an antiquated language of ritual for more than a thousand years .  Until recently, it was the sole the preserve of Brahmin males and  even  for them, it was not the everyday language of marital spats or gossip.  Also, no other language is symbolic of the caste divides in India, than Sanskrit.  

Both these languages did not have the reach or draw of English, ever. In a country with a multitude of languages English is unique. It does not belong to  a particular region of India , nor is it a preserve of a particular caste. For better or for worse, in India, English is the language that helps you rise above your circumstances and get out of the constricting straight jacket of tradition. Since it is both  the language of official business and higher education, it expands your horizons of what is possible.  English is not a language oppression for Indians but a language of opportunity. Indians have made English their own and added to India’s linguistic diversity.  It is the very opposite of Mr. Taseer’s claim;

English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.

What total bullshit, how is the linguistic line unbreachable? You can’t easily change your skin color or gender, or your caste  for that matter, but you can learn a new language. English is not some antiquated language with five living speakers, there are plenty of resources available if want to master it.

He then follows this brilliant insight with the stories of two students from Banaras Hindu University. Presumably, Mr. Taseer was dropped there by the boatman from the first paragraph. Banaras is another name for Varanasi, a city on the banks of the river Ganges, Hinduism’s Mecca if you will.  Anyway, coming back to the aforementioned students, both give Mr. Op-Ed contributor a sad. 

First there is Vishal Singh,

a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes.

Playing basketball is not a route to popularity in India.  It would be more believable if Vishal Singh played cricket. Besides, Michael Jordan hasn’t played professional basket ball since Vishal Singh was in elementary school. Vishal Singh is probably as real as Mr. Ganges Boatman. Vishal Singh, apparently can’t string two sentences in English but he is still better off than a scholar of Sanskrit.

 

Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless.

What is so unique about Shukla, doesn’t everyone have to learn the rules of grammar when mastering any language? Why is Mr. Shukla powerless? If he can master the extra special rules of ancient Indian grammarians, surely he can use his linguistic skills to master English.  According to Mr. Taseer, Sheshamuni has spent ten years in the Sanskrit department, so I am guessing that he must at least be  a doctoral candidate in Sanskrit. I don’t see how knowledge of English is relevant to his career prospects as a scholar of Sanskrit.  Also, Mr. Shukla was surely aware that spending years studying a classical language would not make him marketable like an engineering degree would.  Would a  scholar of Aramaic or Latin be flooded with job offers after graduation ? I don’t see what these anecdotes are supposed to establish.

As for political power, the halls of power in India are not the preserve of the English speaking elite as Mr. Taseer would have us believe.   In fact not being fluent in Hindi is much more of an impediment to success in India’s national politics. In fact, eleven of India’s fifteen Prime Ministers originate from the Hindi belt and/or are native Hindi speakers. I remember that people would point and laugh at Rajiv Gandhi because he was not fluent in Hindi, when he was thrust into political limelight after his mother’s assassination.

Indian writers who write in English  get no love from Mr. Taseer either, he either dismisses them as owing their success to the West;

India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes.

or they are beneath contempt;

India, when left to its own devices, throws up a very different kind of writer, a man such as Chetan Bhagat, who, though he writes in English about things that are urgent and important — like life on campuses and in call centers — writes books of such poor literary quality that no one outside India can be expected to read them. India produces a number of such writers,

Mr. Pompous Windbag does not stop here, he then proceeds to speak for all of India, deeming it voiceless.

But this is not the voice of a confident country. It sounds rather like a country whose painful relationship with language has left it voiceless.

And who better to give voiceless Indians a voice, than a Russian?

The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.

Next up, lamentations about the good old days,

In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual. Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry,

Hindi and Urdu are not two separate languages but the same language, Hindustani, written in different scripts. 

But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, I spoke Hindi and Urdu, but had to self-consciously relearn them as an adult. Many of my background didn’t bother.

As I had suspected before, all this garment rending about voiceless India is about Mr. Taseer’s own angst and has precious little to do with the state of Indian literature.  Just because he can’t be a serious writer in Hindi does not mean that the literature of the said language is dead or dying. 

 

This meant that it was not really possible for writers like myself to pursue a serious career in an Indian language. We were forced instead to make a roundabout journey back to India. We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity. V. S. Naipaul called it “the riddle of the two civilizations.” He felt it stood in the way of “identity and strength and intellectual growth.”

Mr. Naipaul is of Indian origin but  how many Indian languages does Mr. Naipaul speak? He is an observer of Indian mores, with a distant ancestral connection nothing more.  Why does Taseer choose him as the supposed  Indian voice of authenticity?

 

That day almost a year ago in Varanasi, the boatman felt that Mr. Modi’s coming to power would rid India of the legacy of English rule. Mr. Modi, who had risen to power out of poverty with little to no English, seemed to pose a direct challenge to the power of the English-speaking elite. The boatman was wrong. Though the election was in some ways a dramatization of India’s culture wars, English, and all that it signifies, will endure here for generations still.

This is ridiculous, as I mentioned before,  being fluent in Hindi has always been more important than mastery over English to succeed in politics.  Prominent Indian politicians whose English Mr. Taseer would approve of, are few and far between.  On the other hand political stalwarts whose oratorical skills in Hindi far surpass their skills in English are too numerous to recount here. The same is true at the state level too, where knowledge of the state language can make or break your candidacy.  Try to get elected in Tamil Nadu without speaking Tamil, for example. Linguistic politics are a minefield in India, English is as close to  a neutral language as one can get. With as many as twenty two officially recognized languages, there is no clear cut successor to replace English. To India’s millions of non Hindi speakers (60% of the population according to the 2001 census), why  would Hindi hegemony be necessarily better than English?

In reality, many Indians, especially  the ones whose mother tongue is not Hindi can speak three and sometimes even four languages. Take the hypothetical example of a Bengali person who grew up in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra and went to a school whose medium of instruction was English. This person would know their mother tongue, Bengali and  Marathi,  the state language of Maharashtra besides  Hindi and English.

In addition to formal Hindi education, the Hindi film industry is a potent pan Indian cultural force. Movies made in Hindi and other regional languages far exceed the revenues generated by Hollywood flicks. The relationship between Indian languages and English is far more complex than Mr. Taseer lets on.

If Mr. Taseer is not a competent Hindi speaker or writer, it is his own damn fault and he should quit projecting his neuroses on the entire country.

 

This is as deep an entrenchment of class and power as any the world has known; it will take more to change it than a change of government. It will take a dismantling of colonial education, a remaking of the relationship between language and power.The boatman spoke from anger, but I was not out of sympathy with his rage. It was the rage of belonging to a place that, 70 years after the British left, still felt in too many ways like an outpost.

Sure, lets go ahead and dismantle the teaching of English in India, and make the language a sole preserve of those Indians who can afford an undergraduate education at an elite liberal arts college.  Then they can write columns and be dismissive of their fellow countrymen for their poor English.

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Posted on March 27, 2015, in India, Politics, Punditubbies say Hello and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this. I totally agree the column was really problematic. Among other things: If the main issue is entrenched “class and power,” well then, go after that; if it’s language/literature, how about (for instance) getting some English works translated? As you say, “The relationship between Indian languages and English is far more complex than Mr. Taseer lets on.” He certainly writes as if he weren’t aware of that.

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