Mona Sinha and Tasneem Shahnaaz in Conversation with Professor Harish Trivedi

Reflections on English in India

Professor Harish Trivedi, formerly Professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Delhi, is an eminent international scholar of post-colonialism and translation studies. He has authored Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India (19931995), co-edited The Nation across the World: Postcolonial Literary Representations (2007, 2008), Literature and Nation: Britain and India 1800-1990 (2000), Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice (1999), and Interrogating Post-colonialism: Theory, Text and Context (1996; rpt. 2000, 2006), etc. He has also translated Premchand’s biography by Amrit Rai  (Premchand: His Life and Times,1982, rpt.1991) and has authored many essays and articles which have appeared in various books and journals.

Here, he is in conversation with Mona Sinha and Tasneem Shahnaaz.

MS and TS: Welcome to Fortell, Sir. We are honoured to have you sharing your thoughts with us for the journal. You have had a long association with the Department of English, University of Delhi as Professor and Head  and you are known for your strong views on the teaching of English and native languages in India. It was during your tenure as Head that a revolutionary syllabus, incorporating large doses of Indian literatures in translation, was introduced for undergraduate students of English literature. To begin with, we would like our readers to know your views on the current status of English in India and how it is taught in our classrooms.

HT: I’m very pleased to be speaking to Fortell,of whose existence I’ve known for a very long time, although I’ve not been its regular reader. I’m very pleased that we are talking about these issues in a forum which is very well known in the field and which circulates as widely as it does.

About the status of English and as to how it is taught in the classroom, yes, you are right, I’ve thought about it for a very long time. I feel concerned about it and sometimes I’m even anguished about it. If I were asked to name half a dozen major problems in this country, or even maybe just two or three, I would say this is one of them. English is not just a language in India; it is a dream that we sell to any number of people in this country. If you learn English, you will get all this, if you don’t you will not get any of this. The haves and have-nots will be divided strictly on the basis of whether they know English or not—or this is what we project so as to bluff the people.

TS : Why do you call it a dream or a bluff?

HT: After so many years of teaching English in India, how many people actually know the kind of English that will take them places? Very, very few. Everybody who goes to school begins to learn English in India. but 80-90 per cent of the people fall by the wayside, unless they have advantages already of the social and economic kind.

There are two or three kinds of English that people acquire in India.  One is this top class English that gets you places, that gets you jobs, that makes you succeed in interviews and so on. The second kind of English is fairly correct, competent English but without the accent, without the social bearing to go with it. And that doesn’t get you to the top of the tree. And then there is another kind of English which you’ve learnt for 10-12 years in a Hindi-medium school but you are still perhaps as incompetent in it as when you started. You might have even got degrees in it.  And as I said, this proportion is 80-90 per cent of English learners. There are differing statistics about how many people in India know English. Of course, the first thing to do is to define what “know” is. I would say that figure is not above 5 per cent in any meaningful sense.

But what I’m anguished about is the fact that so many poor people all over India, who can barely earn subsistence level wages, make great sacrifices to send their children to English-medium schools chasing this impossible dream!

There are two kinds of successes even now possible in India. There are lots of people who did not know much English but have acquired a little along the way as they succeeded. This is the kind represented, for example, by Dhirubhai Ambani. He hardly knew any English when he started, and then his children went to top management schools in the US. The other kind of success is not only Modi; remember also Kamraj, Deve Gowda, Chandra Shekhar, who became top political leaders. The best thing I have heard on this is: Paanch saal raaj karte hain angrezi mein, aur phir aake vote maangte hain Hindi mein! (They rule over us for five years in English, and then they come and plead for votes in Hindi!) Hindi here means all our regional languages. So there’s a huge paradox at the heart of our democratic nation. 

From time to time, there are slogans raised, if not movements launched, to remove English from India. I’ve been watching it with active interest for the last 50 years.  It came to a head when the Queen of England visited India in 1961. Some of our top socialists and other anti-Congress leaders launched this campaign for removing English from India as a token of assertion and affirmation that we are no longer ruled by the British. One of them was Ram Manohar Lohia who was very attractive to me as a political leader, and quite as charismatic for the young as Nehru.

Here I’d like to mention a couple of short stories in Hindi which bring up the issue of Hindi and English, with English shown as being connected with slavery and  snobbery, with people pretending to know English when they don’t because otherwise they would be thought to be scum. I sought out two such stories and translated them for an anthology published in London. One of them is titled “George Pancham ki Naak” (The Nose of King George V) by Kamleshwar which is as strong a political satire as any. The other one is by Sharad Joshi, called, “Virginia Woolf se Sab Darte Hain” (Who’s Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

So, this is the social situation outside the classroom; a dream of economic and social advancement, as if language alone could do it. I keep arguing against it, but I am also one of the beneficiaries, so I’m a bit compromised!

Let me offer another related argument here. The world’s twenty biggest economies are grouped as G-20. Of these, only four or five are English-speaking, because English is their first language. All the other countries have got rich in their own language, from China to France, from Japan to Germany. Only we believe that only English will get us there, and this has set India back. So there is a serious national problem here.

MS: Can you really wish English away? How do you suggest we get over this hegemonic hold of English over our society?

HT: You’re right, and we’ve perhaps missed the historical opportunities we’ve had.  In 1950, it was said we’ll continue with English only for 15 years. We also said that the SC/SC quota system would be in force for just 15 years. That’s how we began. People forget that the quota was not given in perpetuity. It has now become a vested interest in the same way as English has.

 Also, we could have had a national language. That would have given us the same situation as Germany and Japan, the same way to grow. But as 1965 approached, the anti-Hindi campaign began in Tamil Nadu and some other states too. They did not want Hindi to be imposed in 1965 and said they wanted more time. Nehru was very concerned about this and assured them that nothing would be imposed upon them against their wishes.

In 2003, I wrote an article in which I said that in our part of the world we can apparently have either a national language or a nation; , we can’t have both. I mean, just look at Bangladesh, breaking away from Pakistan and the Sinhala-Tamil civil war in Sri Lanka. And I’m very pleased that in India we still have a nation.

So it’s a very difficult situation and there is no easy remedy for this. What can be done is to try and see whether English is equally necessary for everyone in the same proportion. There never will be corporate boardroom jobs, English-speaking  jobs, for everybody in the country. Lots of people will have to earn their livelihood in other ways, in their own languages. Why do they need to learn English and have it thrust down their throats in the same way as others? I am not saying that we should segregate them from the beginning. There should always be opportunities and also the option to switch streams and move forward. Together with English, Hindi has also spread because it has become the language of migration of lower class labour within the country, of economic mobility and advancement at another level.

MS: It is now also the language of the mass media.

HT:  When the 24-hour news channels started, Aaj Tak had the highest revenue. Earlier everybody looked down upon Hindi. Now they recognize that Hindi is a force in itself. It’s capitalism at work; profits driven by a large consumer base!

MS: Yes, the top TRP garnering TV channels in the country are in Hindi. English is nowhere close!

HT: And another interesting fact: The Times of India calls itself the highest selling English daily in the world. They may be right. But they never tell you that they are not the largest selling newspaper in India. The ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) tells you that of the ten largest selling newspapers in India, seven are in Hindi—Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran,Panjab Kesri, Amar Ujala and so on. The basic point here is that there is a hidden strength of the local languages which those of us who operate in English never see.

You asked if there is a way around this. I think it’s a bit too late, especially after globalization. But what can be done by us who operate in English is to recognize that there is another India out there. Only when we accord other languages space and dignity will we move towards true democratization of languages and peoples in India. In Malayalam or Kannada, Tamil or Bangla, the sense of pride in one’s own language is so much greater and each one of these languages is spoken by 7per cent or 8 per cent of the population or even less. Hindi is spoken by more than 40 per cent as their first language. And if you add up the number of people who understand Hindi in some form or the other, it brings the figure up to about 70 per cent. That’s very large. You can’t get by beyond the big cities by just speaking English; you need to know some kind of functional Hindi or other local language.

So let’s recognize this situation and let us allocate resources proportionately in the areas of education and development.

MS: I wanted to ask you about this other view that English is an Indian language. Very recently, Uday Prakash said this very categorically in an interview to The Times of India. Would you agree with this?

HT: For a very long time I did not think so, but now I am changing my mind. Because of Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi! Just look at their sales figures running into millions. If English was not an Indian language, would they have been selling so many copies? Of the 22 Indian languages recognized by the Constitution and the 24 by the Sahitya Akademi, English is no longer at the lowest spot in circulation.  A new class of readers has emerged. Earlier English was a badge of elitism. It is now democratic in the sense that large numbers are buying these books.  In which other language does any book sell so many copies? This also means that English has a foothold on the ground in India which we need to recognize, especially among our affluent middle class.

We need not debate whether English is an Indian language in some deep cultural or esoteric sense. I am simply going by the market for novels, and that is a new phenomenon. R. K. Narayan never had it; Raja Rao, Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy didn’t have it. Despite their winning the Booker or other such awards, their sales in India were invisible compared with these sales.

I wrote an article on that recently, published in Muse India, in which I say that if English becomes an Indian language, it will be by stooping low to conquer, by losing its elitism. It has become so vulgar; look, for example, at the use of a certain kind of demotic English by the characters in both Bhagat and Amish, who use four-letter words freely. “Vulgar” also means “common” in the old etymological sense. And in that sense we have to acknowledge that English has become an Indian language.

MS: What do you think of the teaching of English language in our classrooms at the college level?

HT: I commend Fortell for its focus on the teaching of English language. There was a golden moment in Englishlanguage teaching in India which got nipped in the bud. This was the CIEFL-effect in the 1970s-80s, when even our brightest teachers wanted to train in ELT. But now, while English teachers in our colleges still teach a huge component of English language, they only acknowledge the literature books they teach. We are living a lie by teaching literature when the demand is for language.

So, right, English is an Indian language, and let’s teach it but let’s not mix it up with high canonical English literature. It is true that literature and philosophy are the repositories of the highest form of expression in any language. But not everybody needs that. We need crash courses in scientific and systematic language teaching. And I am quite clear in my mind that language need not be taught through literature and hoary literary classics.

I believe in functional English, I believe in ELT, I believe in gradedvocabulary texts; that is the way forward. Also, let’s accept that our English is Indian English. Let’s accept that most people in the West will not readily understand us when we go there.

TS: When you say Indian English, what exactly do you have in mind?

HT: It is what is common between those Indians who are reasonably well educated and reasonably competent in English without any pretensions to being international. The trouble with Indian English is that then it stops being an international language. You can have it only one way, not both ways.  It can be either Indian or global.

TS: That’s okay…

HT:  But some people say they want to learn English to go abroad, to go to America. That’s another ball game. Look at our call centers. Everybody there, all of whom were smart English-medium boys and girls, had to be re-trained intensively in their accent and vocabulary for the first three weeks before the Americans could understand them. Let’s not be too proud of our English. Indian English is what most educated Indians use and understand, and just that.

TS: But that English has also come to us through the British who ruled over us.

HT: Right, it is an evolution of what came to us long back, its transformation taking place over 150-200 years of local conditions. Try reading West Indian English, for example Braithwaite’s poems, or the dialogues in Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas or in the novels by Achebe or Ngugi. You may feel it is “wrong” English and comical. In so many ways our English seems similarly “wrong” and funny to the British or the Americans who use it as their first language. If English is an Indian language, what shall we tell them is their language?  And if we operate in a second language, can we escape being second-rate in all kinds of ways? 

TS: Thank you so much for your time, Sir. This has been a most enlightening and meaningful session.