A quixotic academic misadventure

This book argues English is now a vernacular language of India but fails to make a persuasive case.

Published : Dec 29, 2022 10:15 IST

This book argues that English is now a/the vernacular language of India rather than being the language of command, dominance, oppression, and aspiration that it is commonly seen to be. It is a tough ask to make out a persuasive case for a hypothesis so hugely counter-intuitive, as we now say politely for something that utterly flouts common sense. But Akshya Saxena plots her argument with pragmatic and even shrewd strategy and articulates it with not only collateral erudition, which is sometimes barely relevant, but also with spirit and even bravado.

Vernacular English
Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India
By Akshya Saxena
Princeton University Press
Pages: 206
Price: $95

She begins dramatically by contrasting two widely unlike figures—Rohith Vemula, the research scholar at Hyderabad who committed suicide in 2016, and Narendra Modi, who is evoked here as having once worn an outrageously expensive suit that had his name woven into its fine stripes in the roman script; this was when he welcomed President Obama on his visit to India in 2015. Together, she says, these two events “exemplify the life of English in postcolonial India”.

Saxena informs us that in his English-language suicide note, “Vemula saw English as the language of Dalit leaders like B.R. Ambedkar and not of British colonialism” (page xiii). But this seems to be a wishful over-reading of a text Saxena does not directly cite. For nowhere in his 589-word note does Vemula mention anything like British colonialism, and though he does conclude with “Jai Bheem”, he does not name Ambedkar or any other Dalit leader or their preference for English.

As for Modi, Saxena handles him with similar dexterity. She acknowledges that when Modi sat down to hold talks with Obama still wearing that scandalous suit, he spoke not in English but in Hindi, using an interpreter. But she cites another occasion when he used phrases in Hindi and Sanskrit and then translated them into English and thus, in her view, “yoked English to a Hindu idea of India”. She seems to have forgotten that just a paragraph earlier, she had asserted that for Modi, “The equation is almost mathematical—Hindu nationalism = Hindi” (page xiv).

Saxena is obviously attempting to steer her determined course amidst swirling cross-currents and a vortex of her own making. What makes her enterprise the more remarkable to witness is that she herself realises right from the start that her argument, beyond its one-line novelty, is a non-starter: “If there is a contradiction in the book’s title,” she tells us with Whitmanesque aplomb, “it is intentional” (page 7).

She takes note of a large number of previous scholarly studies all of which use the term “vernacular” in the Indian context to mean the “lesser-known and actively marginalised languages, cultures and narratives” (page 10)—and not English. She even makes a candid confession, except that she makes it sound like a proud and heroic boast: “When I presented early iterations of my argument, I received one consistent feedback: drop the ‘vernacular’!” (page 12) To adapt a once-popular poem: The girl stood on the burning deck/whence all but she had fled.

English vs Hindi

One’s interest in reading the rest of the book is thus twofold, for one is curious to see not only what kind of argument Saxena constructs but equally just what kind of sources and materials she is be able to marshal in support. In Chapter 1, she equates English with the foremost vernacular, Hindi, and even alleges an “alliance” between them, as both of them were proclaimed to be the official languages of India, overlooking the fact that this made them the arch adversaries of each other.

The two languages are indeed engaged in mortal combat in a little-known collection of essays or “petitions” she cites titled India Demands English (1960), edited and self-published by one Isaac Mathai. This was part of a concerted campaign spearheaded mainly by Tamil speakers to block Hindi from being adopted as the sole official language in 1965, at the end of the 15-year transition period for phasing out English as provided in the Constitution.

The supporters of English in this book were, as Saxena notes, the privileged, who wished “to ensure their elitism as an English-knowing caste and class minority” (page 41). Thus, English does not come out of this episode as a vernacular but just the opposite. In fact, the full title of this book, which Saxena omits to mention, shows it to be not the voice of a nation but largely the views of one privileged individual, an Indian knight in English armour: India Demands English: The Speeches and Writings of C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer [and others].

The language of Dalit discourse?

In the next two chapters, Saxena focusses again on a tiny and unrepresentative minority group, Indian writers in English who are Dalit or who have written about Dalits like Mulk Raj Anand. But this leaves out of her discourse the major Dalit writers of the last half century who have written not in English but in a subaltern vernacular like Marathi or Hindi. Again, Saxena’s selectivity of focus verges on misrepresentation.

Angrezi Devi or Goddess English, an idea conceived by the journalist-activist Chandra Bhan Prasad as a symbol of Dalit aspiration. 

Angrezi Devi or Goddess English, an idea conceived by the journalist-activist Chandra Bhan Prasad as a symbol of Dalit aspiration.  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

She highlights at some length the demand, or fond wish, of some Dalit intellectuals that all Dalits should promptly learn English. She devotes considerable space to the so-called temple to Goddess English that Chandra Bhan Prasad, a journalist-activist, half-built in 2010 in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, installing in it a two-foot statue of a hatted Western woman standing in the posture of the Statue of Liberty. It was an eccentric and fleetingly newsworthy event a decade ago but seems to have had no serious impact since.

Nor is it clear how Dalits can fast-track themselves into learning English before the rest of India does. Saxena does not pause to reflect on a vital paradox here, to the effect that the value of English in India lies not in any virtue intrinsic to the language but in the invidious exclusions it makes, and it would be drained of its status and power as soon as a majority of the people have learnt it.

While discussing mainly English-language novels, Saxena also juxtaposes with them some Hindi texts, such as Shrilal Shukla’s novel Raag Darbari and a couple of stories by a revisionist second-wave Dalit writer Ajay Navaria, for the reason that these texts too incorporate some English. She names Premchand’s Sevasadan (1919) as an early example of this tendency (page 87) but omits to mention that when one character speaks a few words in English in the novel, another immediately reproves him and says that speaking in English is to him as disgusting as putting on clothes cast-off by the British.

As for Shukla, Saxena again blithely—and blindly—equates Hindi with English and comes to the astounding conclusion that “the villagers in Raag Darbari do not understand Hindi or English” (page 56). This is when the entire novel is written in Hindi and all the characters in it speak in standard Hindi, only occasionally resorting to the local dialect of it, Awadhi. She compounds her ignorance when she asserts that “many scholars consider Awadhi a precursor to Hindustani” (page 49) without citing a single such scholar.

Saxena devotes a chapter to another marginal community, the peoples of the north-east, a region she clubs with distant Kashmir for the reason as stated by her that both the areas “have been under military occupation by the Indian state for as long as India has been independent” (page 128). Evidently, the issues she wishes to deal with here are not primarily to do with language, but she finds a connection in a banner displayed by some women in 2004 in a defiant demonstration after a rape of a local woman by an army man. The banner said in English “Indian Army Rape Us” and was displayed by 12 women who paraded naked in stark protest. As Saxena notes, only one of the 12 women who made this protest knew English and could read what the banner said (page 131).

‘Unforgivably unrealistic’

It is not as if Saxena’s supreme confidence in the validity of her argument is never dented by the evidence to the contrary which meets her at every step. In her last chapter, she takes up some instances of people who deal in English or even speak it in films and novels without being able to read it. At a traffic light in Delhi, she asks a vendor of pirated English books whether he himself reads any of the books he sells. He answers in Hindi, “Now how can we read them?”—a response that “made my question seem foolish” (page 149).

A still from Slumdog Millionaire (2008), in which the slum boys begin with just a few common words of English, but then suddenly begin to speak a correct and “impeccably accented” variety of it, apparently for the benefit of its foreign audience.

A still from Slumdog Millionaire (2008), in which the slum boys begin with just a few common words of English, but then suddenly begin to speak a correct and “impeccably accented” variety of it, apparently for the benefit of its foreign audience. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In the film Slumdog Millionaire, the slum boys begin with just a few common words of English, but then suddenly begin to speak a correct and “impeccably accented” variety of it, apparently for the benefit of its foreign audience. Saxena finds this “unbelievable” and “unforgivably unrealistic” (page 163). But realisation still does not dawn on her that her own project in this book could be similarly described.

Nor is her scholarly credibility bolstered by the elementary errors strewn all over her text. The name Shrilal Shukla is always so spelt in the roman script and not as “Srilal Sukla” (pages 26; 45-46). Macaulay addressed his “Minute” on Indian education not to the British Parliament but to the Governor General in Calcutta who was his immediate boss (page 75). Rumi is not an Urdu poet (page 120); he lived in Persia and wrote in Persian when Urdu was not yet born in India. And “Dalit” literally means not “scattered” (page 181) but crushed, ground, or trodden and trampled on. The Princeton University Press did not pick up any of these errors either; it is, as Kabir put it, the blind leading the blind.

Finally, one wonders what motivated Saxena to undertake this Quixotic academic misadventure. Perhaps the idea that English had spread everywhere in India down to the level of the most deprived people sounded radically new and desirable to her American cohorts, regardless of whether it was at all verifiable on the ground. Rather more plausible and potentially rich was a related area in which Saxena had previously published a paper (perhaps while she was still in India) in a volume of essays titled Indian English and ‘Vernacular’ India (eds. Makarand Paranjape and G.J.V. Prasad, 2010); in it she had looked into the blatant or subtle ways in which English had inflected and hybridised the use of Hindi, especially in the media. But to pursue that investigation further may have been a project so worthy as to be quite unstartling and dull.

Harish Trivedi taught English in the University of Delhi.

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