The English Median


IN 2003, James Tooley, a professor at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, completed and published the results of a year-long survey of private schools for children of low-income families in Hyderabad. ‘Private Schools for the Poor: A Case Study from India’, as the report was titled, found an astounding 61 percent of all pupils in Hyderabad district — much higher than official figures — were enrolled in private, unaided schools. This included, of course, the wealthy and the poor.

Narrowing down to 15 private schools in low-income and slum areas — “an arbitrary selection… to ensure a balance of neighbourhoods and fee ranges” — Tooley and his researchers concluded teacher truancy and school responsiveness rates here compared favourably with government schools. For this, parents — “daily paid labourers, market traders or rickshaw drivers” — were willing to pay fees “in the range of five to 10 percent of the father’s annual income”. The average tuition fee in the selected schools was Rs 116 per month.

The quest for the English language was a key motivation. All 15 schools ran from nursery to Class X and all offered English-medium education. One school also had an Urdu-medium section and three schools had some Telugu-medium classes. The schools followed a standard curriculum from Class VI onwards, in preparation for state board examinations at the end of Class VII and Class X. Till Class VI, however, the schools were free to innovate. Tooley wrote, “We found schools at this level replacing much of the specified curriculum with extra English lessons — because this is often what parental demand wanted.” “School choice was taken seriously by parents,” recorded Tooley, “… One illiterate father — who was far from unusual — told us that if the standard of education did not improve in the school his child attended, then he would take him away to another school. He said that the teaching was not up to the mark, and he was aware that other children were speaking English more effectively than his own child — even though he himself could not speak any English.”

It astonished the research team that a parent who did not know English would not only make learning the language a priority for the child, but also take what he considered an informed decision on his child’s proficiency with the English language, and how well or poorly it was being taught in the school.

What Tooley found was not atypical. The quest for English is not a phenomenon in India; it is an obsession, an epidemic and often a paranoiac fear. This is a language that opens doors; for those outside the magic portals, it is an absence that builds impregnable walls. Pradeep Kumar, 35, a garbage collector at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, mirrors the anxiety, the nervousness and the sheer and searing ambition of some of the parents Tooley met in faraway Hyderabad.

Kumar never made it past Class V and doesn’t know a word of English. Three years ago, his first born, Abhishek, was enrolled in Class V of a government school in south Delhi’s Govindpuri area. Sensing the government school was inadequate, Kumar sought out an alternative: “I tried to move him to a private school for higher studies, but the teacher there assessed him and said his proficiency in English was that of a child in lower KG or upper KG, and that I should put him in Class I.”

This stunned Kumar. He came home, pushed some English language books towards his son and asked him to read. Consider the pathos of the moment; consider how it must have been: a father who knew no English asking his son to read so that he (the father) could assess his (the son’s) fluency in English. Abhishek tried to read, and faltered; he tried again, and faltered. In a few short wrenching minutes, the humble garbage collector’s little world came crashing down.

“I begged the teacher to take him into even Class I,” Kumar remembers, “and she said she’d try.” That’s when he decided to pull out his younger son and daughter from government schools and put them into private schools instead. “I want to make them successful,” he says, his voice almost a whisper in desperation. “In our time, you could get by. But today there are no jobs for illiterate people. They need to learn good English… I want them to have a better life than I did…”

Literacy, education, learning English: it is telling how easily Kumar conflates the three. To him, English is not just an important subject at school — it is the uber subject, the stairway to heaven, the elevator his children must take to a better life.

STUCK AT a traffic signal this past week, Mann Singh, 76, a taxi driver in Mumbai, turned and asked his passenger what the word “infinity” meant. It was no abstract curiosity; he wanted to know what his city’s most popular mall was named after. His passenger explained the definition. What followed was a remarkable attempt at internalising “infinity”, almost making it a part of one’s consciousness. Singh began using the word over and over again, correctly, incorrectly, appropriately and otherwise, till he was sure he had more or less got it.

It’s a game the man has been playing for 60 years. Singh moved to Mumbai in 1956, having left his village in Punjab with a Class VIII education and not a word of English. He learnt the language in the big city, one word at a time, while doing odd jobs for businessmen, running chores, delivering parcels and, finally, some 40 years after he’d arrived in Mumbai, while driving a taxi.

Sitting behind that wheel gave Singh a luxury his four previous decades in Mumbai hadn’t allowed him: time. He bought himself a transistor and listened to cricket commentary in English. Interacting with his passengers, he moved to conversations, initially in Hindi, then in broken English. Gradually the few, isolated words he knew began forming themselves into sentences. Today, Singh knows enough of the English way to respond with a “You’re most welcome, Madam” to a passenger who runs off with a hurried “Thank you”.

If Singh can look back at his experiential learning of English with some humour, it is also because he is secure in the knowledge that he is the last of his kind in his family. All four of his children — the first a supervisor in a mall, the second a management student, the third a chauffeur for a big business corporation and the fourth a factory worker in South Africa — went to private schools and are proficient in English. In one generation, with one language, they have made the leap from working class to middle class.

THE EQUATION isn’t always that simple. English has had a complex and troubled engagement with India since Thomas Macaulay introduced it as the medium of instruction with his Minute on Education in 1835. He intended it not just as a communicative tool, but as a social enabler and part of the civilising mission of the East India Company. The condescension that carried with it notwithstanding, English proved to be an empowering force of quite another kind. In one quick move, it reduced Indians from a multiplicity of identities to just two castes — Macaulay’s Children and Macaulay’s Orphans.

The first to use and master the English were, of course, the privileged Indian communities — upper-caste Bengalis, Bombay Parsis, Poona Brahmins and so on. Yet as the decades passed, it became apparent to many that English was not just instructive; it was downright incendiary. It held the key to social disruption and the upturning of hierarchies. There is a school of Dalit scholarship that holds that knowledge of English has allowed privileged Dalits to make a leap and gain authority — with government jobs, for instance — in a manner unknown for millennia.

Chandrabhan Prasad, well-known Dalit writer, has in his articles contrasted the access to English with the historical denial of Sanskrit to the Dalit. In this framework, English is a goddess to be venerated — two years ago, a temple to English began to be constructed in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district — and Macaulay her prophet on Earth.

Inevitably, English became part of the colonial construct. With independence, its effacement became an auxiliary of the nationalist enterprise for some. The Socialists led by Ram Manohar Lohia mocked English, a legacy that lives on in parts in the politics of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party. The Communists abolished English at the primary level in West Bengal only to acknowledge their error a quarter century later. The Sangh Parivar saw English as representing a westernisation project.

It is worth noting that many of those debates are now settled, and those emotions spent. The first-generation learner of today is no aspiring Anglophile and does not even remotely see himself as a member of the Anglosphere. Neither does he consider Britain or even America as a natural cultural reference point. He sees English for what it is: a pathway to a better job, a better life and that intangible — social status.

Few native speakers of English can even comprehend what life must be on the other side of the tracks for the vast majority of their fellow Indians. Tridip Suhrud, Ahmedabad-based social scientist, calls “the desire to learn English the biggest aspiration for Indians today… like a passport to gain cultural confidence”. Yet, he acknowledges that in “the search of an elusive promise, we have devalued learning in other languages”.

It’s a vicious circle. There are too few technical manuals and textbooks in regional languages. This ends up meaning there are too few who master technical manuals and textbooks in anything other than English, often making a hell-for-leather attempt to reach some familiarity with the language. The result: the incentive to produce more and better technical manuals and textbooks in regional languages declines.

This is exactly the reasoning Girish Walimbe, the septuagenarian trustee of the Maharashtra Girls Education Society, Huzurpaga, Pune, offers. Founded by the social reformer Jyotiba Phule 127 years ago as a Marathi-medium institution that pioneered girls’ education in India, the school has an illustrious history.

Five years ago, the Huzurpaga school was forced to open an English-language affiliate as well. The demand was overwhelming. “I believe the medium of instruction should be one’s mother tongue,” says Walimbe, “but knowing English is the need of the hour. The world works that way. English is the key to acquiring technical education because there are no technical books available in regional languages.”

“FEED YOUR child once a day if needed, but make sure he goes to an English school”: Ishtyaq Bhat, 27, seems to speak with a wisdom and cynicism beyond his age. Bhat owns a popular guest house and tour company in Srinagar called Lassa Bhat, named after his grandfather. The real-life Lassa Bhat ran a tea stall near the Dal Lake. His son, Shafi Bhat, opened two rooms of the family house to western tourists. However, that was as far he got; being illiterate, he could go no further in terms of communication.

In the 1990s, as the Valley was gripped by violence, the Bhats left for Goa where Ishtyaqand his sister became the first in their family to go to school. Returning home, Ishtyaq expanded the Lassa Bhat Guest House and built a new wing. His familiarity with English made it easy for him to win the trust of tourists from abroad and have them recommending the guest house. It wouldn’t have been possible without English. To Ishtyaq’s mind, learning the language has been the game-changer in his life.

What if it hadn’t turned out this way? In his novel The Story of My Assassins, Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of TEHELKA, has this percussive passage on a character’s unequal struggle with English:

“The arithmetic and algebra he could manage, and Hindi he was good at. But English, and every other subject — all of them taught in English — fried his brains. He was not alone in this. The entire school was full of boys whose brains were being detonated by Shakespeare and Dickens and Wordsworth and Tennyson and memoriam and daffodils and tiger tiger burning bright and solitary reapers and artful dodgers and thous and forsooths and the rhymes of ancient mariners. The first counter-attack Kabir M made on English was in Class IV when he learnt like the rest of his reeling mates to say, ‘Howdudo? Howdudo?’ The answer being: ‘Juslikeaduddoo! Juslikeaduddoo!’ It set the pattern for life for most of them. English was to be ambushed ruthlessly when and where the opportunity arose. Its soldiers were to be mangled, shot, amputated wherever they were spotted. Its emissaries to be captured and tortured. The enemy of English came at them from every direction: in the guise of forms to be filled, exams to be taken, interviews to be given, marriage proposals to be evaluated. The enemy English had a dwarfing weapon: it made instant lilliputs of them.”

WHERE ARE the weapons to slay this enemy forged? The English coaching, tuition and informal education industry must be one of India’s largest and most underreported services-sector businesses. For Amod Kumar Bhardwaj, 45, and chief executive of the Meerut-based American Institute of English Learning (AIEL), imparting training in spoken English has proved a goldmine. “I qualified after the written exam for the Combined Defence Services,” he says, beginning his back-story. “I was confident of a good career in the army. My hopes crashed during the interview because of my poor spoken English.” That motivated him to not just improve his English-speaking skills but, in 1991, to set up AIEL.

Bhardwaj sees AIEL as a sort of finishing school. After graduating from school or college or a technical institution, the student comes here to learn to use the English language in a manner of speaking, literally, and go on to a job. Over two decades, AIEL has coached thousands of students. Today, it has a franchise running in every single one of Uttar Pradesh’s 70 districts. “We have close to 100 centres,” he says.

In ‘A Story of Falling Behind’, their 2009 study of West Bengal, economists BibekDebroy and LaveeshBhandari examined the private tuition boom that encompassed “80 percent of middle-school children in rural West Bengal”. Quoting a 2006 survey conducted by the AmartyaSen-founded Pratichi Trust, Debroy and Bhandari wrote: “Even among poor children, the average annual incremental expenditure because of private tuition was around Rs1,000. Private tuition is an endemic part of the West Bengal education system. This can partly be dated to 1983, when in an attempt to ensure equity, the West Bengal government abolished teaching of English in primary schools for the government education system. This triggered demand for private tuitions, even among the poor.”

Raj Kishan, 36, an autorickshaw driver in New Delhi with origins in Motihari, Bihar, would nod in agreement. His seven-year-old daughter studies in Class II in a government school, but she still goes to two coaching classes a day. “One coaching class is exclusively for English and the other is for all subjects,” Kishan explains, “I pay Rs 400 a month for each. English coaching is separate because that madam doesn’t teach anything else.”

Kostubh Vohra, a fellow of Teach for India, is in charge of Class II in a private school for underprivileged children in New Delhi. Illiterate or moderately educated parents push their children to learn at least English, and this has led Vohra to adopt innovative methods to expand reading, writing and comprehension skills. “I use various applications on the iPad,” he points out. “They help in teaching phonetics and increase the children’s interest. There is an app called Read Aloud, which shows a word on screen as it is pronounced.”

To his pupils, English is the basic ingredient of fantasy: “I tell them that if they want to become space travellers or scientists or doctors, it is necessary to learn English. It is important because all technology is in English. There is a direct co-relation between English and jobs…”

A life removed from English can be a burden, even a blow and a confidence corroder. Champa Roy, 34 from Agartala, Tripura, had it all — a loving husband, two children and a degree in science. In 2011, her husband died and she decided to look for a job as a teacher.

“I tried my luck,” she says, “and would eventually get rejected everywhere as my spoken English was weak. I had studied in a Bengali-medium school… In testing times, I understood how important it was to at least have good spoken English skills. It really helps, while being a science graduate was of no help.” To her mind, familiarity with English scores over academic or scholastic qualifications.

Is that Macaulay’s vindication or the tragedy of his legacy? One can debate that, but the fact is, it’s contemporary India’s hard, blistering reality.

With inputs from Jeemon Jacob, Riyaz Wani, Virendra Nath Bhatt, Ratnadip Choudhury, Sunaina Kumar, Nishita Jha, Sai Manish, Imran Khan, Avalok Langer, Baba Umar, Garima Jain, Shonali Ghosal, Prakhar Jain, Soumik Mukherjee, Nupur Sonar, Prabhjot Singh Gill and Anil Dayal


  1. The key here is not learning English but becoming fluently bi-lingual. Bi- or even multi-linguality is the hallmark of the Indian elite and the poor know it. Those who speak only English are just as handicapped (social life, humour, etc,) as those who don’t speak it or who speak only their mother tongues. Everyone wants to attain the elite status of being able to form networks where insider jokes (like “English speak-na sikhiye) can be understood.


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