The Trouble With English


Is imaginary. The culture debate be damned, millions of Indians are learning english and feeling no angst, says Rishi Majumder


Light reading Sonia and Anuj, New Delhi college students, are enrolled in a suburban English coaching centre
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

A crowd of students is filling up a gully on their way to English institute VETA’s Dadar centre at Mumbai. Negotiating the stairs to the first floor is like trying to get through an election rally. Students seem to acquiesce to an unwritten dress code. Women wear salwar kameezes. Men wear shirts tucked tightly into their trousers, or jeans, and sneakers. They bustle by chattering with one another in Marathi.

Taxi drivers, housewives, Hindu priests, police constables and even local politicians are among the various unlikely candidates who have reportedly enrolled in these classes. VETA calls itself “the largest spoken-English training academy in Asia Pacific regions”. English capsule courses like VETA have changed India’s demographics. In the mid-1990s, the US was the world’s largest English-speaking population. In 2004, India’s English-speaking population in the world was larger than the US and UK together. The millions emerging from English capsule courses, in every corner of India, have led to the emergence of a new class. A class that speaks English functionally, as a second language, that treats English as a language — not as the membership of an exclusive club.

For centuries, English in India has been more than just a language. It has been a culture and a class. In a society fissured by gender, caste, religion, colour and language the biggest divider has grown to be English. Even those liberal enough to transgress most lines drawn in the country’s sand are likely to hesitate before thelakshman rekha of English. Can you be married to, find the words to confide in, or flirt with someone who does not speak English? Being part of an English- speaking class does not make you wealthy. But save for a few exceptions, you are unlikely to be impoverished. Hence our surprise when beggars speak in English or the easy sympathy when an English-speaking person is driving an auto. If you have English, yours must be a higher calling.


The daily word Jitendra Digamber Sawant, Youth Congress vice-president, loves reading newspapers to improve his English
Photo: Garima Jain

For just as long, Indian educationists and activists too have been wrestling with the riddle that is English for the masses. Politicians have a love-hate relationship with it. It’s a source of great angst for knee-jerk liberals. Imagine, they say, a couple from barren north Karnataka giving their little all to send their son to an English medium school, who grows up alienated from Kannada, but also unable to penetrate the English-speaking culture. Stuck with a linguistic white-collar he is too good for anything his father did and not good enough for what his Anglophone peers can. However, this cautionary (and entirely imaginary) tale is not on the minds of the crowds in the English classes. Neither is reformer Raja Rammohan Roy.

In the 1700s Roy had been taught Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic — par for the course among their class. His father swallowed his pride and added English to his son’s arsenal to deal with a changing world. So, 300 years later, the 1.5 lakh Indians who join English classes every month (according to VETA’s estimate) may not remember who Roy is but they would endorse his father’s impulse. And disagree violently with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.

When in 2009 Yadav in his preelection manifesto promised to abolish “expensive education in English”, and argued against “the compulsory use of English in education, administration and judiciary”, it was difficult to not empathise. Having struggled in the swamps of caste discrimination for a lifetime, what must it be to discover a whole new caste system? However, the poorly-imagined manifesto must have only outraged those struggling gamely with English.

This new class treats English as a language, not as the membership of an exclusive club

Take 23-year-old Jameel Shaikh, for instance. A student at VETA’s Dadar centre, he lives in a Muslim ghetto at Byculla. After being schooled in the Urdu medium, he went on to study Engineering at Rizvi College in Bandra. He couldn’t follow classroom lectures, and was unable to perform his practicals, because the medium was English. “I had a huge problem mixing with friends, most of whom were from English medium schools around Bandra,” says Jameel. “I had a fear of speaking.” The culture capital of growing up in Bandra may have been denied to him but Jameel’s fear of speaking is gone now, even though his English isn’t as fluent as he would have liked it to be. Certain complex questions have to be repeated in Hindi, so he understands them, and he halts mid-sentence often to compose a thought before saying it out loud. But he talks of his love for Urdu poets like Mirza Ghalib, Majaz and Iqbal. “The most important thing these classes did was that they made me accept that English is my second language,” says Jameel. “Just as it is for so many people in my English class. It made me feel there is no shame in this.” Jameel doesn’t seem to miss the fact that these English classes might not really expose him to the great treasures of English literature. (Certainly it does not bother Indians who have an English medium education, according to the TEHELKA readership survey.) He says he has his “own culture” for that.


Babysitters’ day out Lata Gadage (above) and Sunita Rokade (below) are both babysitters. They are 18 and learning English at night school. Lata likes reading English storybooks and wants to work in ICICI Bank. Sunita’s job requires her to recite English nursery rhymes. She wants to become a nurse. She watches English horror films
Photo: Garima Jain

One would wish everyone Jameel’s confidence and his access to a culture that allows the expression of truth and beauty. But that would mean not the mere rejection of English but the enriching of our educational system. As it stands, even some of the best schools in Indian metros give their students little more than a utilitarian understanding of the world. The culture capital acquired is a thin sheen.

Even those who are the notional repositories of culture today engage with English unflinchingly. Dharmadhikari (34) is a Mumbai priest who enrolled in an English course to deal with foreigners or NRIs. “I knew Hindi, Sanskrit and Marathi,” he says. “But the English bhasha today is as necessary as the rashtra bhasha.”

After liberalisation, English has gone rapidly from being the aura of coolth to meaning quick, hard cash. In Bengaluru young people could walk into BPO jobs, five-figure salaries and perks that required nothing more than high-school English. It is these stories that drive Lata Vish Gadage and Sunita Dinkar Rokade. These two 18-year-olds live in the slums of Mumbai. Their dayjobs as babysitters earn them Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 respectively per month. They pay Rs 300 a month to learn English in night school. Lata sees English as her way to finally secure a job at ICICI Bank. Sunita wants to speak enough English to secure a nurse’s job at a good hospital.

BUT DO THESE capsule courses level the ground for job-seekers? Bhupinder Singh, the son of a Grade 3 state government officer, scraped through his BCom in Sangrur, Punjab. In Delhi on a job hunt, the 26- year-old has enrolled in English and computer classes. Having modest expectations, he says, “Expecting English to put me on par with those for whom it is a first language is like expecting to land a Silicon Valley job if I learn how to use the Internet.”

Our politicians too have swung wildly on English. Tamil Nadu once demanded English as an alternative to that insufferable Hindi. Karnataka’s right-wing groups began to express their hatred — about the same time American jobs were ‘Bangalored’ — with tar on English hoardings. So it is intriguing to encounter the blunt Jitendra Digamber Sawant, a Youth Congress vice-president in Mumbai. He is learning English to connect with “English-speaking influential people in Mumbai”, and act as a channel between them and the common man. “English at my Marathi medium school was a subject,” says Sawant. “After these classes, I now see it as a language.” He doesn’t expect to speak English as fluently, but, like Singh and unlike educationists, feels half a loaf is better than none. Rahul Khune, who runs English classes in Barshi village in Solapur, Maharashtra, agrees. His classes can’t ensure perfect English because he himself can speak only basic English. But three of his students have gone on from villages to a course in town and MNC jobs.

Dalit activist Chandrabhan Prasad enters the debate with a seemingly whimsical gesture. In 2006, he celebrated Lord Macaulay’s birthday and unveiled the portrait of English as a ‘Dalit Goddess’ — a Statue of Liberty like figure holding up a pen, standing on a computer, and wearing a straw hat. While others are worrying about the loss of culture, Prasad is hoping English will help Dalits shed an oppressive culture. More importantly, he believes the language can lead to employment for Dalits, and so can campaigning to teach Dalits English. Soon, he anticipates a time when no job will be available without basic English.

Government schools must run in English medium. Why must the poor preserve culture?

With this raging hunger for English, the government’s not running English medium schools only perpetuates the unfair status quo. It is one thing for the well-heeled to decide their children should be immersed in the mother tongue at school when English will be learnt at home — as is the case in the Kottayam school Pallikoodam. It is quite another thing to demand the poor bear the burden of preserving culture.

Affluent western nations today have thriving anti-fast food movements. Everyone agrees burgers and fries are bad. We should all eat balanced, organic meals. But the disgust for McDonalds may not be entirely free of snobbery. What if burgers and fries is all you can afford? India’s proliferating English courses are not ‘educating’ students – helping them interrogate their self or their place in the world. But apparently like Mc- Donalds, English— a legacy of the man that Chandrabhan Prasad likes to calls the Big Mac — does fill your stomach quickly.


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