How to Read English in India
By Akshya SaxenaJuly 10, 2022
Everyone agreed that English was A Good Thing to Have. I heard similar ideas about the importance of English at home as well. My father, raising daughters in a country that did not value women, encouraged my sister and me to speak in English, and beamed with pride when we did. This expectation felt awkward — absurd, even — because English was not a language the other women in our family shared. My grandmother and mother both spoke in Hindi. I remember once, while tidying the house, my grandmother asked my sister if she needed the scrap of paper she had just thrown on the floor. No, my sister replied. But isn’t it important? It says something in English, it has your name. My grandmother was confused as my sister rolled her eyes. I remember feeling curious about how my grandmother, who I was sure didn’t know English, must have memorized the visual shape of the Roman script that traced her firstborn grandchild’s name. I remember wondering if she could read my name in English.
More recently, working on a book on the English language in postcolonial India, I was moved by my grandmother’s instinct to save a piece of paper scribbled over in English. A Good Thing to Have. It made me curious about how the material life of English in India overlapped with its literary life. What else had my grandmother read in English visually like this? I was also struck by how scenes of speaking and reading in English at school and at home — our most intimate and ordinary experiences — were rehearsals of caste and class positions. Each scene unfolded a different register of the meaning of English, drawing from and moving beyond it as the language of transnational capitalism and as a dubious legacy of British colonialism. With each case, to paraphrase Rebecca Walkowitz, English became both more than and less than a language. English was the promise of social mobility and feminist progress. It was a correct(ed) pronunciation and a scrap of paper.
The story of English in India toggles between the conceptions of the language as an idea and as an object. Scholars of postcolonial literatures have often looked to its colonial formation as the source of its meaning. But English has always been a language that has looked ahead to the future. Forged multiply in the crucible of caste, class, gender, and ethnic politics, English has found roots in India as a language that erases itself in the hope of what it could be. As a nation, we are obsessed with correcting each other’s grammar. Just look to Twitter. We shame celebrities for speaking “wrong” English, whatever we think that is. The memes and jokes about Indian English write themselves, filling up a billion-people-sized cloud storage on the internet and spilling out of WhatsApp groups. But this preoccupation with linguistic propriety is not about English at all. It stems, in fact, from a desire to claim English — either as a marker of class and caste authority or as its rejection. It stems from the lush possibilities associated with English — what it could be made to mean, what it could be made to do, what one could do in it.
Take the adoption of English as India’s associate official language. In the early 20th century, with independence imminent, the Indian nationalist elite debated the future national language. Would English have a role in India after the British left? No, argued Gandhi, who considered it a language of slavery to the British. Instead, he favored Hindustani — a language that shared Sanskrit’s Devanagari script while including Urdu words with Perso-Arabic roots, embodying the syncretic Hindu-Muslim history of India. But with the deepening communal discord and the subsequent Partition of India and Pakistan, Hindustani fell out of political favor. Hindu nationalists had already begun calling Urdu a “Muslim” language and had engineered a rival Sanskritized Hindi to reject any Islamic inheritances. This newly Sanskritized language was useless for the day-to-day tasks of governance. It had no words, critics claimed, for the modern practices and institutions of a nation-state. In a multilingual country of about 2,000 languages and dialects, Hindi was also neither representative nor majoritarian. And, in its Sanskritized version, it helmed a particularly religious and casteist nationalist project.
Amid bloody protests in non-Hindi-speaking parts of India, the Indian Constitution enlisted English for its potential to be something other than a language of slavery. English, the reasoning went, was equally foreign to all in India and thus politically neutral. Through translational projects, English could help create a governmental vocabulary in Hindi and mediate language conflicts. First temporarily in 1949 and then permanently in 1963, English was legislated as the associate official language, with Sanskritized Hindi as the official language of India. This practical concession to the monolingual aspirations of a newly formed nation would ensure that Hindi developed in relation to English. Hindi and English together would enhance the postcolonial Indian state’s democratic, secular, and modern character, while also leaving the undemocratic and communally charged Sanskritization of Hindi unchallenged. On several occasions, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, referred to English as a key to world knowledges, as a unifying cement to hold together the country’s linguistic diversity, and as a technology of progress to lead it into the future. The possibilities of English in the world’s largest democracy lend the language an outsize symbolic presence. But instrumentalized as a supplement and a prop to Hindi — as national cement — English also seems to shrink into something less than a language.
But perhaps “shrink” is not the right word. For this same English — instrumentalized as the supplementary language of democracy — also expands political worlds. Dalit thinkers and writers have leveraged the scientific rationalism and the linguistic medium of British colonial rule to challenge upper-caste authority. Key Dalit leaders like B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, and the education reformers Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule often wrote in and praised English, invoking its potential as a weapon in the struggle against the caste system. Writing in English helped reach a wider Anglophone audience and find global allies. English also offered an alternative medium of expression to the caste-marked Indian languages. Most playfully and provocatively, in 2010, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer-activist of libertarian leanings, paid tribute to the promise of English by calling the language a Dalit goddess and building a temple for it. He mounted the idol of this goddess on a computer-shaped pedestal, putting the bilingual (Hindi and English) Indian Constitution in one of its hands and a pen in the other. This iconography equated the English language with liberty itself, promising that literacy and technology would guarantee freedom and democratic inclusion. Its devotees — many of whom can neither read nor write English — worship the Dalit goddess English for delivering them from centuries of caste oppression. English as goddess derives its power from technology and invokes the democratic potential inscribed in the Indian Constitution to contest the casteist state.
It is here, in its symbolic and instrumental invocations (on a scale at once bigger and smaller than a language), that English funnels shame and desire. It is here that it contests and expands political worlds. Indeed, today, the internet — the pedestal on which Prasad’s goddess stands‚ has enabled the emergence of new readers and writers of English. Cheap phone data plans have meant that more and more Indians are typing and texting English over their handheld devices, even when that means transliterating other Indian languages into the Roman script. Just as in other parts of the world, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have offered venues for literary expression. The internet is home to all varieties of poetry circles, writing communities, and literary magazines that provide new authors alternatives to traditional caste-marked and classed publishing networks to disseminate their work widely and quickly.
Yogesh Maitreya is a Dalit English poet and first-generation English writer who has written about being shamed by his upper-caste teachers for speaking “wrong” English. After he started writing poetry on the internet, he used Facebook to share his verses and raise money to launch Panther’s Paw, a press specializing in English translations of Dalit poetry from other languages like Marathi and Punjabi. In the face of increased censorship and authoritarianism, the free-to-use social media platforms also strategically double as spaces where one can practice language and politics. Young Kashmiri and Dalit poets, among countless others, use social media to both these ends. These writers differ from earlier generations of mostly upper-caste Indian English writers who often struggled with and had to justify their use of a colonial language to write the postcolonial nation. In their activism and art, the new writers use English with little self-consciousness about whether they should or not. English is a language of political and literary ambition — of imagining resistant subjectivities and reaching India’s multilingual diversity. On social media platforms, English poems appear with Kashmiri or Urdu versions side by side. Writers use the English to translate from and write into other Indian languages, making them poignantly and strategically commensurate.
Aspiration for and aspiration in English should, thus, not conjure visions of the ideologically suspect or naïve who do not understand why or what they want. On her delightful YouTube channel “The Neighbourhood Teacher,” Madri Kakoti subverts expectations of what it means to want English in India. Her sharp political commentary, which often critiques the current Modi administration, is couched in English lessons. Kakoti, a linguist by training and a college professor, launched her channel at the start of the pandemic to pivot to teaching online and to register her frustration and anger at the apathy of the Modi government’s response to the crisis. Her contextual English lessons secure English as a language that is lived by its would-be speakers. Kakoti offers vivid examples to illustrate vocabulary or grammar rules. In a lesson on active and passive voice, she uses the news reports of a young Dalit girl’s rape to show how passive-voice reportage elides the responsibility of the upper-caste men who commit the heinous crimes. When teaching countable and uncountable nouns, she uses the example of the word “migrant,” which figures as an uncountable noun in the Indian state’s imagination. While Kakoti often tells her students that knowledge of English is not a mark of one’s intelligence, English nevertheless appears as A Good Thing to Have for personal advancement, and it also speaks to power. Noun by noun, verb by verb.
As the language of aspiration, as the language its speakers and writers are yet to “know,” English names worlds that don’t exist yet. Its kaleidoscopic affective meanings and political possibilities come into focus most sharply in want, in need, in reach. Statistically, this makes sense since only about 10 percent of Indians consider themselves English speakers, most of whom belong to the very upper strata of a deeply unequal society. This essay’s title is a nod to the life of English as an aspiration and to the material artifacts that aid the management of such linguistic desires. It acknowledges the reams of cheaply printed English-language guides, the small hole-in-the-wall English-learning classes, the slick Instagram Reels, and even the politically aware YouTube videos that promise to teach anyone English. It maintains the compulsion and freedom that glimmers in what Snigdha Poonam, in her 2018 book, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World, has called “cut-price English” — functional English words and phrases taught in low-cost English schools for those deprived of expensive formal education.
And while this same title might sound prescriptive, as if this essay proposes the correct way of reading English, it is far from that. As a scholar of Indian English literature, I often ask myself: how must I read English in India to acknowledge it as both an aspiration and a tool? English is read in India every day, by those who know the language and by those who do not. How can my reading eye meet the gaze of these other readers of English in India?
We know very little about the new readers and writers — the newly visible desirers — who imaginatively remake English each time they see, write, and hear it. Scholars such as Ulka Anjaria, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, and E. Dawson Varughese, among others, have examined post-2000s Indian English literature, especially the booming world of genre fiction popular in India. But for the most part, we have little critical purchase on how English as a thing one seeks to possess enables a diverse group of language practitioners to hack it. Aspiration puts pressure on what English means by deferring its story into the realm of what-it-could-be. This instrumentalization and promise are as old as English itself in India, of course, but they also have new political resonances. So, read English we must. After all, what could be more ordinary than reading English? What motive is more common than aspiration? Even in India. Especially in India.
Akshya Saxena is assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India (Princeton University Press, 2022).
LARB Staff Recommendations
The Indian novelist discusses the three ingredients that make up his work: Delhi, global English, and masala.
What Do They Know of English, Who Only English Know? On Gaston Dorren’s “Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages” and “Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages”
Colin Marshall explores the allure of polyglotism and the perils of linguistic hegemony through “Lingo” and “Babel” by Gaston Dorren.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!