The IIC School Versus the JLF School of Indian English

Sumana Roy on how the vernacularization of the English language has affected Indian political and cultural life.

The IIC School Versus the JLF School of Indian English

THREE THINGS HAPPENED on the day I began reading Akshya Saxena’s 2022 book Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India. First, there was a WhatsApp forward in the school group—a photo of a food stall called Crime Master Momo, quite obviously a take on Crime Master Gogo, a comic villainous character in the Hindi film Andaz Apna Apna (1994). Next came a tweet about Narendra Modi’s address to the joint session of the US Congress in June 2023, mocking the prime minister for his faulty English: “Speak English in such a way that people close their ears!” the Indian Youth Congress tweeted, in Hindi, from its official handle. Supriya Shrinate, the Congress president of social media and digital platforms, tweeted this, correcting Modi:

We must invest in our girl child never investigate her
Hope we have laid nearly 400,000 miles of optical fibre and not political fibre
Hope we have a relationship with the United States and not relationssippi

The comments made me cringe: in perfectly grammatical English—or so they believed—these “well-educated” people began mocking Modi for his lack of English-language skills. There was absolutely no annotation of the class privilege that attended their comments. There’s little to recommend Narendra Modi, but mocking him for his lack of fluency in the English language is bad form. If it were only that, though, it might not have caught my attention. This is Modi’s constituency—those who speak the same language, with ungrammatical fluency and freshness, refusing to see syntax and spelling as constitutional truths.

And finally, another thing happened—I noted down something I’d been meaning to for some time. In the stretch of road that begins from Siliguri’s Darjeeling More and continues until Sukna on Hill Cart Road, a new republican energy is visible in the names of the food stalls, names so unique that one has the sense of traveling through an experimental language jam: Aesthetic Fitnesz, Squats Fitness, Bowtie Automobile Works, Urbane Unisex Salon, Greasy Pan Fast Food, Hum Toh Hain Like This, Giga Net, Endeavour Global School, Neelkanth Mattrezzz, Tiffin Home Test and Best, Fun Unlimited Joy …

I was coming to Saxena’s book from my growing belief that there were now two schools of English-language and Indian English literature in India: let me call them the “IIC School of Indian English” and the “JLF School of Indian English.”

The IIC is the India International Centre in New Delhi. Here is its self-description:

Considered one of the country’s premier cultural institutions, the India International Centre is a non-government institution widely regarded as a place where statesmen, diplomats, policymakers, intellectuals, scientists, jurists, writers, artists and members of civil society meet to initiate the exchange of new ideas and knowledge in the spirit of international cooperation. Its purpose, stated in its charter, is ‘to promote understanding and amity between the different communities of the world’. In short, the Centre stands for a vision that looks at India as a place where it is possible to initiate dialogues in an atmosphere of amity and understanding.

I’ve been to the IIC on six occasions, I think. Its awareness of its pedigree, of those who “have history,” is self-evident: we are told that “the idea of the India International Centre first came up in [late] 1958, [in a conversation between] Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, then Vice President of India, and John D. Rockefeller III”—and that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, helped in selecting the 4.76-acre site next to Lodi Gardens.

It might feel like a senior citizen home at first. The staff is extraordinary, both in their warm efficiency and in their statue-like quality, indifferent to the pleasures of eavesdropping and the contagion of power. At breakfast, one has to force oneself to imagine that it’s a “great” place because “great” people have eaten at the same table before them. People often eat papaya as if they were eating biryani. They speak English in almost the same way, and though there is no stipulated dress code, such is the invisible power of the IIC that people turn up in uniform. They look like models in handloom wear. The women wear silver jewelry; the men bear faces that have rarely been creased by laughter. They are a serious people, well intentioned, and because they suffer from intellectualitis, they pass it on temporarily, like the common cold.

They also suffer from what Keshava Guha, in his charming essay, calls “Delhi syndrome.” Sitting here, in the IIC’s eating places or its lecture halls, one has the sense that just speaking English will save the world. I can speak English, and write it as well, as you can see, but I cannot speak IIC-ese. It’s a dialect of Indian English that comes naturally to those who have been raised in it; outsiders such as myself are either too lazy to pick it up or else speak it with such consciousness that they sound as zealous as converts—by which I mean that it is easy to spot that it is their third language, one they speak only when they are in the IIC. But for those for whom IIC-ese is a first language, it is also the language of their dreams, for even in their dreams they discuss foreign policy, caste atrocities, and ginger pudding.

Related to this, but like an ancillary unit that has surpassed its progenitor, a bit like a rose shrub produced from a grafting that is healthier than the mother plant, is something like the Jaipur Literary Festival. The IIC has restricted entry—membership is limited and comes from lineage, networks and official recommendations. JLF, on the other hand, is a “democracy”:

Described as the ‘greatest literary show on Earth’, the Jaipur Literature Festival is a sumptuous feast of ideas.
The past 16 years have seen it transform into a global literary phenomenon, having hosted nearly 2000 speakers and welcoming over a million book lovers from across India and the globe.
As the years pass and the Festival grows, our core values remain unchanged: to serve as a democratic platform offering access to all.

Its self-description gives us a sense of its difference from the IIC: the IIC is “international,” the JLF “global”; the IIC has “conference rooms,” the JLF is a “festival,” “spectacular,” a “sumptuous feast.” Anyone can come here, to these few days in Jaipur, for the “greatest literary show on Earth”; anyone can be a friend: “Become A Friend Of The Festival,” says its homepage; it’s the same relationship register as Modi’s “mitron,” friend. One comes here to run into writers—or, as I hear many on Twitter say from time to time, to “breathe the same air” as the objects of one’s admiration. “I can’t believe that I was breathing the same air as Mira Nair for the last 30 mins,” tweeted someone I have taught.

If the IIC is geriatric, the JLF is young; if the IIC is a 19th-century novel, the JLF is magic realism. To put it less aphoristically, the first must be observed and commended from a distance—its audience is far away, experiencing events secondhand, in photos and newspaper reports, witnessing canonization with awe and desire. The second is close, intimate, “breathing the same air as …” What has for long been understood as “Indian English,” particularly “Indian English Literature” has been produced by the IIC school. The novels, the English-language newspapers published from the nation’s four metropolitan centers, the English-language television studios, and the literary criticism—these constitute the IIC school. Book-reviewing culture is for the IIC school; for the JLF school, an iteration of the personality cult will do. The former’s stock is a review in a “well-respected” forum, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the London Review of Books; for the latter, an author photograph accompanying an interview in a newspaper or on a website will do, or even an Instagram post. The constituency of the first reads English; the constituency of the second is happy to see English. The IIC brings prestige—books must be launched there to allow them this life—while the JLF confirms popularity: writers must get themselves invited there to feel the equivalent of a bestseller.

Akshya Saxena’s book, the first of its kind, is about what I have been calling the JLF school of Indian English, where English is “vernacular,” and—to quote William Dalrymple, one of the JLF’s founders—a “tamasha.” Saxena begins with two schools herself, though she doesn’t use my phrases of categorization, of course. She directs her investigative energy toward Narendra Modi and Rohith Vemula, even though, as she acknowledges, they “stand at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.” They “exemplify the life of the English language in postcolonial India, and reframe the grounds of postcolonial comparativism.” She continues:

Modi epitomizes the hustle and humiliation of many English neoliterates in India. As a tentative speaker of English, he draws on it as a symbol to entrench a neoliberal and Hindu nationalist conservatism. Vemula, on the other hand, turned to English as the language of scientific rationalism to challenge the centuries-old practice of caste in India. In his English-language suicide note, which has become the symbol of anticaste struggle today, he saw English as the language of Dalit leaders like B. R. Ambedkar and not of British colonialism. For both Modi and Vemula, English is the language of aspiration, global affiliation, and the future. […] Modi turns to English to uphold a neoliberal and casteist Hindu Indian state, whereas Vemula used English precisely to resist this vision.

I read Saxena’s book by day, while at night I watched Farzi, a 2023 web series. Amazon Prime calls it a dark comedy—it’s a tug-of-war between Indian investigative agencies and an artist who becomes a fake-currency con man. I notice that Mansoor (Kay Kay Menon), the head of the counterfeiting racket, knows only a few English words. Towards the beginning of the series, we see him struggling to pronounce “jurisdiction”—he tries “juridisction,” “juri,” and “juris,” until he gives up and uses the Hindi equivalent. A few episodes later, annoyed and insulted by his boss, he uses two English words after she leaves: “bloody” and “bitch.” There is, of course, another English word in his vocabulary, one that he uses like a chef uses salt: “fuck.” This vernacular energy of Indian English, used to express anger by a people who, quite often, have no writing skills in the language, gives to Saxena’s book its lymphatic drainage system. Its key achievement is being a book produced by the moment we are living through; its preface bears the subtitle “On the Grounds,” and it is truly a political and linguistic history from below.

In a country where English literature departments refer to all other Indian languages as “vernacular”—or, tautologically, as “bhasha,” for “bhasha” means language—Saxena’s book is a necessary and significant counterpoint to this discourse, showing how the vernacularization of the English language has affected India’s political life. In one of Saxena’s first examples, she records how Modi “wears English”:

Modi does not often speak in English. […] Critics and commentators have pooh-poohed him for sounding self-conscious, slow, and strained. But he has used English—not as a language to speak in—but as a language to wear, as a symbol to invoke, and as an object to fetishize. For instance, in 2015, when Modi wore a pinstripe suit to meet his guest, Barack Obama, the stripes were really his own name embroidered in gold thread in the Roman script across the length of his outfit like a brand name. In his meeting with Obama, Modi maintained his pro-Hindi stance by conversing in Hindi, but he literally wore the English language to make up for its absence and to accrue transnational recognition of his own person. […] His exhibitionist performance of the English language showed him to be lacking in sophistication. Instead of uplifting him, Modi’s appropriation of English as a brand offered the surest characterization of him as an upstart.

As I read these words, I thought of a moment over 20 years ago, when I found myself feeling awkward because of someone “wearing the English language”: Shah Rukh Khan wearing a chain that said “COOL” in the Hindi film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). Even though I was watching this film, an Indianized version of Archie Comics’ Riverdale, in a bedbug-infested theater in Siliguri, I cringed at that “COOL” necklace. This was just before the arrival of the internet in provincial India, and I had no idea that this was the beginning of an English-language literacy culture that would change the country. Saxena mentions the English-language Modi suit—that moment in 2015 was only the culmination of a long trajectory of English slogans on T-shirts whose meanings their wearers did not know and often couldn’t even read.

This pull of the language, related as it is to power and capital (it was common practice in the 1980s to say “dollar” for a one-rupee coin in villages in Bengal, for instance), is also about desire—English is blush and highlighter, it is sexiness, the twang of a guitar, and, of course, new energy. English words, phrases, and slogans did not adorn T-shirts alone; they began to sprout on the signs of residential apartments. On the street of the small town I live in, where English-language literacy is mostly limited to the words acquired from using a smartphone, there are residential buildings named “The West Wind,” “The Orchid” and, not too far away, “Urban Palms”; the best sweetshop in our town bears the name “Unique.” Saxena’s book is a deep and delightful record and analysis of this Englishing that is happening on India’s streets and toilet walls, rather than in books, classrooms, and conferences alone.

In the third chapter of her book—my personal favorite, titled “Text: A Desire Called English in Indian Anglophone Literature”—Saxena writes about how “English is coercive and freeing, material and affective, a global language with vernacular ambitions of governance,” and how it is possible to read English “as a vernacular language of caste assertion.” She chooses to read two novels in particular: Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008). Her core question is: “How does a Dalit character sound?” In trying to answer this, Saxena considers the advice Mahatma Gandhi gave Anand when he was writing the novel:

When Untouchable was still in draft form, Gandhi noted that Bakha sounded like a Bloomsbury intellectual and warned Anand against characterizing him as such. Gandhi claimed that Harijans (God’s people, Gandhi’s name for “untouchables”) “[did] not use big words.” Anand recalls, “The next day [Gandhi] told me, ‘I have looked at your novel. You seem to use big words. Harijans sigh, moan, groan! They do not use such heavy words. Write in a simpler language and transliterate what they say.’” Gandhi’s observation of the kinds of words that the Harijans used already betrays a curious understanding of language as “things.” Gandhi extends the socioeconomic poverty of Harijan life to a poverty of vocabulary and emotions. […] The act of transliteration that Gandhi recommends is aimed at preserving this presumed economy as well as at managing the potentially distortive effects of the English language. Perhaps because of Gandhi’s admonition, most of the novel is recounted as an internal monologue. Bakha does not speak much, in English or out loud. At the heart of the novel simmers a tension between the absent aspirational English of the protagonist Bakha and the awkward frame of Anand’s use of the language.

In a brilliant close reading, Saxena records, through Anand and Adiga’s novels—and, briefly, an excursus on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997)—the Dalit’s aspiration and anxiety, desire and deprivation, curiosity and caution about using the English language. This stereotyping of what the Dalit can say, how non-upper-caste and non-upper-class people will speak (particularly in English), or how they will dress, drove B. R. Ambedkar to choose the clothes he wore; it also dictates how publishers in the Anglophone world choose books that conform to this old stereotype and how the humanities academy canonizes literary texts to confirm these old biases. The empathetic research Saxena conducted into unexpected archives reminded me of a brilliant book that has not gotten its due, from either reviewers or scholars: Rashmi Sadana’s English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India (2012). Both Saxena and Sadana, in books separated by a decade, see the voltage in Indian English that few literary scholars, perhaps because of their training in or affiliation to IIC-ism, have noticed or considered worthy of exegesis. It takes much more than a ready-made fault-finding apparatus bequeathed from the social sciences to understand and imagine the prehistory of the English-language menu one finds on mobile hand-pushed food vans in India: “veg pup” (vegetable puffs), “bed om plate” (bread omelette), “shout Indian dosa” (South Indian dosa), “sandwitch” (sandwich), “bugger” (burger), “catlet” (cutlet), “chicken lever fry” (chicken liver fry), “plan dosa” (plain dosa), or innovative names such as “baby doll chaap,” “sunny Leone chaap,” “bed gar lick” (garlic bread), to name just a few random examples from this rich and unconsciously playful archive of found poems that I see on the streets in my town. This is an English produced by a people for whom English was—or continues to be—used as an armor of protection and privilege by those for whom it was a first language, the language of the household.

Where does this vernacular energy come from? Saxena draws the borders of how she understands this vernacular with an investigative energy that can only be fueled by the desire to make sense of one’s experience: the vernacular “describes intellectual and affective relations between languages” when it is “‘notionally in the more embattled position.’ The critical power of vernacular languages draws from the emotional weight of these relations. No language is always and only a vernacular.” And then, with an empathy that marks this intellectual study, Saxena goes on to explain what her use of the “vernacular” is not:

The moral or physiological assessment of bad or rotten English is questionable, to say the least, and I do not wish to use it. Vernacular English is also not a strategy to provincialize English. It does not exemplify English in the colonies to pluralize (and unwittingly maintain) the standard English of the colonial metropole. Vernacular English is also not simply the suggestion that we consider English another Indian language. Instead, vernacular English is my effort to imagine language from different kinds and levels of literacies. […] Vernacular English is a way of recognizing that what seem nonstandard and hybrid englishes are the English language.

A few pages later, after taking us through a short history of the vernacular—especially vernacular English—in different linguistic cultures, she takes us to a lab, the call center in India where English is vernacularized:

When the first call centers arrived in India in the early 2000s, they taught English as a spoken language, often sundered from rules of writing. English was thus unstandardized in this process […] [a] pedagogical method that breaks English down into a formula made of clichés, proverbs, and social pleasantries. This English is known as Spoken English or “Spoken.” The strategic elision of script unstandardizes English by writing out the very phonetic script that made it the oxymoronic “international vernacular” since British imperial expansion, up to the contemporary growth of digital media. […] With immeasurable promises of “life improvement” and “personality development,” English becomes the sound of success, aspiration, and confidence in India today.

This new English, of the last two decades, has become the Indian soundscape: we meet it on the streets, on WhatsApp, in social media posts and comments, and in our films—very rarely in literature, and certainly not in the IIC School of literature. It’s in commercial fiction, of course, in novels by writers who are swarmed at the JLF—for instance, books like Ravinder Singh’s I Too Had a Love Story (2008) and Your Dreams Are Mine Now (2014), whose titles can set off flash mobs at metro stations; but it has rarely been the subject of wholesome analysis, except in Snigdha Poonam’s 2018 study Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World. Thirty years after The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India (1992), a rewarding anthology of essays edited by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Saxena takes us to a larger and different kind of classroom—an India that is speaking “Spoken” like it never has before. Vernacular English is a timely, necessary, and original book. Those who find themselves in disagreement with it will confirm their affiliation (let me say it) with the IIC School of Indian English.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (2017), Missing (2018), My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories (2019), and two poetry collections, Out of Syllabus (2019) and VIP: Very Important Plant (2022). She teaches at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.

LARB Contributor

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (2017), Missing (2018), My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories (2019), and two poetry collections, Out of Syllabus (2019) and VIP: Very Important Plant (2022). She teaches at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.


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