our dear sister
is departing for foreign
in two three days,
we are meeting today
to wish her bon voyage.
You are all knowing, friends,
What sweetness is in Miss Pushpa.
I don’t mean only external sweetness
but internal sweetness.
Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling
even for no reason but simply because
she is feeling.
This poem by Nissim Ezekiel totally re- iterates the irony of teaching English to a non- English speaking populace. Indians have made English their own language, speaking it in ways unimaginable for the Engleesh populace today. Why not? If we can adopt Engleesh, why not adopt it Indian-ishtyle?
Britain has given India its biggest weapon, and its biggest source of misery – the English language. Good private school education in India is in the English medium, and speaking English over Indian languages has become the functional aspect of most Indian families. Oh, come on, don’t we get ashamed when one of our relatives or even our parent, who belong to a different vernacular educated system speak Engleesh with a phoreign accent and ruin the aatmospheer?
Indians are a curious bunch of people. Knowing English has put us at the forefront of developing countries, primarily because citizens of our country can communicate in a language known all over the world. But, on the other hand, we have made English language an essential aspect of our life. Learning, speaking and conversing in English is more important and a cause of judgement in case you falter and can not express knowledge of this exotic language. It is not a new trend to see youngsters talking to each other in English to appear cool and distinctive from the ‘local’ population. In schools, if children talk to each other in Hindi, or another local language, it is not uncommon for parents to say, “I shend you to Engglissh medium to talk in Hindi? Wasting your phother’s money!” Of course, learning an Indian language in India is a wastage of money. Otherwise why do parents send their children to Private schools. There has to be some distinction between the maid’s child, who speaks the local language and the typical middle class Indian child, who can pride themselves in speaking English, a phoren language!
But, do we speak the language correctly to even call it our own? We all tend to make seemingly glaring mistakes – we ‘screw’ up our prepositions, mis- place our articles and mis- pronounce words. Human nature is oriented to perceive individualistic perceptions as correct, so someone who even remotely can speak three lines in English is worshipped in certain places in India, and somewhere else, even missing a ‘ in “its” can lead to trouble in bliss.
Why is the curious case of the article, preposition and the gerund so necessary for us to communicate? We all can speak a different kind of English, it is not our first language in the first place. If we can use colloquial terms like, “he screwed me over”, then why not disgrace the language in its entirety? The good news is, peeps- we all speak English incorrectly. Each and every one of us has committed a blunder once in a while communicating in English. So don’t stare at the person saying, “I am smiling because I am feeling”. Because what you are feeling bro, is what I am feeling right now too- what is he saying?
India is a country of over 28 different languages. Hindi is one of the working languages of our country alongside English, but our national language isn’t just Hindi. And it is sad to see the lack of progressivism in vernacular educated students. Studying in the vernacular is treated as a sure shot method of escalating down the society’s ladder of progressivisim. Students who don’t know English are de- motivated so much by society and by the education system itself that they lose confidence and begin doubting their value addition to the academic atmosphere. Education in the vernacular isn’t a disgrace – we believe it is, but it is a source of empowerment. It is an assertion of your culture. Just because a foreign language helps us stand out on a world forum, doesn’t mean we should let go of our vernacular education. If this were true, Japan wouldn’t have been a functional country today folks. Or even Germany for that matter. And sadly, there is no provision for letting vernacular students progress, quantitatively or qualitatively. Knowing English has become an utmost necessity, but de-moralising the Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Oriya, Assamese – etc. medium educated people when they try and speak English and attributing it to their vernacular education is wrong for any literate being. Rather, we should encourage them, like we encourage ourselves while trying to learn a foreign language in those air- conditioned classrooms of Mundo Latino or Goethe Institut. It’s not our good fortune that we are ‘privileged’, it is this collective memory of us being privileged that is our bad fortune.
A language can be learnt, it shouldn’t become a person’s identity. Amartya Sen gave his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Bengali, not in English. It is necessary to learn a language with perfection, not brandish half- baked knowledge of a language over a populace that is ignorant of it. If we don’t know the rules of English grammar correctly (even our teachers don’t – not everyone does), then we have no right to point out the glaring mistakes of another person who is trying to learn the language. Nissim Ezekiel’s poem points out the irony of trying to teach English to a populace that prides itself in butchering the language – but we need to take out the positivism from this and on a non- judgemental level solve this existential crisis of language barriers. And it all starts at home. One can know both English and another vernacular language perfectly, or know one. At least knowing something is better than having half knowledge of Hindi, half of English, mixing those together like a cocktail and speaking Hinglish. And then scolding our mothers/fathers or people of other generations or even other cities about speaking English correctly. We need to get our shit together first, don’t you think so?
Yes it is true that it is difficult to bind a country like India with one language alone. But then our vernacular education is dying, languages like Sanskrit are considered the most atrocious subjects to study at University. I remember seeing young students choosing languages like French over Hindi as a second language – because it was more “global”. What is global? Hindi will be a global language if India becomes a popular destination for living “abroad”. It is this fascination of moving outside India that motivates us to discard our heritage and then shun those who are sticking to it.
I remember my grandfather sending me a letter in English (and his English was much, much better than me and my whole family put together, because he was educated in the British Raj) – telling me that I am a ‘shame’ on the family because I didn’t know how to read and write Bengali, my mother tongue. At that point of time I was enraged, angry. How could my grandfather, a near- native speaker of English, have a problem with me not learning my local language? I knew English, didn’t that make me progressive? But after so many years, I realized that he too harboured the same feeling I have today – don’t let the vernacular die for something that isn’t even your own. His letter motivated me to learn to read Bengali, and now I just feel more capable because I can read more than three languages. Learning to read Bengali didn’t undermine the fact that I spoke English, it just strengthened my resolve to at least master one language. And I am still learning. But it is this feeling of accomplishment that is dangerous, and unfortunately we all feel that just because we ‘speak’ a particular language, we own it.
Yes, English is a universal language. And we should learn to live with the fact that most of us aren’t the top- most speakers of the language. No language can be perfectly mastered, but no master of a language should deter another person from trying to speak a language. And yes, at least while selecting subjects in school, don’t choose German or French if your logic is that it is a more “universal” language than your vernacular. You can know your vernacular language, yet learn a foreign language. The logic of Indians nowadays, who speak to their children in English is absurd. I remember seeing a lady tell her son, “don’t talk in Hindi. It is crass.” I was amused at the fact that she decided to shun her entire heritage at one go by labelling her identity as ‘crass’. Accha batayiye janab, agar Bhojpuri crass hai, toh hum Kabir kyun padhte hai? Because reading Kabir makes us appear as classy people fond of good literature? But when our Grandmother says two lines in English incorrectly, it becomes a disgrace to our class? Class is a societal term, but we have made our identity a part of our “class”.
Live and let live people. That will give all of us peace. Oh, and I hope Ms. Puspa had a nice journey to her foreign land. 😉