The novelist Aatish Taseer had an impassioned piece in the NY Times recently about the effect of India’s linguistic hierarchy on both the job prospects of Indians and the country’s literature; some excerpts:
“English is not a language in India,” a friend once told me. “It is a class.” This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English. “They want you to walk in the door speaking English. Then if you switch to Hindi, they like it. Otherwise they say, ‘the look doesn’t fit.’ ” My friend, who comes from a small town in the Hindi-speaking north, knew very well why his look didn’t fit. He knew, too, from the example of dozens of upper-middle class, English-speaking actors, that the industry would rather teach someone with no Hindi the language from scratch than hire someone like him. […]
Two students I met in Varanasi encapsulated India’s tortured relationship with English. Both attended Benares Hindu University, which was founded in the early 20th century to unite traditional Indian learning with modern education from the West. Both students were symbols of the failure of this enterprise.
One of them, Vishal Singh, was a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes. He was two-thirds of the way through a degree in social sciences — some mixture of psychology, sociology and history. All of his classes were in English, but, over the course of a six-week friendship, I discovered to my horror that he couldn’t string together a sentence in the language. He was the first to admit that his education was a sham, but English was power. And if, in three years, he learned no more than a handful of basic sentences in English, he was still in a better position than the other student I came to know.
That student, Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless. Despite his grand education, he would be lucky to end up as a teacher or a clerk in a government office. He felt himself a prisoner of language. “Without English, there is no self-confidence,” he said.
In my own world — the world of English writing and publishing in India — the language has wrought neuroses of its own. India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes. […]
The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.
In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual. Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry[…]
But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered.
I don’t know to what extent this bleak picture is exaggerated, but it certainly isn’t made up out of whole cloth, and I don’t know what the solution might be to the difficult reality it reflects. (Thanks, Kobi!)