I must confess that with the lockdown continuing endlessly over the past months, I was drawn to some reading apps that showed up on my Facebook page as I scrolled for messages from friends.
Most of those apps were offering Chinese romances and with so much angst worldwide over Chinese aggression, I was curious and got drawn into reading some of the books on offer.
Most of them, I discovered, were weak and cheap copies of the legendary Mills and Boons romances. Some of them were pretentious about adopting western names and situations, and were full of intrigue and twists and turns, normally not found in a M&B romance.
But one thing that caught my eye about those pretentious books was their use of the English language – full of British and American slang, including knightly titles which I presume don’t exist in Chinese society. As I read the awful English, automatically correcting the horrible grammar in my mind as I painfully progressed through the pages, I came across some real gems that no one attempting to speak English in India might be able to rival with the confidence that the Chinese writers did.
Some of our own countrymen have struggled to get their tongues round unfamiliar words- like champagne, pronouncing it as “chumpaa-gni” with ‘ch’ as in church and hard emphasis on the “g". Or as Dharmendra did in the now iconic Chupke-Chupke, they have questioned why ‘tough’ and ‘rough’ should be pronounced as ‘tuff’ and ‘ruff’ but ‘bough’ and ‘though’ should not be pronounced as ‘buff’ or ‘thuff’.
Years later, I was impressed by an editorial in The Times (of London) which said many Indians speak English better than quite a few British because we are taught from text books by teachers to whom English is not a native tongue and they stress greatly on correct grammar and pronunciation.
When Indians write in English and editors blue pencil our books, the English is perfect, quite worthy of the Queen of England. Not so the Chinese.
Just savour these gems – when someone steals a mobile phone, he has to “jail break" it, when hacking would suffice. Or when two rivals meet, they are full of “marinated" feelings for each other, when all that they should be is resentful of each other. Particularly irritating is the constant use of “lied" as in laying down something somewhere.
When I called a friend, who is a literary critic, to pass on these gems to her, she said the Chinese don’t bother about English because they think they owe nothing to the world and if we want to deal with them, we had better learn their language. I don’t think that is quite correct. Because the Central Institute for English as a Foreign Language in Hyderabad in recent years has been full of Chinese students trying to catch up with the rest of the world.
They are way ahead of us in several sectors but they have still not been able to equal us in spoken and written English which these days is very important to know if you work in three key sectors – software, exports and science. Try excelling in these without English, and we will soon be beaten out of our domination of Silicon Valley and neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump would have had to rage and rant about our call centres or American jobs shifting to Bangalore or Bombay.
So, I do not quite appreciate the government’s efforts to snatch away the opportunity for learning English or learning in English from the coming generation of students. Historically, in India English has been the unifying language contributing to progress and upliftment of the masses.
Whatever may have been Thomas Macaulay's motives in banning education in Sanskrit and Persian, I believe that was a good thing for the masses because both languages were elite –Sanskrit for upper caste Hindus and Persian for Muslim nobility that the masses were forbidden from learning.
‘English’ education uplifted many backward classes and the study in English was key to that progress. While in Bengal , where Macaulay was based, the learning of English for long decades continued to be a privilege of the Bhadralok, starting with the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, terminating with Jyoti Basu, himself an Oxbridge man, who banned the English medium in West Bengal's schools that arguably destroyed the future of at least two generations of Bengalis.
In Maharashtra, both Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Dr BR Ambedkar chose English as a medium of education and enraged quite a few classes for daring to equate themselves with the Brahminical class who thought English should have been put out of the reach of the Dalits, just as they had done with Sanskrit and Persian.
So English is the language of empowerment and the only one in India that has never had political overtones. While I do believe all of us must have a grounding in our mother tongues, no language other than English can be the medium of instruction at schools if we do not want to return English to a language of the privileged classes.
Jaganmohan Reddy is right in insisting on English being taught to students in Andhra Pradesh right from the KG level. Children of farmers for years had to restrict themselves to education in their mother tongues. Decades later it is clear why this sector, so crucial to our economy, has failed to catch up and made so little progress internationally except when helped by the more empowered people speaking English.
So just because the BJP and the RSS have some misplaced notions of what is culturally correct or incorrect, they have no right to dunk our masses back to disempowerment by denying them world class opportunities by banning English in government schools and putting an English education out of the reach of the less privileged.
Otherwise one day the Chinese, having studied the language in India, might just be able to spell strength correctly and tell Narendra Modi it is not S. T. R. E. A. N. H.
It will be another resounding defeat for India.