According to the latest figures there are more than 125 million English speakers in India making English the lingua franca of India. But where did it all begin? Dhanya Nair finds out the answers in Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist a biography by Zareer Masani
Last year when I was job-hunting; one question invariably came out in all interviews. “You are an Indian, Can you speak English?” At first I was merely amused by it. I would truthfully say, “Yes. I even dream in English.” But after hearing it repeatedly; the question became like a mild irritant. During one interview, I was very close to retort, “Are you asking me this before or after going through my CV?” I still oscillate between amusement and irritation when asked this question. But I am objective if nothing else. I can understand why many are baffled when they come to know that a “foreign” language has become the lingua franca in a country which has over 1000 languages and many more dialects.
Today, there are more than 125 million English speakers in India much to the chagrin of many hardliner politicians like Rajnath Singh, president of Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) who has categorically denounced the continued dominance of English resulting in the loss of “our language and culture”. But where did this love for English begin? To trace its trajectory, I recently read Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist by notable Indian biographer Zareer Masani. Sir Thomas Babington Macaulay played a major role in introducing English and other Western concepts in India. Macaulay encouraged the use of English as the medium of instruction in all schools and allowed the training of English-speaking Indians as teachers.
Needless to say, Macaulay was not just another “do-gooder” inspired solely by altruism. He was accused of being a cultural racist and Masani doesn’t refrain from reporting this selfish side. However, Masani correctly observes, “Macaulay was undoubtedly a cultural racist; but then so were the overwhelming majority of his 19th-century contemporaries, whether European, Indian or Chinese, who believed their own culture, religion and values to be intrinsically superior to those of others.”
Yet, in India English has been re-shaped; the language has come out of the intimidating walls of Oxford and Cambridge and shook its hands with the streets of India where it has happily become “Indianised”.
Cultural racist or not Macaulay remained a hero for many Indians like the Dalits (formerly known as the Untouchables) who believed that only English and his progressive educational ideas could free them from caste tyranny. English was then a passport to get out of poverty whilst today English is the language of self-esteem; a language that envelops a person like a comforting blanket and fills him with confidence, pride and warmth.
Yet, in India English has been re-shaped; the language has come out of the intimidating walls of Oxford and Cambridge and shook its hands with the streets of India where it has happily become “Indianised”. As Britain’s leading linguist, David Crystal, once stated, “In language, numbers count. There are more people speaking English in India than in the rest of the native English-speaking world.” Going by that notion, India and Indians will continue to shape the language.
The next time anyone asks me the dreaded question, I will simply tell them to watch Chennai Express (both to teach and irritate them). In the movie, the hero who is from North (and speaks Hindi) falls in love with the heroine who is from South (and speaks Tamil) after a series of (mis)adventures. When the hero encounters the girl’s father, who is a powerful don, the don speaks in Tamil. The hero is completely lost and says to the girl, in English, “Subtitles please.” So here’s the reality: in a country which has such incredible language diversity; English is the common unifying factor.
Winston Churchill called Macaulay father of “English-speaking people.” and Macaulay would’ve been a proud father for his children has taken a foreign language and made them their own.
Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist by Zareer Masani is published by Random House