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"The Monster Anglopolis: The English Language in India"

an Essay by Sunandan Roy Chowdhury

 

 

 

The waters of the Arabian Sea wash the walls of Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts – India’s premier venue for theatre and performances, located in posh downtown Bombay, as Mumbai was known in the days of British Raj and in the early decades of independent India. It is mid November and I am there with a writer friend from Slovenia to attend the Mumbai Literature Festival. The festival has brought together an impressive show of writers from India and abroad. As I walk around the designer campus of the NCPA, I notice theatre posters, about a dozen of them, announcing forthcoming shows – the shows and their posters,all in English. This, in a city where people speak more than a dozen languages and which has strong modern tradition of theatre, at least, in Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi. However, Mumbai almost never hosts theatre in a language other than in English.

 

Shall we call this irony? Shall we feel dismayed? Be as it may, that is the nature of the beast I call Anglopolis, a city spread across much of what used to be British India. It is present as much in affluent pockets of Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and other Indian towns and cities, as in Pakistani Karachi and Sri Lanka’s Colombo. The festival we attend in Mumbai brings alive the work of important writers and thinkers from India – all of whom write and speak in English. India’s languages – 24 of them officially recognised by the Indian academy of letters, at least 12 with a strong publishing market – are completely absent in this top Indian literature festival. Do we call these festivals Indian? They are festivals of the Indian city of Anglopolis.

 

In Anglopolis an educated person can know English and can afford not to know Bengali or Hindi or Urdu, but the Bengali/Hindi/Urdu speaking person cannot afford to ignore English and Western civilization. The markers of education and culture are set in the West. The intellectual worlds of Bengali, Malayalam, Hindi or Urdu or Marathi, rich as they may be, exist within a self-inflicted condition of inferiority.

 

A Hindi novelist will write in Hindi and will keep herself abreast with Hindi fiction. Her mental world would be informed by the works of English writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and also by contemporary Indian writers who write in English. However, she will barely know the works of modern Kannada literature. For the Indian writer who writes in English, the situation is even worse. Her world is Indian English literature, Anglophone literature from the West and, at best, a few translations of Indian language literature available in English. If a Japanese novel reaches an Indian Punjabi language writer in Delhi, it invariably reaches through an English translation which has been published in London or New York. So, the belief that whatever good is in English, gets reinforced: whatever good comes to India through English. This situation is not limited to literature, culture or thought. In an even more pervasive manner it extends to the world of products and brands that shape the market in India.

 

I asked my students in an undergraduate English literature class where the brand Samsung originates from. Their answer – factually incorrect – was America. The mental world of Indians, young and old alike, is made up of the firm belief that things of value come principally from America and the West. Furthermore, if Indians write or work in English, there is a belief that they themselves will be of greater value. Therefore, parents send their children to English medium schools, the children come out of the schools and colleges as citizens of Anglopolis. Therefore a Bengali girl whose language in her natural environment is Bengali, tries hard to shun her Bengaliness and become ‘efficient’ at the workplace by speaking in English and looking ‘smart’ by wearing Western dress. The entire process leads to a double inferiorisation. On the one hand the members of Anglopolis declare themselves inferior to the hallowed worlds of the English language and the West and on the other hand they declare Indians who don’t understand English or know only a smattering of the language as ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’. In essence the Anglopolitans first make themselves pygmies vis-à-vis the West and then pygmy-ise all Indian and even all non-Western civilizations.

 

The Indian or the African ‘pygmy’ stands before the towering Western ‘giant’ in awe, and feigns being the giant compared to the ‘ordinary’ person of her civilization. In the process, the Anglopolitan pygmy enters a state of self-inflicted blindness. The depth and value of Indian, Asian and African civilizations are blocked out from her vision. The complexity of the entity called ‘the West’ is blurred. In Calcutta, the present capital of the state of West Bengal and a city where British colonial rule ruled over minds for nearly two hundred years, examples of Anglopolitan pygmy abound in great numbers today. The two major political rivals in present day Bengal and Calcutta are the Communist Party of India(Marxist) and the Trinamul Congress. While the former chief minister, a communist leader propagating capitalist development told his audience in 2007 that when he looks around at the world, he saw countries who used English were materially advanced, and hence he advocated that Bengalis ‘must’ learn English. And, the present chief minister from his rival party declared in her election manifesto in 2009 that she wants to transform Calcutta into London – clearly, in her worldview London is the last word in so far as material prosperity goes.

 

If I look around Asia, I find the most Anglophone part of eastern and southern Asia is the most underdeveloped in terms of material development and living standards. It trails way behind Thailand or Indonesia where Thai and Bahasa are the languages of public life, not to mention Japan or South Korea. China – with whom India’s leaders continually try to benchmark its development, also does not use English in everyday life as a language of power, and is by most standards materially better off than India and South Asia. But it is not only the trajectories of contemporary material development that Indian Anglopolis is blind to. It is also blind to the historical worlds which existed before Anglopolis. The worlds of Buddhism or Islam which created their own intellectual and trade networks have been obliterated by the self-constructed tyranny of Anglopolis.

 

 

India’s history during the years of British colonial rule and after is witness to challenges to Anglopolis. Gandhi and many others had pointed out the debilitating effect of English on Indian minds. Generations of writers in Bengali or Hindi or Kannada or Urdu – men and women such as Tagore, Jibanananda Das, U R Ananthamurthy, P Lankesh, Premchand, Kamleswar, Ismat Chughtai to name a few, have written in their natural tongue and created rich literatures in India from the second half of the 19th century up to the present. But the global marketing of Indian English literature – literature which is often inferior to the richness of works in Indian languages, has dwarfed the intellectual challenge to Anglopolis in India and marginalised Indian literatures. The pygmy Anglopolis has become the monster Anglopolis for Indian civilisation.

 

In a small attempt to puncture Anglopolis, I started a publishing house called Sampark some fifteen years ago. The idea behind Sampark was to bring to Indian readers translations of non-English literature. And through the translations, open up India’s Anglopolitan world to the worlds that exist outside the English language. We brought out volumes on India’s neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan, we showcased the literature of the tiny nation of Singapore through the celebration of its four languages, we opened windows into the thought-worlds of Japan, China and how those worlds compared with India’s conception of Asia. Furthermore we showed through a series of books how the West is not a monolithic English civilization as the dominant mindset in India’s Anglopolis happens to be. In its seventeen year existence, Sampark has published volumes – translated into English and Bengali, of writing from Slovenia, Serbia, Italy, France and the Nordic countries as also from Scotland and Wales, thereby deepening the understanding about many layered Europe. In the 1920s and 1930s, Rabindranath Tagore had opened up India’s world to the East of Buddhism and Confucianism, to the near-West of Iran and Iraq and to the far corner of Hispanic America. Sampark, which means ‘relationship’ in Sanskrit and several other Indian languages has tried to make a modest contribution to this internationalist endeavour. At the same time it has tried to open up the gates of Anglopolis to the literatures and polyphony that exist within India and South Asia itself.

 

The road to the demolition of Anglopolis, however, cannot be built without English bricks, as this essay itself shows – written and read in English as it is. Some years ago, the Swedish Writers Union with support from the Swedish International Development Agency had conceived a book project wherein ten Swedish books would come out in Indian languages other than English, and ten books originally written in Indian languages come out in Swedish. What the project achieved was to open up the Swedish public to an India beyond Anglopolitan India, and what it did for Indian writers who work in their natural tongues was to instil cultural confidence that there are markets beyond London and New York. Indians who worked as translators in this project did not know Swedish, nor did Swedes working as translators in the project, know the original Indian source language such as Bengali or Hindi. So both groups of translators – Indian and Swedish, had to use English translations of the Indian language and Swedish texts. In the short term, this is how we have to operate in order to take steps away from Anglopolitanism – a more robust cosmopolitanism is still decades away.

 

Like Gandhi, some of us believe that the dismantling of Anglopolis is the key to the philosophical, cultural, political and economic revival of India, and societies like India who suffer in the cage of Anglopolis. The dismantling of this cage in literature is a small yet critically important step toward the larger, deeper economic rejuvenation that this could unleash. In India, partial signs of such a transformation can be witnessed in the growth of Bollywood and several other natural language based film industries, and also in the exponential growth of newspapers and television news and entertainment programmes in India’s natural languages.

 

A demolition of Anglopolis will not lead to paradise in India. The struggles for better living standards and deeper philosophical moorings will not end with the disassembling of Anglopolis alone. However, this would be vital not for the outcome of our struggles of mind but for the processes in which our minds struggle. I heard an African-American intellectual on television some time back, he said – ‘My grandfather was called Negro, my father was called Black and I am called Afro-American, I do not even have autonomy over what I am called’. The linguistic crisis within India too has an epicentre – being itself called, variously, Hindustan, Bharat, India...

 

In terms of its core values India wants to call itself a democracy and thinks of itself as encapsulating polyphony. The reality of life in non-Anglopolitan India does not reflect this. The realities of India, with its deep fissures and fault-lines, do not go hand in hand with India’s vision of itself. In contrast, Anglopolitan India could be seen as – and prides itself in being – liberal, democratic and progressive. However, it conceals the fact that the imperial hold of English is the singularly most powerful undemocratic act in the last two hundred years of India. English in India closes the gates of power to ninety percent while opening half-gates for a pygmy-elite of ten percent. The linguistic, cultural, musical and philosophical worlds of the ninety percent keep chipping away at Anglopolis.  This struggle may take decades. Yet only when Anglopolis has gone, will the many literatures, music, cultures and cuisines of the many Indias hope to nurture themselves well and not remain bonsai versions of their own multiple selves. The journey to liberate India has taken only its first steps through political freedom. 

 

published in PLANET – The Welsh Internationalist, 216 Winter 2014

 

 

Sunandan Roy Chowdhury is a publisher, poet and academic based in Calcutta, India. He runs Sampark, an internationalist publishing house and travels the world.