About a week ago, a little humor column, titled 10 classic Indianisms: 'Doing the needful' and more: How to fix grammatically insane phrases found in common Indian English appeared on a website. Spreading like a virus from one FaceBook wall to another the column poked fun at a number of phrases that South Asians use, ‘Out of Station’, ‘Do one thing’, ‘Do the needful’ and implored the ‘Indian’ to buck up and start using proper English, since ‘Indian English’ was not correct or appropriate English.
There were a number of people who found the column funny, blessed as they were with this incredible capacity to laugh at themselves. One matron for example squawked ‘The scary part is how many of these terms I use... and here I was thinking my English was good!’ The manner in which she phrased her comment though, shed light on another aspect of that column; the column was also inviting ‘us’, i.e. those who speak ‘proper’ English to laugh at (and indeed find irritating) those who do not speak ‘proper’ English. This column was not entirely funny it turns out, because it seemed like just another cruel joke that school yard bullies pull on those weaker than them.
To begin with, the logic that the author used to belittle the English spoken in South Asia is terribly muddled. The author pointed out to us, that a number of the phrases that were used by South Asians were products of the colonial period, and hence ‘outdated’. In other words, we had to move on and pick up the latest forms. This could be a valid argument, especially since picking up new forms of the language serves to aid us to understand what others are saying. And yet, does that invalidate the English we use? If this is the case, then surely there should be huge problems with the English used in the United States? Contrary to popular perception, the English used in the United States is not English spelled incorrectly, but very often older versions of the spelling that has now changed in the UK. Merely because it comes from another era, does not mean that it has to necessarily be consigned to the dustbin of history, especially when it has a thriving life among millions of people on the planet.
Furthermore, what is more important is that this US English is in fact an internationally accepted form of the language. It exists and operates side by side with British English. Microsoft’s Word for example, gives you a choice between not just UK English and US English, but Philippines, Australia, Belize, Jamaica and Indian.
An argument could be made that this column found Indian English embarrassing when Indian English or non-British forms of English are otherwise deemed acceptable, because of the racist logic that unconsciously underlies it. According to this logic, each race has a language that is its own. This language is an expression of the collective spirit of the group, and as such this language cannot be taken up by another race, who have to always follow the original owners of this language who set the authentic forms of the language.
Now this bizarre logic,formulated at the height when racism was an acceptable logic in the international academy, does not hold ground anymore, at least not among those committed against racism and other forms of social discrimination. The clearly debilitating impact of this racism is that it prevents the South Asian from claiming their own history of the English language and delegitimizes both this history and the language it has produced. This is a rich history, and has produced charming nuances in interaction with the other languages in the subcontinent. Indeed, forms of English commonly used across the world today have derived from words associated with the subcontinent. Indian English then, in the forms that it is articulated in, is therefore a legitimate form of English spoken globally, and legitimately an ‘Indian’ language at the same time.
There are a great many reasons why we should reject the racist formulations for languages and accept the proposition above. An earlier column suggested that the Indian elites are an extremely insecure group. They are insecure because they allow racist logics left over from the days of the British Raj to govern their thought patterns. If they were to reject the racist formulation of English, they would not so insecurely look over their shoulder continuously trying to imitate the white man, and trying to match up to them. On the contrary, they would, like those in the US, confidently assert the legitimacy of their version of English.
This confidence gained in the process, would possibly allow them to respect their compatriots who do not speak other (international) forms of English. The author of the essay for example, finds Indian English ‘irritating’. Persons who speak South Asian variants of English would be recognized as having a limited command over the multiple forms of the language, just as one has a limited capacity by not speaking other international languages. They would not however be ridiculed for not as speaking ‘wrong’ English. Perhaps the Indian ignores how much the lack of respect for fellow Indians, contributes to thwarting the fond dream of an Indian super-power.
The formulations discussed in this column are not unhelpful to intervene in the debate currently ongoing in Goa that opposes the introduction of English as a State supported medium of instruction. Those opposing English are in fact persons guided by racist logics that prevent us from acknowledging that English is a local language, a mother tongue even. It allows them to raise silly arguments against English, arguing that there are not teachers skilled in the language. Most importantly however, it shows us what the real problem with the anti-English lobby is; motivated by racist imaginations, their arguments can only lead to the suffocation of democratic life and opportunities in Goa.
(A version of this blog post was first published in the Gomantak Times 22 June 2011)