English

I am sitting at the H’s office while he completes some work, on a Sunday evening. This evening I met a man who has an unusual timbre of voice. I wish I knew what words to use to convey how a voice sounds. I am sure words for this exist, but if I open yet another tab now to figure that out, this post will never be completed. My powers of digression are legendary. Back to the meeting of said man. So many intangible little somethings form our first impressions of people. I dislike squishy handshakes, wishy-washy hello’s, and am always game for a smile and something new. Well, who isn’t? But coming to the topic of this post, non-native speakers of English are judged on their English all the time, all the more vehemently by their own countrymen, and in a twinkly benevolent manner by everyone else. That I find Indians to be the most judgmental people wherever I go is old news to anyone who knows me (or knows Indians!) but this mental note-taking on how good someone’s English is a universal trait, seems to me.

Why?

Because it’s the most common language in the world? I am sure a few wisely chosen statistics could disprove that. Because it is the language of the United States aka the spokesperson of the world? Again, no. The US doesn’t actually have a national language (and why India has a national animal, a national bird, a national language, a national *insert word* (but zero national tolerance) will always confuse me. Does anyone expect a bunch of people to stand straight and together under the unifying emblem of a peacock or to the lilting strains of a song sung in Hindi? If anyone thought that in the innocent days of yore, they surely do not think so today. But I digress again.) Is it because English is the easiest language in the world? Ha. You grinned a bit there, didn’t you? Because it’s got the most extensive vocabulary? No. Because it’s the most rigorous and hence the strongest language to express important ideas in? Hello Latin! Because it’s the oldest? Pshaw. Now I am grasping for straws. But you get my drift surely. Why this obsession about English? (and why God, especially in post-colonialist societies like my own?)

Don’t get me wrong. No one likes a well-crafted sentence in this language as much as I (yes, I exaggerate too). The pleasures of finding the perfect word to nail a thought onto paper (or phone, or onto another thought) is a very, very sweet one. But somewhere along the line, we began to attach a superiority to those who could do this better than others. It is not as prevalent in any other language to this extent. I do not know why but I see its ramifications everywhere, and when I think about it a little, it has always been around, trailing behind all of us like an invisible little cloud.

We’ve most of us (and by us, I mean the English-school-educated-Indians) been to schools where at least one teacher admonished us for speaking in Hindi or God forbid, Tamil (Taaamil. I swear I grind my teeth a tiny bit every time I am subject to listening to a Tamilian say Taaamil instead of Tamizh. It feels like a betrayal of the entire language to me that its native speakers cannot even be bothered to pronounce its very name properly). We’ve all been envious of that kid who could pronounce alas and not say “Alice” while reciting in English class. We’ve all smirked a little but squirmed internally when the portly neighbor aunty visits with a bowl of “salaaad” that she just made. We’ve all wished we could disappear when an uncle says “gah-rej” for garage. Admit it. Never have I seen a single kid subject another to the kind of mental torture that ensues at being caught making a flub in English, in any other language. Mistakes in the native tongues are laughed off with a gay insouciance or worse, they are totally ignored. Like they don’t matter enough to be corrected.

This is not going in the direction of an anti-Western, pro-Dravidian rant about how “aping the West” is “destroying our culture” and “killing the soul of India”. Hell, I believe some of our culture would do well to be destroyed in entirety. It is simply a puzzled wondering on my part, Why did English become so powerful in the worst possible way in India? Whatever happened to realizing it is simply a tool of expression, and that the essence of an idea expressed in a native tongue is no less real than in English?

 

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