I had the opportunity of listening to William Dalrymple when he had come to the Times Literature Festival, Bengaluru this year to promote his latest book – The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. From his account it appears that, unlike the Mughals, the British did not have to struggle either to expand their empire or manage their affairs in India. Many influential Indians, sometimes to settle scores with the local rivals or at other times for their own greed, were hand in glove with the East India Company giving them material support or providing them with crucial information.
Similar is the case with the English language. Even today, it does not have to struggle to solidify its foothold in India. It has practical reasons. Because of its English educated population, India was one of the first countries to take advantage of the BPO revolution. If you want in depth study or to know the latest development in any area of knowledge, knowing English has definite advantages. This blog itself is a case in pint. Because it is in English, my reader analysis shows that I am directly able to connect with unknown people form Japan to Scandinavia.
It is not only our grand mothers but also our politicians (thankfully) who know the importance of English language. Bowing to chauvinistic pressure, the stray politician occasionally makes feeble protests against English. However, his protest against English is not as vociferous as his protest against other Indian Languages like say, Hindi or Sanskrit. The language fanatic too does not mind the feeble protest of the politician. His own children may be studying in 100% English medium schools since they were toddlers.
My father in law, himself a Sanskrit scholar and a regular Odia columnist (in addition to being a post graduate in English Literature), recounts this personal anecdote. It was the 1940s and he was in High School. Whenever he was doing home work or practising lessons his grandmother would come frequently to his room to check what he was studying. If she saw that he was studying Sanskrit she would express her displeasure and go away. If she saw that he was studying English, she would give him a piece of sweet. Of course this did not discourage him from studying Sanskrit along with English.
In spite of all our lip services to protect and develop our respective mother tongues, we have a strange obsession with the English language. These days a student in a private or in a central government school studies upto class XII in the same school, or the same type of school. But in many state government schools this is not the case. For example in our school days when there were very few alternatives to sate government schools some of my classmates may have studied in four different types of school – First to third in a Lower Primary School, fourth to fifth in a Upper Primary School, sixth to seventh in a Middle English School, and eighth to eleventh in a High School.
I used to wonder why they were calling it the Middle English School because there was nothing English about the school. English was just one of the subjects among equally important five or six other subjects which were taught in Odia medium. And how can it be called the Middle English School without some sort of English School succeeding or preceding it?
There was another interesting thing. Schools that put up the name board in English used to write it as XYZ High School. But the schools that put up the board in Odia used to write it as ‘ XYZ Uchcha Ingrazi Vidyalaya’.
So there is no point in not accepting the fact that English is here to stay. For many in India it is a matter of earning daily bread. But the question is – along with mastering English, can we do something for the preservation and development of our native languages?
I am hopeful that we can. My father in law is a case in point. In many states it is mandatory to use the state language in connection with official work. At the same time, like the proverbial squirrel of Ramayana everyone can do his or her bit.
Both my children studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya. Odia was not a subject in any of the schools they studied. But, during summer vacations they were encouraged to learn reading and writing in Odia. We converse with one another in Odia. We don’t put any conscious effort to converse in Odia. We just find it natural to talk in our mother tongue and do it.
I find it odd when parents don’t talk to their children in their mother tongue. At the cost of inviting displeasure sometimes I tell them bluntly, “Look. Don’t worry about your children’s spoken English. After five or six years they will be the ones to correct your pronunciation. But if you don’t teach them your mother tongue, no one else will.”
By the way this lock down period is a good time to teach your children your native language, in case this is not a subject in their schools.
PS : This is the fifth post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.
All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.