By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Given his complex parentage (Indian Sikh and Pakistani Muslim) and his own career as a writer in English, both fiction and non-fiction, the latter for British or American publications, it’s hard to understand how Aatish Taseer could have written “How English Ruined Indian Literature,” which appeared as an oped in this Sunday’s New York Times. It’s also hard to understand how the Times could have published this ignorant rant, which shows Taseer to be totally oblivious to the complexity of language politics in India. Taseer, of all people, even seems to be in thrall to Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi. He was captivated by Modi’s U.N. speech, for instance, and now he’s joining the chorus of Modi followers who wish to impose Hindi as the sole national language of the entire country. These, by the way, are the same people who want to reclaim the country for Hindus alone, odd company for a man of his parentage.
Although Taseer has obviously been exposed to the highest standards of journalism, his lopsided presentation of the issue emerges with perfect clarity when he centers his piece around the thoughts of a Hindi-speaking boatman in Varanasi, a man who is unlikely to be a consumer of literature in any language. He more briefly tells of two students from Benares Hindu University, one embittered because his “pure and beautiful Hindi” wouldn’t qualify him for a top position in today’s India, the other pragmatically ready to grasp whatever advantage his not-so-hot English will gain him. What these vignettes prove, so far as I can see, is this: choosing a culturally narrow curriculum isn’t going to propel anyone to the top of the heap in a country with 14 or more major languages, which is probably a good thing, though Taseer clearly doesn’t think so.
Taseer also cites a failed aspirant to stardom in Hindi-language Bollywood, unbelievably only because he wasn’t fluent in English (is he, Taseer’s friend, really such a terrific actor?) and the sentimental maunderings of V.S. Naipal, a London-based cosmopolitan born in Trinidad to Indian parents who’d been imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar industry. Hardly a convincing array of testimony in support of a Hindi-Only policy in India. Oh yes, Taseer also quotes a 19th century Russian writer who feared the influence of western European civilization. How little has changed in Russia since then. So much for insular nationalism.
Meanwhile, Taseer fails to mention a word of support from any prominent Indian literary scholar or critic. Also, oddly enough, he hasn’t marshaled quotes from disgruntled major fiction writers in any Indian language to bolster his contention that English is ruining Indian literature.
Above all, and this is the crux of my argument, Taseer does not cite a single South Indian source in favor of eliminating the use of English in India. This oversight (or intentional bias) reveals the crushing weakness of his argument. Unlike Hindi, the South Indian languages do not spring from Sanskrit. They belong to an entirely unrelated language family. What’s more, even in North India, the Bengalis have no particular love for Hindi, to which their own much beloved language is related. Hindi, to hundreds of millions of Indians, is a foreign language. If it became the sole national language, non-Hindi speakers and their children would be severely disadvantaged in seeking out-of-state jobs and education. However, so long as all ambitious Indians must be able to handle English effectively, the playing ground is level for the entire population. It may be a tough hurdle, it may be an odd hurdle that has its origin in the colonial past, but it’s the same hurdle for everyone.
This is not a small thing—and this is why English has survived in India. It helps to glue the country together