In my last column, I had mentioned how the rise of an India that was invisible to many urban slickers was set to change our country in many areas. The news from the ongoing Asian Games in China and the performance of our cricket team in the Asia Cup have emboldened me to take this further. The confidence of a generation unencumbered by the legacy of the proto-colonialists is what will soon break the glass ceiling in other areas too. This has been noted and applauded by many although there are still some who will never surrender their entitled positions (read snobbery), conferred on them by birth, family connections, facility in the English language and the old boy school network, without a fight. The heartening fact is that they are becoming more and more irrelevant now. In a brilliant article I was sent recently, Sumana Roy — who is on the faculty of Ashoka University — categorises two schools of English spoken in India today. The IIC School and the JLF School, according to her, reflect the old stuffy and elite class (members of the India International Centre, one of Delhi’s most exclusive clubs, aka the IIC) and the high-energy, lively bonhomie and comfort between writers, filmmakers, historians and social scientists who flock annually to the popular Jaipur Lit Fest (JLF) to hear, intermingle and enjoy the open-air discussions by some of the trendiest speakers and writers from across the world.
Some may argue that this facile division is not entirely correct and there are a lot of mavericks in each place, but if her point is to celebrate the breaking-out talent and disruptors of creative energies, she has a strong case. Class, education and social prominence were probably as vicious as the old caste-based social order that thrived on a cruel exclusion of those who were not People Like Us. Untouchability, whether of a religious persuasion or intellectual and social positions, is an undeniable barrier erected around privilege and power. To make fun of those who speak English with strong regional accents (think of North Indians who laugh at Mallu and Tamil accents), those who dispense with grammar when giving public speeches or those who wear clothes that become talking points (the PM’s branded bund gala when having tea with Obama or Trudeau dressed like a baarati on his first state visit) no longer evokes mirth. Speaking in one’s national language at international fora is no longer considered something to feel sheepish about, but an assertion of national confidence. The argument being that if the Chinese and Russians (to name just a few) can hold their head high when doing so, why can’t we?
English is now our own language, argues Sumana Roy, quoting the ‘experimental language jam’ in her hometown of Siliguri. Here are some samples she offers: Urbane Unisex Salon, Hum Toh Hain Like This, Bowtie Automobile Works, Endeavour Global School, Neelkanth Mattrezzz. Again, in the dhaba-like food joints offering delectable street food that marry Chinese, South Indian, Italian and American dishes to the desi spice and sauce tradition, no one asks for forks and knives. You slurp your food from paper plates and eat with your fingers. Street food is now eagerly sought after by foodies and there are many YouTube hosts that take you on culinary tours in cities across the country. Some may shudder at the popular ‘noodulls’ and gobhi manchurian combination available all over India but believe me, authentic Chinese food is not half as exciting. At wedding banquets, the most popular tables are those that offer Chinese and Italian fare, created by desi cooks. Even in traditional South India, guests will happily abandon their sambhar-rasam for dal makhni and karahi paneer.
The limited point I wish to make is that the country is changing — it is up to you to decide whether this is good or bad. The old days and the traditional protocols of public behaviour are melting like Arctic glaciers. There was a time when grammatical rules, syntax and vocabulary ruled our writing — in fact, many of my generation still follow them. However, for the vast army of aspiring Indians who grew up in rough and ready schools and looked at language as a mode of communication rather than a literary form, such niceties mean little. Their confidence in their ability to say what they feel is not tied up in those regulations that inhibited the earlier generation when writing or speaking. Moreover, those who sniff at ‘bad’ English are now sniffed at themselves!
A new publication, edited by the linguist Dr GN Devy, titled ‘The Indians’, is an ambitious work of scholarship that reaffirms India’s infinite capacity to absorb and assimilate foreign tongues. This has made us one of the most culturally diverse and lively civilisations, for no other country can quite match us in this area. The keyword is the capacity to absorb different linguistic registers and make them our own. Thus, for every Shashi Tharoor, there is an Indian who uses a mixed vocabulary adapted to a level of individual comfort and expressiveness. I, for one, find this both an endearing and exciting way of constantly making language relevant and eternally fascinating. What is disturbing is the growing trend to drop one’s native language in favour of fusion pop-speak. How many dialects that fed our national languages will survive this trend remains a worry.
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