Since the new National Education Policy raised the importance of the mother tongue and regional languages – it says that the medium of instruction until Class 5 and preferably beyond should be in that language – there has been a mixed reaction from the public.
As someone from an alienated and oft neglected part of society, I will summarise my relationship with the English language and how it has affected my life.
During my childhood, Guwahati, the only metropolitan city in the state of Assam, used to have a very special place in our hearts. It still does. It used to be our ville de rêve. Born and brought-up in a small town in Assam situated at the upper side of the Brahmaputra in Assam, we always fancied Guwahati in a way the affluent people from South Mumbai might fancy Paris or London or New York.
When I was around seven, I visited Guwahati with my father to see a dentist as I had been suffering from an incessant toothache and the local doctors had been unable to fix the problem. One evening, while heading back to the small hotel we were staying at, we stopped at a shop. I stepped out while my father did the purchasing. I wandered close by – I didn’t have the courage to go too far.
There, a gentleman, who seemed to be a local from the city, asked for my name and school. I responded. He then asked me something in English that I couldn’t understand. The fine gentleman gave me a sordid look and left.
My seven-year-old self had already been made conscious about an unparalleled class division created by a language; a language which I hadn’t been able to master because of my Assamese medium education.
When I was four, I joined a public Assamese medium school. I was a good student, excelling in both academic and non-academic activities – which gave me a certain level of popularity.
Back then, there used to be only one good English medium school in our district. Although many of us were intimidated by the students of this school as they spoke immaculate English, we never quite seemed to mind it much because apart from a handful of students in the district, almost every other student went to an Assamese medium school.
So, the feeling of alienation because of a language which was almost foreign to us was out of question. We were content with our Assamese-speaking lives. Yet, a part of me longed for this linguistic ability.
We also became familiar with many books written by various foreign writers by reading translated versions of their work. We read Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Ernest Hemingway, H.G. Wells and others – all in Assamese.
During my high school days, once in a blue moon, I bought books written in English. I tried to read them using a dictionary that I had picked up from a bookshop in my small town. But it took me forever to even complete two or three pages. I could also never enjoy the book itself as I had to search for the meaning of every other word. So, acknowledging my weakness, I put an end to my adventure of reading English books. Instead, I concentrated on my bookshelf, which was already filled by books written by Assamese writers and an ever-growing list of translated books.
Our school did have a course on English literature. I excelled in the subject academically. The problem was that the English class was never taken seriously – neither by the teachers, nor by the students. We learned basic English, and the rules of grammar. Towards the end of high school, we became familiar with celebrated English classics, which made some of us develop an attachment to English literature.
Still, back in school, not being able to speak English wasn’t a problem. Also, as a kid growing up in Assam in the nineties, we were familiar with the ferocity of insurgency at a very young age. A sense of asserting our identity, the identity which was somehow alien to the rest of India, had already occupied our minds.
Fluency and having command over the literary aspect of the Assamese language made it easier for us to assert that identity. Reading old articles written by journalist-social activist Parag Das, who was assassinated by SULFA in 1996, had become a regular activity for me during my school days. These articles were mainly written in Assamese.
Because of all this, not being able to speak fluent English didn’t mean much to me back then.
My real woes began when I joined a prestigious university for my undergraduate study. In elite Indian universities, English is the normal mode of learning and conversation.
More so, I was moving to Delhi to study and my Hindi was also far from perfect. It was a double whammy for an 18-year-old me. For the first time, I was in a world where I didn’t know or understand the rules.
I had to give up my hobbies one after another. Back in school, I used to take part in every debate competition and was among the top debaters of my district. But at university, debates were conducted in either English or Hindi. It’s almost impossible to be articulate and eloquent in a language that’s foreign to you or one that you have just started to grasp.
In Indian cities, English plays a role in constructing a class gap. Roxane Gay, in her book Bad Feminist, explained that privilege is relative and contextual. In India, if you are trained in an English medium school, you’ll have a certain privilege. If you don’t speak English, many will consider that you are not smart. There are reasons for it, but that’s not within the ambit of this essay. This disposition of Indian people towards a language has been the basis of many successful movies like English Vinglish, Hindi Medium etc.
Having been a star student who has won many accolades, I wasn’t ready to be seen as someone who was not smart. Instead of letting people know about my inability to speak fluent English, I decided not to hang out with my peers. I stopped socialising with people who spoke English all the time. Instead, I made friends with people who were also not comfortable speaking in English. Yes, I wasn’t alone.
So while my school days had been filled with public speaking, debating, poetry recitation competitions, my university days were free of such activities. Instead, to tackle my loneliness, I dove headfirst into the world of books. I had already fostered a habit of reading in Assamese, and I now turned my attention to reading English.
This linguistic inefficacy elicited multiple levels of despair in me. It also hampered my dating life. There were many times when I liked someone, but could never muster up the courage to ask that person out of paranoia. The genesis of that paranoia may have been real or just all in my head – but I had this hesitation. What if she asked me something in English and I wouldn’t be able to say the right thing the right way?
In a way, this phobia had crippled me. I was struggling to find romance in a romantic city. I got depressed, sometimes I cried.
I was aware that the ability to speak a language well has nothing to do with the validity and elegance of my ideas. This ability depends more on the external environment, the way one has been brought up. Yet, I felt uneasy and ashamed. I longed for this skill. I feared getting humiliated. I feared some day, everyone would figure out the secret behind why I was so silent and laugh.
In her memoir The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom described her depressive experience in Burundi, and how a foreign language that she hardly knew played a huge part in making her life miserable.
An air of melancholy had surrounded my life too. My confidence had touched the nadir. Language isn’t merely a tool to express and communicate our thoughts. It also allows for social bonding between two human beings. A linguistic disparity can severely affect that bonding.
Doing well in class and in science alleviated some of my pain. The more depressed I felt, the more I engrossed myself in books. Books had become my way of mourning, my catharsis, my medium of venting my frustration. Towards the end of my undergraduate days, I fell in love with movies. From Fellini to Antonioni to Ray to Kurosawa, I got sucked into worlds created by many such legendary figures from the world of movies.
When I joined university in 2011, it was a very tumultuous time in Indian politics. Movements like ‘India Against Corruption’ had already captured the imagination of society. In my town, I could only read about these socio-political developments. But once I moved to Delhi, I found myself right in the middle of the political clamour.
So many things were happening. Experiencing these developments from up close, they seemed so tangible. A 73-year-old Gandhian social activist, with an austere outlook took the stage and was accompanied by an army of distinguished and qualified personalities: from a former IPS officer to a former law minister and his son – both of whom were among the most reputed Supreme Court lawyers in the country – and a technocrat-turned-civil-servant-turned-social-activist, an orange-clad reformist/social activist, a professor from a prestigious university and many more.
Surrounded by thousands of common people and backed by the media and opposition parties, the movement pointed fingers at the then sitting government and declared a war on corruption. It was successful in capturing the imagination of the youth and a majority of the nation.
Then came the brutal rape case which shook the entire country to its core. The youth spilled out onto the streets, protesting. Not seeing any fruitful results even after having fasted for a long time, the technocrat-turned-civil-servant-turned-social-activist, with his signature cap and muffler, which gives him a relatable common-man look, kickstarted his own political party to make a change.
Meanwhile, a right-wing Hindu nationalist – a seasoned politician – had already impressed the people of the country like nobody else in a long time. The people of the country voted this Hindu nationalist with a ’56-inch chest’ into power with an absolute majority. And Delhi voted the technocrat-turned-civil-servant-turned-social-activist into power with a record number of seats in the state legislative assembly.
Unprecedented politics and political crises followed.
By then, social media had become the place to make your voice heard. I too had started voicing my opinions online, with my liberal blinkers on. I made some friends because of my ability to put forth my opinions well on different topics, and also made a few foes because of my specific political inclination.
Eventually, my undergraduate days ended with mixed emotions instead of the grave disappointment I had expected.
Towards the end of my MSc from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, I was a fair bit more fluent in English and got an admission offer from a reputed US university to pursue a PhD.
In the US, the one thing that came as a surprise to me was that no one really judged how smart I was or wasn’t based on my ability to speak English. But I had yet to get over the paranoia I had harboured during my undergrad days. I initially faced some difficulties comprehending the American accent. And while I could conceal my weak English when it came to reading and writing, the speaking part was still a problem.
It was easier for me to mingle with other international students instead of American students as we all faced similar issues. With time, the way I spoke improved.
Over long painful years, I had taught myself how to cope with my inability to speak English. After a certain point of time, I had even taught myself how to embrace my inability. I still feel angry when I can’t have an elegant and fluent conversation with someone in English on any topic. I still feel residual rage when I need to open the dictionary to look up the meaning of a word while reading a book. It still irks me when I need to repeat myself to my American friends during our conversation because of my broken English and my foreign accent.
But over the years, I have tried my best to teach myself how to make peace with it. And to my credit, I have been able to do that to some extent.
In this whole process, I have developed a persistent love-hate relationship with the language. I have become a voracious reader of books written in English. I have started devouring every kind of book. Without knowing it, I developed an inexplicable attachment with the language itself.
Jhumpa Lahiri, in her book In Other Words, described her infatuation with an ‘another’ language. I ventured into an adventure of learning a language that was foreign to me, mainly to regain my sanity. In the process, I started loving it without even acquiring a decent level of perfection.
My unremitting battle with English will go on forever. I shall be infuriated with this language for the rest of my life. But it’s almost impossible for me to live without it as well.
Motivating people to learn their own languages is important. Language is deeply associated with the cultural identity of a group of people. It acts as a memory.
But it’s not an either-or situation. Whenever there is a desire to preserve language and identity, the burden is often placed on the shoulders of the underprivileged ones.
By not allowing students from the small towns and villages to learn English at their young age, we will put them in a disadvantageous position. People with the resources will always send their kids to private schools where the medium of instruction is English.
I am no expert to dissect the socio-cultural and socio-economic importance of a language. But the fact remains that knowing English in India draws the demarcating line.
Saurov Hazarika is doing research in Chemistry at Johns Hopkins/Penn State, and has an MSc in Chemistry from IIT Kanpur.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty