By Monica Bhattacharya
The English language in India has evolved into a marker of social disparity and elitism. Growing up in the 90s in the city of Shillong, I had not fully understood how the grip of the Eurocentric viewpoint on my own life and perception of the world had furtively strengthened. Speaking in vernacular languages in my convent school was little short of a cardinal sin and the thought-police of English mannerisms would chaperon my conduct even outside the school premises. So deeply internalized was this ‘gaze’ that walking into a restaurant that was playing the English tunes of ‘Blue’ and ‘Westlife’ became intrinsically superior to the eatery that (God forbid) blared Bollywood songs. It is only in the recent years of exposure to good books and narratives on postcolonial scholarship that I have begun to acquire an elementary understanding of the complex network of cultural constructions that discursively organises the world hierarchically.
Change is characteristic in all societies and societies develop in their interactions with other societies in the political, economic, and cultural field. Culture, even popular culture, is defined as a “repository of values” by Ngugi in his Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms that is often handled as an apolitical, “stable resting place” that adheres the various strata of society. Also, change in culture is an evitable reality but what affects the outcome of the change is the nature of the factors instigating this change. In a once-colonised nation like ours, these ‘factors’ are external forces of western colonial domination that is the chief catalyst in the process of radical transformation of the social fabric of our country. A major consequence to this is the institutionalisation of the English language that furthered the imperialising mission of the British in India. The postcolonial counter-strike to this has always been the efforts to decolonise the mind by proposing a new, more unbiased cultural order within and between nations that exemplifies the multiplicity of global peoples and cultures. Doing away with the Eurocentric vision of the world is a conscious effort and its tremors are felt most prominently in the field of language and literature. In the recent years, efforts to make the Hindi language the most important lingua franca of the bharatvarsha has grown in tandem with the meta narratives of the nation and nationalism. An attempt to impose one national language is evident in the proposal of the University Grants Commission to make Hindi compulsory in the undergraduate courses. Only recently did The Indian Express news report claim that the HRD Ministry planned to make Hindi language mandatory till class 8 across the country. Although this alleged ‘policy draft’ was later rejected as “baseless” and “speculative” by Union HRD Minister, Prakash Javdekar, the latent fears around the suffocating, neo-colonial domination of what Anita Desai called the “vegetarian monster” of Hindi, lingers like a unpleasant aftertaste. The destructive character of the colonial structures is being replaced by an alternate tyranny of the Hindi language, a prevailing theme that ripples as a powerful undercurrent all through the narrative of the recent Hindi film, Super 30 directed by Vikas Bahl, featuring Hrithik Roshan and Mrunal Thakur in the lead roles.
The film’s central plot recounts the extraordinary journey of the brilliant mathematician, Anand Kumar, who mentors thirty promising students from underprivileged backgrounds for the entrance exams of the Indian Institutes of Technology. However, one can hardly miss the political jibe the film takes at the English language, especially when an entire song in the film (entitled “Basanti No Dance”) is dedicated to the same. While the magnetism of Bollywood cinema is such that one maybe easily cajoled to gyrate and gambol, without giving much thought to the content or intent of certain aspects of the film, the vigilant audience should keep a close eye on the shifting power-play between ‘centres’ and ‘margins’ and trace the trajectory of the centre from its assumed location in the West, now to a homogenised idea of India inseparable from the idea of Hindi as its representative image.
There is no denying that the language of the colonial master was the primary tool for constructing the master’s house in the colonies. But there is also no denying the fact that within the nation today, the ‘centre’ is located in the dominant social stratum, a Hindi-speaking bourgeois minority that has preyed upon the dearth of popular platforms like cinema in other regional languages, to force a single language in the country. Although Super 30 is ‘protest art’ in its own right combating the evils of class hierarchy, it engenders a new form of linguistic subjugation that sparks the long-standing debate on the monopoly of Hindi. If you can overcome the tendency to applaud the Super 30’s spirited performance outside the Excellence Coaching Centre, bolstered by the mass appeal to theatrical dialogues, the language of terror shows its ugly head as they ‘ceremonialise’ Hindi as the language of ‘new India’, in an endeavour to ‘exorcise the fear of the English language’. Watching the film in the north-eastern part of India, while I identified with the joy of overthrowing the remains of the white cultural supremacy in the movie, the fear of having another ‘foreign’ language imposed on our part of the world translated into a new-found fear. This narrative of cultural hegemony can transform the child-like world of the Super 30 into the frustrating, dystopian world of the Netflix series, Leila, where individual freedom is constrained and even the most basic right to communicate in the language of one’s choice becomes a fierce act of resistance. One may argue that the anti-English message conveyed by the narrative of Super 30 is a welcome move considering anti-Bihari sentiments and also the educational policies in Bihar that are in a state of unvarying fluctuation. English was first made optional in 1967. As the numbers of students passing in the ‘Karpoori division’ increased, the Kedar Pande ministry made an attempt to reintroduce English, and finally it was made compulsory by the Jagannath Mishra government in 1975. However, in 1981, when the country adopted the ten-plus-two system, Bihar adopted it too, but with a few slight changes, one of which related to English – ‘read but need not pass’. As the Government-run schools continue to suffer because of the constant changes in the State Council of Education, Research, and Training (SCERT) policies, private schools offering instruction through ‘English medium’ have grown rapidly throughout the state, thereby reinstating ‘English’ to the position of the elitist language accessible by only a few. But with the ground constantly shifting under our feet, the location of the centre and the margins keep changing and portents the arrival of a new kind of tyranny that pushes linguistic minorities deeper into the curse of oblivion. Dancing and singing, vehemently saying ‘No’ to English, the surrogate Englishman, Basanti, the surrogate Indian nation in the song, throws off the yoke of socio-cultural bondage. But it remains to be seen if Hindi becomes the new Gabbar Singh, terrorising all, this time with a ‘Jai Aryavarta’ maybe?
Monica Bhattacharya, Asstistant Professor of English, Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong, Meghalaya, India.
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