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Home / Books / Review: An English Made In India by Kalpana Mohan 

Review: An English Made In India by Kalpana Mohan 

Delving into the evolution of Indian English and tracing our peculiar fondness for the language

books Updated: Jan 24, 2020 19:57 IST
Percy Bharucha
Percy Bharucha
Hindustan Times
The minute man: Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859). Engraving by F Knolle. Historia Universal, 1885.
The minute man: Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859). Engraving by F Knolle. Historia Universal, 1885.(Universal Images Group via Getty)
223pp, Rs399; Aleph
223pp, Rs399; Aleph

In his standup routine on English and reproduction, Biswan Kalyan Rath points out that how you pronounce ‘phenomenal’ will determine where your child gets their second set of chromosomes. It is a telling account of our nation’s obsession with English. When I first heard this, I knew it was true. But how does one even begin to navigate the answer to the question why?

Kalpana Mohan responds to that very question and many other pertinent ones in An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local. She quotes from Kiran Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie on how English didn’t open up mere doors, ‘it opens up new worlds and allows you to cross over from one universe to another’. It also helps you score in romantic relationships. Ravan and Eddie was published in 1995; Biswa’s stand-up was posted in 2015. Little has changed.

While tracing our peculiar fondness for English, Mohan also delves into the evolution of Indian English after independence. Etymology, Indianisms and the many Englishes that are spoken in India find mention. Through research and her travels, she documents the role of the language in bridging class and income barriers. Avoiding the ponderousness of a dense academic exercise, this book is filled with lightness, mirth and the occasional bit of ‘aha’ thanks to Mohan’s travel companions and interview subjects. Featured here are her conversations with Vinayagam, with Farukh Dhondy talking about his grandmother using ‘owhson-jhowson, with Ganga and her ‘owner-Amma’, with Jerry Pinto and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, each instance punctuating highly technical, linguistic diagnoses with cultural insights, nostalgia and cheeky wordplay.

Mohan begins with Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ describing the ultimate objective of teaching us English, which was the formation of a class of interpreters between the British and the nation they were governing. This class was ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’ By 1844 those with an English education were given preference in government jobs. She traces how the very same English language would become the language of our freedom struggle. The irony isn’t lost on either side. Somewhere between these two events, English became the language for the patronage of the arts. Mohan substantiates this with lovely trivia including on how the violin entered the Indian classical concert and how For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow came to be sung at Chennai’s Kapaleeswarar Temple.

Mohan treads familiar ground when it comes to the present. She touches on how fluency in English is considered a marker for general competence, of intellect and even good parenting. She also looks at how English become a diplomatic compromise in the national language wars between the central and state governments, and reminds us that such unification comes at a price. Mohan believes the overuse of English is taking India towards monolingualism. The nation’s vernacular languages seem to be losing the battle against the insidious invasion of English words. The author also looks at the challenges and the dilemma of publishing in English and of translating works that would otherwise be lost. One is reminded of the film, Hindi Medium, where a couple is desperate to get their child admitted to a posh English medium school to gain entry into Delhi’s elite circles. The language of ‘opportunity’ has suddenly become India’s default option.

Author Kalpana Mohan
Author Kalpana Mohan ( Courtesy the publisher )

Mohan’s portrayal of semantic cross-pollination between English and Indian languages is impressive. She paints a piquant picture of the British Raj with its ‘Pukka Sahibs’ and ‘Chutney Marys.’ Words like ‘pyjama’, ‘juggernaut’, ‘pundit’, ‘jungle’, ‘zamindar’, ‘maidan’ were all products of the British Raj.

If one must find fault, it is with Mohan’s overzealous rendering of certain subjects and with the tendency to present too many details about individuals whose role in the book is incidental.

What might be revelatory for the reader is just how intrinsic the English language is to our present and future. The author traces how linguistic obstacles permeate even interactions with technology when she writes of the Uber driver who could not fathom her location due to his inability to decipher the word ‘Presidency’. This book reminds us that not much has changed. We replaced government jobs with postings abroad, international offsite and global teams, and realized, a bit too late, that English strikes again.

Read more: Review: Blue is like Blue by Vinod Kumar Shukla

Mohan’s work is crucial to understanding the art of communication and, in an age, where transnationalism is no longer a buzzword, how it is imperative to Indian identity. This book should be enjoyed not just by those devoted to the study of language but by every Indian curious to know how and why our English is ‘like this only.’

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha