Thursday, March 26, 2015

How English Ruined Indian Literature


Credit Damien Poulain

NEW DELHI — A BOATMAN I met in Varanasi last year, while covering the general election that made Narendra Modi prime minister of India, said, “When Modi comes to power, we will send this government of the English packing.”
The government of the English! The boatman naturally did not mean the British Raj; that had ended nearly 70 years before. What he meant was its extension through the English-speaking classes in India. He meant me, and he could tell at a glance — these things have almost the force of racial differences in India — that I was not just a member of that class, but a beneficiary of the tremendous power it exerted over Indian life.

“English is not a language in India,” a friend once told me. “It is a class.” This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English. “They want you to walk in the door speaking English. Then if you switch to Hindi, they like it. Otherwise they say, ‘the look doesn’t fit.’ ” My friend, who comes from a small town in the Hindi-speaking north, knew very well why his look didn’t fit. He knew, too, from the example of dozens of upper-middle class, English-speaking actors, that the industry would rather teach someone with no Hindi the language from scratch than hire someone like him.


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