A for Aspiration, B for British Raj

In a nation where only 4 per cent of the population speaks English fluently, the other 96 per cent struggle to get a foothold and join the world’s march to progress.

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worked the three VHS tapes we owned to the bone. I was a child growing up in provincial Delhi in the late ’80s and my only source of distraction from reading was watching re-runs of Satte Pe Satta on charred afternoons. Because I didn’t know any better, I couldn’t get enough of the film’s slapstick humour, Amitabh Bachchan’s indolent sexiness, and the fact that you could have a stable in your house. Years passed; VHS cassettes were replaced by revolutionary CD technology, I got an education, and realised that the film was so far gone on the sexism scale that I was not allowed to like it anymore. But I made a concession for one song – “Jhuka Ke Sar Ko Poocho, Madam, How Do You Do”.

A range of international allusions dovetail in that song. Hema Malini, dressed like a very impractical American ranch girl, teaches her six loutish brothers-in-law how to pick up ladies at what appears to be a Victorian debutante’s ball. Of course, Hema Malini insists, the girl is going to be impressed if you can bow and throw a little English at her. The boys are advised to begin with a cavalier “I like you” and end with a simple “I love you” within the space of that four-minute song. Then everyone breaks into a variation of the stomping Russian Barynya folk dance.

A bunch of brown natives jollying around a ranch was probably farthest from Lord Macaulay’s mind in 1835, when he decided to teach us all English, considering “a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. The idea was to form a race of people who would be “Indians in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, and morals and intellect”. On the back of colonialism and later, American capitalism and pop culture, English would go on to become the lingua franca of the world.

But back home in India it would remain the language of aspiration, of opportunity, and of upward social mobility – even if only 4% of our population could claim to speak it fluently. In Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century, Nandan Nilekani recalls an incident where the owner of a Bengaluru ice-cream parlour taught his employees a smattering of English so that they would be able to take orders from (presumably) upper-class patrons. Armed with a passing familiarity with the language, though, the staff soon left the ice-cream parlour to step up the professional ladder – and joined BPOs.

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I was reminded of this same earnestness, this simple cause-and-effect of what the language of refinement can do for you at Anamika’s English Academy. Wedged into a couple of white-lit windowless rooms in a crumbling building off Santa Cruz station, Anamika’s, like scores of similar coaching institutes stippling our cities, offer their students a straw of hope. Here, their wards can believe in the prospect of a better career, of being improved versions of themselves – or simply, having the confidence to sing the English song of their choice.

That’s really the heart of Rinky Upadhyay’s desire, stories like whose must have served as the inspiration for the 2012 film English Vinglish. The 35-year-old homemaker felt awkward at the parties her husband would take her to, and was forced to stand around quietly, mute to the “high-funda” conversation around her. Rinky has a 14-year-old son who has the benefit of an English-medium education at a premier Mumbai school, which gives him the license to poke fun at his mother’s stilted speech. “But I am a graduate,” she tells me with sudden intensity. “I sing very well. Why should I feel ashamed just because I can’t speak proper English?”

In the three months that Rinky has spent at the institute, she is happy to report that she is able to form sentences without any help and can walk into a parent-teacher’s meeting with confidence. Besides, Pooja ma’am, her coach here has helped her pick up proper lyrics to her favourite song. Then she promptly breaks into a very sweet (and only slightly off-key) rendition of the Titanic OST “My Heart Will Go On”. After the impromptu performance, Rinky sits in a satisfied afterglow. “For me,” she says, “this is a great feeling.”

I’ve seen this ambition of being considered an English-speaker, distilled down to a single song, to a few words, before. In the days that I was watching Satte Pe Satta, our next-door neighbour’s Man Friday, Puran Chand ji, would come visiting my mother once a month so she could write a letter to his family in a small village in Almora. Puran Chand ji, who walked with a limp and had only one good eye, rarely had much to say about his time in Delhi, so my mama would first encourage him to give her something to write about, then give up and invent her own quotidian stories. There was only one condition: That the letter begin with a “How are you,” end with an “I am fine here,” and be sprinkled throughout with a few English words. My mama knew his family back home was unlettered and that the local daakia would have to read out his note to them, but for Puran Chand ji, just the promise of a foreign script scattered through a familiar one, was good enough. Who was my mother to argue with these little entreaties stamped on to a blue inland letter?

“She is writing a letter. Iska matlab kya hua?” Back in class at Anamika’s, Pooja ma’am is instructing the class in how to form present continuous sentences. She turns back to the white board, splits the sentence into its constituent parts, and proceeds to conjugate verbs through a nifty formula. Her simultaneously bored and severe demeanour reminds me of my own class teacher.

The next exercise is a conversation between learners, memorised from their textbooks. A young girl and Sushila, an older woman who seems close to 55, role-play at being “friends”. The girl says she works at a public library. “That’s great. I am a student,” says Sushila. Pooja is gentle in her rebuke. “You can’t say you are a student,” she tells the older woman. “You are a housewife.”

I must have smiled at this natural, bittersweet comedy because the guy in the Deadpool T-shirt sitting behind me mutters, “They will learn slowly.” Ashish Thakur, 23, is a technician with the Indian Air Force, stationed in nearby Kalina. They have no one to converse with, he tells me, and that’s the only way to improve. Ashish has left behind his days of embarrassment at the airport, where everyone around him spoke exclusively in English. Now he works hard at polishing his speech by reading the papers and books. “And watching MTV channel.” Five minutes later, he is hitting it out of the park at the group discussion.

As they talk, I can’t help but notice how gawky and awkward they sound solely by force of having to speak in an alien tongue. Their thoughts and ideas struggle to break through the constraints of language. Metaphors dissolve and humour is impossible in this strange world. It’s like Gloria, Sofía Vergara’s character on Modern Family, says in one episode, “I’m so much smarter in Spanish.” Even the master of nuance, Jhumpa Lahiri admits to the frustration of being unable to express herself when she attempted to write in a foreign language. In the memoir of her tryst with Italian, In Other Words, disarmed of the language she grew up with and transplanted into a strange alphabet, Lahiri’s lyricism disappears. She is left with clean, functional prose, devoid of any stylistic flourishes.

Lahiri, of course, has the luxury to fail heroically. Her book in Italian is only an experiment. But for the travel-insurance salesman and the Urdu teacher who train at Anamika’s, language is what they will continue to be judged by. For Puran Chand ji, the scatter of English words might have represented a touch of the exotic, of big-city glamour. But for Rinky and Ashish, learning the language is a stab at reclaiming their dignity as educated people – even as they are aware that English is no measure of their worth. It’s just a language.

Even the louts in Satte Pe Satta know that.

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