First published on Facebook, June 20, 2014
I grew up studying in Malayalam schools – Sanskrit for my main language, while also studying Hindi under what was then known as Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha. My greatest ambition was to become a Malayalam poet. I loved to visit Kesari Balakrishna Pilla, the guru of Modern Malayalam literature, who advised me that I should become proficient in English to study and appreciate global literature. I obeyed the great man. The world of Keats, Oscar Wilde, Maxim Gorky, Bernard Shaw, Dostoevsky, Maupassant, Karl Marx, Omar Khayyam, Tagore, Prem Chand, KA Abbas, Tennessee Williams, why, even the Gita and Vedas opened out for me in the new language that I once thought foreign and reprehensible. I would have thought my life wasted if I didn’t get to read Midnight’s Children, God of Small Things, or the English version of Lajja.
I am just as grateful that I could read Basheer, Thakazhi, Uroob and Changanpuzha in the original language. I am forever looking for their translation in English for my grandchildren to appreciate them. I am sure they are available – there is no great writing that has not been translated into English.
The first and the most glorious payment I ever received was for a Malayalam poem I published in Mathrubhumi Weekly in 1956.( I can still cobble up a few verses of my own imperfect Sanskrit-Malayalam metre in Malayalam or even Hindi in Kabir’si metre). I treasure the memory of those forty rupees and my first only published poem, but as I read, traveled and learnt to converse with the world, I came to believe that language is not for brandishing as a special gift from one’s parents but a medium for communication, for acquiring knowledge, enjoying literature from across the globe, understanding science and appreciating our own history as well as that of the rest of the world. English excels in all those. When computer is available why would I need to use slate and pencil like my grandmother used, or dried palm leaves like my great grandmother did, for communication? . So with language.
In any case, Indian youth, television channels, radio announcers, speech makers in any Indian language use a kind of Creole – a mixture of English and what used to be their mother tongue. (Have you noticed, Malayalees, the only person who speaks Malayalam in Asianet channel is Ambassador Srinivasan while his subject is international!). Hindi Film stars and cricket players speak a kind of unpunctuated English in their interviews. You walk by two girls conversing to each other in their language, and when they notice your presence near them, they switch to English. Indians are that proud of this language. Why not? The growth of English owes much to Indian languages before the latter became Creole.
I brought up my children and grand children to speak, read and write English, speak Hindi and understand their mother tongue(s). I don’t regret it, nor feel ashamed. It is only the backward villages and towns up North and even more backward leaders there who are mired in Mathru Bhasha-Rashtra Bhasha contentions. Chowdhary Charan Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, all uncompromising Hindi zealots,, sent their children out for education In English! If English promotes elitism, I say teach English to every child, poor or rich, so that ours becomes a Country of elites.
VK Krishna Menon was once asked by a taunting British writer why his English accent was different.. Menon said: “Chum, you learnt your English in the streets. I learnt it in a regular school.” Fellow Indians, don’t lose that advantage. Much of the world might not understand the Cockney of London, the Yankee twang of a Texan, Fringlish of a Canadian, the F’s and B’s of a Caribbean, or the ridiculous ay’s and vowels of the Aussie, but what you learnt in a good English medium school will get you through most ports of landing.