WHAT is the difference between “Being Indian” and Becoming India? And how does one define “Indianness”? In a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious society, divided literally into thousands of castes and sub-castes, the concept of being ‘Indian’ would be hard to define with any sense of exactitude. And yet in any country beyond India, an Indian would be, surprisingly enough, easily identifiable. For all their differences in the matter of food, taste, dress and deportment, Indians have so much in common as to make them a unique people. Their respect for elders, their high sense of family-belonging, their ways of addressing each other, their attachment to rites and rituals stand out even in these days when their value systems are under considerable attack, as globalisation tears into their vitals and long-held beliefs and ethical standards.
Classical arts such as music, dance and drama are being noticeably neglected. The Joint Family System is slowly disintegrating and unitary families are increasingly becoming common. In middle class homes, English-even poor English-is replacing the peoples’ mother tongues in daily interaction and books in local languages are slowly disappearing from family bookshelves.
As Pavan Varma notes in his brilliant study of the decline of Indian culture: “Our love of the English language in preference to our own mother tongue has caused a deep chasm between the educated and the politically mined classes and masses. We flounder when we make the vain attempt to express abstruse thoughts in the mother tongue… the result has been disastrous”. A time will come inevitably when there will be more Indians cognisant of–and speaking in-English then all the English speaking people in the world put together.
Pavan Varma is scared of this development. Where will this lead us? He quotes former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as saying that the British left India not because of the Freedom Movement but because they could not bear any more the massacre of the English language in India. We may call it an exaggeration but the fact remains, as Varma reminds us, that “colonial rule robbed the educated elite of India of its organic unity”. As he puts it: “If you ask educated Indians a question in Hindi (or in any other language), more often than not, they will reply in English.” Increasingly, it seems, we are unconsciously becoming Macaulay’s children. It was Macaulay who said-and Varma liberally quotes him-that “We (English rulers) must do our best to form a class… of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect….” That was pure arrogance. Macaulay had total contempt for Indian and its civilization and for what he called India’s “absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics and absurd theology”.
According to Varma “the truth is that whatever illusions people may have or are encouraged to have, English can never be an Indian language” One wonders whether he would say the same thing about Urdu which had foreign origins. The trouble with Varma is that he has strong views on the seemingly declining Indian cultural values, but has no firm and acceptable solution to how India can be a global power, while, at the same time, sticking to Indian ‘culture’, giving English the go-by. Whether one likes it or not, knowledge of English and fluency in it has become almost mandatory, if a country wants to make it in the world at large, as China has belatedly learnt and is attempting to make amends.
Meanwhile why shouldn’t English be adopted as one more Indian language, adoption of which may even help Indian to remain a global power? Questions, questions, questions. What Varma has done is to raise some pertinent issues and it is for the Indian intellectuals to provide the right answers. To make his point about the irrelevance of English, Varma, quotes a former British Principal of the Government School of Art in then Calcutta, Ernest Beinfield Havell as saying that “it is the want of pride and want of faith in their own traditional culture on the part of the upper classes of India which has been much more destructive to Indian art than the ignorance and indifference of Europeans.” In the end, whether one agrees with Varma or not, his work is provocative, calling for earnest debate discussion. As Indians do we have a responsibility to stand by our culture and civilization and endeavour to stabilise it or should we, on grounds of realism, continue being what we are as of now, enslaved to another alien language? That is the central issue and we have to thank Pavan for having raised it.
(Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)