Warwick, 1970. The widow of E.J. Thompson, biographer of Rabindranath Tagore, gazed into the distance and, in a quavering voice, sang, Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves/ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
Fifty years earlier, this had been sung for her by schoolgirls in the dusty courtyard of a village school in Bankura. It was at that moment, she told us, that the absurdity of the English language and of British rule in India hit her.
Calcutta, 1835. It all began in that Macaulay moment. When the Committee of Public Instruction was evenly divided between the Anglicists (for English) and the Orientalists (for the classical Indian languages), Thomas Macaulay, an opinionated 35-year-old, used his casting vote in favour of English as the language of instruction in schools.
Those were defining years for language policy. Missionaries in Danish Serampore were publishing alphabet books in Indian languages, preparatory to launching the Bible in the vernacular. In British India, district officers fanned out to collect data on local schools. When collated, at about the time of the CPI meeting, it was found that the proportion of children going to school was roughly the same as in England. Thomas Munro, perhaps the most sensitive official the East India Company ever had, was happy. “All that we ought to do is to facilitate the operation of the schools by restoring the funds diverted from them [when they had passed from Indian rulers to the Company]”. But his suggestion did not appeal to Governor-General William Bentinck, who saw utilitarian reform as his mission. The reports were filed away, and came to light only in the 1980s.
If all that Macaulay did was to favour English, he would have been forgotten by now. But he composed a note, which earned him notoriety and made his name into a metaphor. In his Minute, a densely written document, there are two sentences that make Indians simmer with rage. He dismisses all of the literatures of India as of less value than a shelf of English books; and he looks forward to the day when Indians will become clones of their masters, only some shades darker. At the time, H.T. Prinsep criticised the document severely on many counts—the reducing of Indian vernaculars to ‘dialects’, equating Sanskrit and Arabic with ‘Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Norman French romances’, and the assumption that the study of English would enrich the ‘dialects’ as the study of Greek and Latin had enriched European vernaculars, including English.
Macaulay’s notoriety, therefore, is explained by the tone rather than the substance of his stand. English would eventually have been used for government and trade just as Farsi had been earlier. And just as Farsi became another Indian language, so it was inevitable that Indian English would emerge as surely as had the language that the French call ‘l’americain’.
Indians, multilingual with an ease denied to the essentially monolingual British and US Americans, enjoyed access to many cultural and literary traditions. English did serve as a conduit to European literatures―students were moved not only by Shakespeare and Milton, but by Socrates and Pericles as well. Till today, there is an eclectic clutch of books described as ‘classics’—where translations of Dumas and Hugo, Tolstoy and Mann, appear in the same format as Austen and Dickens. These books united middle-class people in India, as much as did the Ramayan or Shakuntalam.
The ease, even eagerness, with which Indians adopted their language disconcerted many Britons. One can almost assign a date to this. From the 1870s to the 1970s, ‘Baboo Jabberjee’ became a favourite butt of witticisms, and mispronounced words aroused uproarious merriment. This had a cascading effect, and snobbish Indians were loftily amused by Punjabi-isms or Malayali pronunciation. But those days are over. One wonders what Macaulay would have made of the myriad accents in which the BBC now speaks, and whether he would have adopted Gaelic (and autonomous Scotland) with delight.
Equally on their way out are those of my generation who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. In their twilight years, they take pleasure in a common vocabulary where, if someone is described as ‘a complete Alice’, the allusion needs no annotation.
Narayani Gupta taught history in Indraprastha College and Jamia Millia Islamia, and is the author of Delhi Between Two Empires.