Indian English

A nation cannot escape its history, anymore than an individual can deny his or her past. Our history conditions and moulds us into the people we are today, individually and collectively.

That is not to say, however, that all people and nations are trapped by their histories, and are defined once and for all by events which occurred a long time ago. People can and do change; so do nations, and so does the world. But we remain accountable for our history, and it should stay with us as a reminder of how we have progressed. This is especially true in the case of Great Britain, which has matured a great deal through its history. Great Britain has progressed towards multiculturalism, after leaving the days of its tyrannous empire behind. Sadly, some Brits still think of the British Empire as an achievement in their country’s past. We are used to hearing protests about various human rights violations in different parts of the world, but we rarely hear a disapproving critique of the British Empire from a British person. There is a lack of awareness about what the BE actually did. And those same Brits who hail the BE as a great time in their country’s history are often the people who want immigrants to ‘go home’ and who think that countries like America and Australia always belonged to the people who now rule those countries. They are not aware that immigration was one of the consequences of the empire, and that the British themselves emigrated to countries all over the world in order to rule over those countries and to exploit their natural resources. But that is what happened in the past, and the only way to deal with it is to accept its consequences: multiculturalism and the role of English as an international language are some of the things Great Britain has to accept. As the famous post-colonial phrase goes, ‘we are here because you were there’, and your language was there too.

When the British spread their rule across various nations, they took their language with them, and sometimes even sought to enforce that language on the indigenous population. An obvious example of this is Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Law and Education’, presented in Bengal during the days of the British Raj. Macaulay ignorantly dismissed Indian literature and spoke of the ‘intrinsic superiority’ of English literature, saying that this should be taught to natives in order to educate them. There is no doubt that Macaulay’s views were uninformed and biased (anyone who has read Hamlet and also read the Mahabharata knows that they are, on the one hand, incomparable, and on the other hand, both great works of literature). However ludicrous Macaulay’s views may sound to us today, they were common at the time, and they shaped the way in which English was treated.

As most of us know, India was a British colony until 1947, when the Quit India Movement put an end to the British Raj and its exploitation of India’s indigenous people and raw materials. But India was left with English as one of its languages, and it was the kind of English which had been used during the time of the Raj. Due to colonisation, English had become an internationally-known language, but it had the enormous task of expressing the idioms and cultural nuances of hundreds of different societies. So, the language of the Raj was mixed with Hindi, with Kannada, with various dialects. Indian English is still trying very hard to mould an alien language to suit its native customs and traditions. Apart from that, we now have a situation where American capitalism has begun to influence India, too. In the USA, the English language has had time to digest and synthesise influences from the Irish, Italian, Hispanic and other cultural groups that form modern America. But India is still trying to synthesise and create its own brand of Indian English. In Indian English, not only do we have words and phrases that are ‘roughly translated’ from local languages, but we also have the old language of the Raj and the American influence. Looking at English words used in India these days, one will notice that sometimes they are spelled the British way and sometimes the American way. Sometimes the word is completely NEW, e.g. ‘preponed the meeting’, ‘coped up with the situation’.

Is this Indian English wrong? I would say that it depends on context and consistency. It is not wrong to use Indian English, because we cannot help but put our personality and cultural influence onto a language. But we should be aware of the rules we are following and stick to them for the sake of clarity (e.g. not mix ‘color’ with ‘colour’). A language is a set of codes, and those breaking the code need to be sure that it follows a particular set of rules, otherwise it becomes incomprehensible. Until Indian English becomes globally recognised (the way American English now is), I think we have to try to stick to an international standard as much as possible. Defining that standard is very difficult – we can only say what it is NOT: it is not the language of the Raj, not the colloquial British English spoken today, not the ‘Hinglish’ mixture of Hindi and English. It requires eliminating highly cultural influences from the language, which is hard to do. We need to do this when we are speaking or writing formally, but we can customise the language as we wish when with friends who understand our informal codes.

So, we may have to limit the more quirky side of Indian English for the time being, but that does not mean we have to deny its existence or its informal usage. It’s likely that, in the near future, new words and expressions from Indian English will gradually enter the realm of internationally-recognised, standardised English. India’s growing software industry will make sure of that. Until that happens, however, we have to make the effort to say ‘bring the meeting forward’ instead of ‘prepone the meeting’, or ‘go to the back of the building’ instead of ‘go to the backside’. I don’t think such modifications are too difficult to apply.

Social ethics

Sometimes, the morality of certain people or societies perplexes or troubles me. This is because I honestly believe that social ethics are codes of behaviour which have been created by people to make life simpler for themselves. If we actually think about social ‘rules’, they don’t all make sense and they largely promote ideas of ownership (people in power protecting their possessions). Some of these codes translate into individualistic notions like, ‘keep out of my space’, ‘this is mine and you can’t touch it’ etc. We get married and think of our other half as another possession, which is why it’s so important for us to make sure s/he does not care for anyone but us. We see how damaging this ego-centric system is only when it’s too late: when people get old and they have no one to care for them because they kept everyone at a distance, or when a person dies and no one realises they’ve gone.

I have just had a debate with a friend about social ethics versus ‘natural morality’. I think that natural morality is doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, because basically, whatever you give out will return to you in some way. But my friend believes that the little codes of behaviour are really important, like the code of privacy which means you should never pry into another’s affairs (harmless curiosity can become harmful sometimes, I guess), or the code of etiquette which means you should always ask the person ‘in charge’ before you do something, even if you know what their answer would be. These are certainly cultural codes, but they have become so ingrained that in our society we are outraged if someone reads our personal e-mails; we have so many secrets and we think they could be used against us. All of this despite the fact that many of our e-mails are checked by certain organisations, without us knowing. They do it because they don’t trust us, and we despise such voyeurism because we don’t trust them. So, really, some social ethics are necessary because we live in a society without trust. That’s why morality is so complicated. How do you know if something you did is REALLY wrong, or if it’s just a little bit wrong? I think it comes down to the ‘Harm Factor’: could the action harm someone? If the answer is no, then it is likely to be, at the most, a bit wrong. If you INTENTIONALLY harm someone then it’s very wrong.

Sometimes, you are not the best person to judge the harm factor…

Buying into sorrow

I don’t watch a lot of TV. Every once in a while, when I tune into ‘what’s on’, I am strangely drawn to the genre now popularly referred to as ‘reality television’. I can’t explain why I find this genre interesting (programs like ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Spendaholics’ don’t really seem to have much of a story-line); I guess I watch them because I want to fully understand our own society. Human nature is a curious thing. I also enjoy watching documentaries, but whilst documentaries are logical, informative and carefully structured, reality shows tend to be unstructured and somewhat spontaneous.

The themes of most reality shows focus on obsessions, materialism or image concerns. ‘Wifeswap’ is one which looks at lifestyles and beliefs. Most of these programs highlight the neuroses of our culture, and by bringing it to our attention, they really emphasise the kind of beliefs we are buying into. Beliefs influence thoughts (attitudes), words, actions, and hence contribute to the way our society is. We are buying into ideas which make us feel unhappy. The statements below express some of these poisonous ideas:

-“I simply have to have those new shoes.”

-“If I don’t buy my kids everything they want, then they’ll think I don’t love them.”

-“I want to make my face look like Halle Berry’s / Gwyneth Paltro’s / Brad Pitt’s.”

-“When I’m skinny then I’ll be happy.”

These statements endorse the idea that a person needs something external in order to achieve something internally. But it works THE OTHER WAY. When you achieve the right things internally, it benefits you externally, too. Positive thoughts, loving actions and self-acceptance lead to physical health and natural well-being. So, why buy into something which will make you unhappy?